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.
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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.
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.
I chose two points to work from, a hotel across the street from a busy corner and a house in the process of being demolished as part of the neighborhood renewal. The doors and windows had already been mostly torn out and there was an unbearable smell as many crack users used the building as an open bathroom.
In the cockroach-infested hotel, colleague Fernando Donasci and I ran the risk of being discovered by the owner, who for all we knew might be involved in the drug trade. We also feared being spotted by the well-dressed, young girls who sold crack next to the front door, right under the window of the room we rented. I feared them noticing any strange movement in our window, so I periodically went down to the lobby to see if there was anything out of the ordinary. Ordinary for them meant calmly selling crack to users without paying attention to my presence.