Photographers' Blog

Everywhere a Crackland

By Paulo Whitaker

Crack consumption is an epidemic in Brazil. In virtually every corner of the country there are users of the drug, so we decided to produce a photo essay to cover a wide geographic area. Seven photographers in seven cities during 24 hours. The story titled “24-7, Crack in Brazil” is about crack use in public view in 2014 World Cup host cities Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Manaus, Salvador da Bahia and Curitiba.

In most of the cities our research showed that users logically confine their consumption to areas with little police presence, such as alleys and deserted streets. In contrast, crack use is so widespread in Sao Paulo that users and dealers gather in the city center with no fear of the police.

Our first concern was safety. Addicts do not normally pose a danger but others involved, such as traffickers and police, will react if they sense our presence. I spent nearly a month in Sao Paulo revisiting the streets of a district known for a long time as “Cracolandia”, or “Crackland,” where I did a multimedia story in 2010. Early this year police routed the addicts and dealers from the two abandoned houses near the bus station where they used to hang out, but since then they have regrouped to other locations.

The city now has several mini Cracklands instead of just one. The difference now is that the police frequently patrol the largest of the new Cracklands, which is only six blocks from the original one. I managed to locate a resident of the neighborhood who agreed to allow me to use his apartment window to photograph from. The day I returned with my camera to take some test photos the police had decided to base a permanent patrol there, and the street was empty. I easily found the addicts’ new location just two blocks away, but I was faced with the task of finding a new place from where to work in safety.

In the first Crackland I worked from a hotel, but due to the owner’s involvement in the drug trade I had to keep the purpose of my stay a secret. In this new location I found another hotel where the owner was quick to accept the real purpose of my presence. He provided me with a room with the best view of the activity on the street. With a few meters of black cloth to drape over myself while shooting, I darkened the room to reduce reflections on the windows and to hide myself. With almost no streetlight I set my camera at ISO 12800, using anything from a 16mm lens to a 600mm. I was tense most of the time as my window faced a bar where traffickers were always hanging out, and anyone spotting me could put me in grave danger.

Rehabilitating each other

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The day William decided to change his life was when he woke up on the street soaked in gasoline and engulfed in flames. I met him at the Nosotros Unidos (Us United) Christian shelter in Caracas a year later. William, 39, doesn’t remember how many years he lived on the streets, stealing to feed his drug habit. He also doesn’t know who set him on fire. But he does remember the year he spent in a hospital recovering from the burns.

Surrounded by one of the biggest slums of one of the world’s most violent cities, the walls of Nosotros Unidos have, over the past 15 years, sheltered more than 20,000 people in search of a way out of the self-destructive cycle of drugs. With high ceilings and little light, and rows of bunk beds occupied by people whose worldly possessions fit into a small locker, the center run by a Protestant church offers free rehabilitation to people with problems of drug abuse and indigence.

The main therapy to those who enter the program is religion through prayer.

Douglas is on his third and longest stay in the center. Among the several violent incidents in his street existence was the time someone shot him with a homemade shotgun that used screws and nails as ammunition. His abdomen still retains the deep gouges from the blast. Inside the shelter it’s impossible for him to hide his joy when his mother and 15-year-old daughter come to visit him. He admits they are the only motivation he has to find a way out of the world in which he was immersed.

Land of the living dead

It was one early March morning in 2007 while on my way to shoot an assignment in the Portuguese Language Museum that I found myself amidst a mass of people consuming crack in the heart of Sao Paulo. I had stumbled onto Cracolândia, or Crackland, and the party was one of the living dead. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people openly consuming the drug at such an early hour, oblivious to the flow of pedestrians heading to work in this megalopolis.

(Multimedia best viewed full screen)

I immediately thought that this was a story that had to be told. I needed to show the reality of life for these addicts and alert residents of the local government’s indifference to this problem in the very heart of their city. In spite of a program by City Hall and the state government for neighborhood renewal, crack is consumed freely 24 hours a day. The police appear to expel consumers from the zone, herding them like cattle to nearby streets where they continue to exercise their vice. The abuse of crack in Crackland has increased day by day in Sao Paulo and Brazil.

Police officers push crack consumers and dealers away from one block as an addict lies sleeping in the part of Sao Paulo's Luz neighborhood locally known as Crackland, March 28, 2010. REUTERS/Fernando Donasci (BRAZIL)

That that same year, 2007, I did a short story on Crackland but now, after seeing the situation so much worse, I decided it was time to do something more in-depth. I began with research into places with a clear view of Crackland from where I could work in relative safety. Without cameras I visited bars, hotels and streets around the district. I hung around trying to get a feel for the streets, get used to the behavior of the consumers and try to know them a little better. Crackland is an extremely dangerous place where users can easily lose control, and sellers can turn the simple action of anyone photographing or filming into a fatal mistake.