Photographers' Blog

Slumdog gringos

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Pilar Olivares

One day I decided to check out rumors that there were gringos living in the famous but feared “favelas” of Rio. I went to the Vidigal favela and asked residents if they knew any foreigners living there, and they confirmed, “This place has been invaded by gringos. Look around a while and you’ll see a parade of them, even Peruvians, Ecuadorians, from everywhere.”

Although the term gringo was originally coined in Mexico to refer to Americans, here it refers to any foreigner, even myself, a gringa from Peru.

GALLERY: FOREIGNERS IN FAVELAS

There in Vidigal I met Ekaterina, an attorney from Russia who is living in the favela with her Chilean boyfriend, Marcos. Spending a day with them was like training myself to be a translator – Ekaterina doesn’t speak Spanish and is only just learning Portuguese, so her best language of communication here is English. Between photographing and interviewing, I often ended up in the middle of the couple and their language problems.

For Ekaterina, living in Rio means lowering her standard of living and status that she had in other cities of Europe, where she lived before coming here. Here she is giving English classes while Marcos works as a street artist. This city is expensive, and it’s far from easy to get by without a stable job. The only housing option for them was a favela, where a two-room apartment rents for about $200 a month. No other neighborhood in Rio’s center or southern districts has anything near it in size that cheap.

Marcos is happy. He adapts to anything while Ekaterina constantly complains. “I can’t stand the filth. I don’t like it when the people yell a lot. It sounds as if they were always fighting. I’ll never get used to this. Sometimes I feel like yelling, ‘Get me out of here, Mom!’”

I’m still losing friends

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Ricardo Moraes

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

Rio de Janeiro is a truly diverse city where people of different types and economic classes live side by side. Many of its slums, or favelas, are strongholds of drug gangs who openly operate with high powered weapons in full view on the streets.

Despite the violent scenario, this mix of races and economies is the beauty of our city, and on the streets we are all the same people, and our friendships are as diverse as the city.

Being raised in a typical neighborhood, I’ve had my share of sad experiences related to violence, mostly in my adolescence by losing friends who became involved with bandits, or seeing some wonderful people losing their way with drugs. Every day we heard stories about young neighbors who had bad luck or made bad choices, and ended up in jail or were killed by the police.

Brazil’s homegrown Gaudi

By Paulo Whitaker

The last time I took pictures in one of Brazil’s favelas my luck was very different. That was in Rio de Janeiro in 2010, when I was covering a police invasion of the Alemão slum. A bullet perforated the windshield and hit me in the shoulder as I sat transmitting pictures in the backseat of a taxi. Fortunately, I recovered quickly.

By contrast, this time I shot a feature story about a gardener cum architect in São Paulo’s second-largest slum, Paraisopolis. Although Estevão Silva da Conceição’s creation draws an immediate comparison to one by Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, he had never heard of Gaudi nor seen any photos of his work before building his own home here.

Estevão built his house that mirrors parts of Gaudi’s famous Park Guell in Barcelona, without dreaming that someone else so far away had his same style, a century earlier.

Rio’s ballerinas

By Pilar Olivares

When I first reached Ballet Santa Teresa’s school for underprivileged girls and met the students, I didn’t take a single picture. I didn’t dare to. The girls, who are almost all from families living in some form of social risk, approached as if confronting me, dancing and yelling.

For a while I felt like an intruder. They were wearing jeans instead of ballet dresses, and were listening to Rio’s famous funk carioca music. At my home in a mountainous neighborhood of Rio, I hear funk floating towards us from the surrounding shantytowns known the world over as favelas.

So these girls, completely fascinated by this music that I find irritating, shut off their music players as soon as Vania arrived. Vania, a former professional ballerina and now director of the school, doesn’t like funk either, and doesn’t like them to listen to it. The girls, who can be as rude as they are angelic, hurriedly dressed and suddenly became purely feminine as they put on their makeup for an important rehearsal. Several of them didn’t know how to use makeup, so Vania came over to help.

Rose’s Divine Love

By Nacho Doce

Deep inside the massive favela called Brasilandia, one of the biggest of Sao Paulo’s wretched slums, lives Rose with her husband Ivo and their three disabled children. I first learned of Rose’s predicament while doing a feature story about the AACD clinic for disabled children. I immediately arranged for us to meet for the first time in their slum at 5 am, the time they leave for a weekly session of physical therapy.

Their alley didn’t appear on my taxi’s GPS, and we got lost in the dark maze. I had to wait for a more decent hour closer to 5 am before phoning them for help. With their directions, I finally reached the top of a steep alley, and found myself practically inside a “boca de fumo,” best described as an open air crack den.  It wasn’t until Ivo quickly rushed to meet me and spoke to one of the addicts, that I heard the words, “Taxi free to pass.” I was relieved.

We hiked downhill through two steep alleys to reach their house. In the living room, their three mute children, Samille, 9, Dhones, 7, and Izabely, 6, were sitting in a row on a red felt-covered sofa, in front of a wall covered with green and brown mold. The scene struck me as both sad and beautiful.

Painting a favela

By Nacho Doce

Before I was able to experience a Sao Paulo favela firsthand, my knowledge of that world was mostly defined by a movie I saw only a few weeks earlier called “Linha de Passe,” or “Passing Line” in English. The title is a metaphor of the concept of teamwork, the imaginary line that connects players passing the ball in soccer. In the movie the players are the four brothers of a family, and the ball is life itself. What I took away from the movie about a slum family’s struggle to survive, was an idea of what it’s like to live on the edge of life, on the edge of a precipice.

That movie and a newspaper article about a social graffiti project in one of the city’s largest favelas ignited my curiosity, so I searched out and met founding members of the project named OPNI, a Portuguese acronym for “Unidentified Graffiti Artists.” OPNI was founded in 1997 by 20 youths in the city’s marginal slums with the goal of transforming the streets into an open-air gallery where the community can express its gripes. Of the original 20 only Cris, Val and Toddy are left after most were either arrested, abandoned the activity, or died from drug abuse.

To reach OPNI in the Vila Flavia favela on the outskirts of Sao Paulo took me two hours by bus and train, the same time it takes for many of the slum’s mothers and daughters to travel to the city’s better-off neighborhoods where they clean homes for a living. That’s a four-hour round trip, every day.

Favela fighter

When I reached the Chapeu Mangueira favela in Leme, a slum that borders on Copacabana, I was expecting to do a story on a martial arts school for poor kids. But there I met “Nativo” (Native), expert in what is today called MMA/NHB, or Mixed Martial Arts/No Holds Barred fighting. Nativo is the nickname of Fabio da Conceicao Ventura, 25, a lifelong resident of the same slum. Nativo told me how he was born in Chapeu Mangueira, and when he was just five he watched his mother set fire to herself to escape her miserable life. Two years later his father kicked him out of the house and he found himself on the streets.

In the streets Nativo learned to steal before joining up with drug traffickers. He told me how he first liked to rob tourists on Copacabana Beach, but then how it was really being part of a drug gang that made him feel most protected. He made it obvious to me that the gang came to be his family. With them he would spend hours consuming drugs and taking care of business inside the slum.

I started to photograph him and accompanied him around the narrow streets of the favela that was “pacified” by police in June, 2008, as part of a government program. Nativo showed me the places where drugs used to be commonly sold, and where he sat with his rifle giving cover to the gang.