Setting: April, 2011. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
For the first time in my life, there was blood pulsing through my veins in fear when I held my camera to my eye. And for the first time in my life, I felt like I was actually taking true risk with my passion. I was on a tour of two favelas in Rio- the poorest regions of the city.
The tour itself was a mode of philanthropy pioneered by Marcelo Armstrong, the man who had started favela tourism in Brazil. A portion of the proceeds from these trips is channeled towards social causes in the favelas. My mom grew up around slums in India, and nobody marketed them as a place where tourists could visit and gain a tremendous sense of awareness about the realities of life. It was an unheard of concept to her for people to take money out of tourism to benefit the schools in financially destitute city regions, and enough of a reason to make sure that this favela tour was a definite part of our Rio itinerary.
When we got into the tour car, our guide told us that the first favela we were visiting, Rocinha, had just been the site of a major police operation the same morning. The cops arrested several locals and found two tons of marijuana that the drug lords were attempting to distribute. But our guide said that the situation had been remedied, and we were going in anyway. Just hearing that we were about to enter a favela that was all over local news the very same morning had my heart racing with a sense of excitement unlike any other I had ever felt. It was as if I was about to enter a scene from Fernando Meirelles’s “City Of God”, one of the most visually and emotionally visceral films I have ever seen. Except this wasn’t on film, it was reality. And that sentiment was surreal.
I had this vision in my head during the days leading up to our tour of a photo series I could document. But, I was totally sure I wouldn’t be able to shoot anything in the favelas. Walking around with a camera on normal Rio city streets is dangerous in and of itself, so taking pictures in a favela is elevating an already serious risk to a completely different level. But, there was this little bit of hope in me that I would be able to shoot something, so I bought an SD card specifically for the “favela project” and packed my 300mm zoom macrolens in my bag. It was doubtful I’d use them. But just in case.
As if reading my mind (or more likely, seeing me clutching the camera around my neck like a protective guardian), our guide brought up photography and said that we had to put away our cameras when we exited the van. The passionate hope that was burning inside me wasn’t going to let this go. I told our guide that taking pictures of this side of Rio, one that most are only aware of via the media and not through their own eyes, is something that I wanted to portray more than anything else as an aspiring filmmaker and storyteller. There was something in that exchange between the two of us that sparked a true understanding of just how badly I wanted to do this. He smiled, and said that he couldn’t say no to me when his own job was to show people what life in the favelas is really about. He would give me a green light when I was allowed to shoot. The one major taboo: taking pictures of motorcyclists, who were often the residents most closely intertwined with drug abuse and violence.
But as we were getting closer to our destination, I began to sense an uncomfortable change in my mentality. As much as I felt adrenaline rushing through every ounce of my body, fear and paranoia bubbled under the surface of my excitement. I was riding into a place where I did not belong, into a place that had taken the black, frightening shape of all things negative in my mind. What I knew of the slums of Rio was rooted largely in reported realities in the media. Incessant crime, violent drug raids, and severe poverty that left families unable to fend for themselves. This was my chance to be the journalist I had always wanted to be, a once in a lifetime opportunity to photograph a rarely accessed place without any preconceived notions attached to my work. Yet harrowing words and images from news headlines about unnerving occurrences in the favelas kept flashing through my mind. I was undeniably afraid and even a little doubtful.
And then, before I knew it, we had climbed the mountainous roads to a place unknown to almost everyone sitting in that van and had entered the territory of a place that changed the way I perceived life and the world from that point on.
Rocinha: Rio’s largest favela located in the city’s South Zone. Having passed a series of lavish houses on the way up, the drastic switch to the most dirt poor areas of the city was jarring. Rocinha is actually one the most developed favelas in Rio, so knowing that what I was seeing was the best of the worst ripped at my guts. We started off at a street side painting stall, where three men and two young girls were selling hand-painted canvases and panoramic art depicting views of their home. I asked the guide if I could take pictures of the people. They were elated. One of them came over to my camera and checked his picture, shook his head because he didn’t like his pose, and then told me to take another one of him flexing his muscles and showing off the most loveable grin I have seen in any of my travels. It was a precious and defining moment to see such happiness in an environment that begged for sorrow. I took my pictures and after wiping a few beads of sweat off my face, looked off into the distance. The art stall overlooked Rio, and the silhouette of Christ The Redeemer was visible in the distance. His back faced the favela. This symbol would become more and more significant as the day progressed.
The further we drove, the more jolting the experience became. The shacks- which were weakly connected link of miniscule spaces- were falling apart. There was no space in between each “home”. It was the most compressed atmosphere I have seen. Dirty laundry was hanging on thin ropes from meager, if existent, balconies, and stretches of shacks were minimally powered. The scene was battered. It’s not a place anybody should have to live, but the hellish truth of it all is that there are around 150,000 people somehow surviving in Rocinha alone. And that’s just one of the over 500 favelas in Rio.
The people. Motorcylists sat at the side of roads in small groups, isolated from the rest of the people and in a visible clique of their own. Workers were inside stores in broiling heat (there aren’t even fans in a lot of these interior locations). And the few who were fortunate enough to access the medicine stores, hospital, newer buildings, and better transportation still had to walk with their children across the entire slum in the heat to get to where they needed for help (if they could even afford it).
Seeing this reality was probably the final blow to my teenage innocence.
But the kids. They were this vibrant source of hope. They seemed carefree- riding their bikes, running around, laughing, smiling, dreaming, being kids. And that made the experience all the more painful.
We got back into the van. A feeling of severe discomfort had settled in me, and I no longer felt like an exhilarated photojournalist who was out to conquer the world with her camera. I felt betrayal. The image of Christ’s back turned on the place that needed him most as the people his large arms embraced miles below lived content and often luxurious lives sickened me. I didn’t know if I had what it took to stomach another favela experience as we drove into the grounds of our second stop: Vila Canoas near San Conrado.
This favela was a lot safer and I was able to photograph freely. The first stop was a school, where ten to fifteen kids stayed during after school hours. Their parents were working, and so the school took care of them during that time and provided them with food, recreation, and most importantly a more secure atmosphere than the one that lay outside its walls. I first went inside a small room where two girls were using computers. One of them was on YouTube, and I smiled to myself. Many of the school’s resources were funded by Rotary, and my discomfort from Rocinha was beginning to ease as I saw these children living a life that was more reminiscent of one that I knew and accepted. Walking down the stairs, I could smell a very familiar and nostalgic scent, and couldn’t help but smile even more. The students were all making, and then eating, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. After they ate, they all played some kind of soccer game (it was different. There were no real goals, just goalies, and you were allowed to hold the ball). It was a warming sight to watch. This was a nurturing place where kids could just be kids. At the roof of the school was a handicraft center of sorts where people could buy some of the arts and crafts locals make. One of the projects that really stood out for me was a book that the school compiled of student photography. Basically, students were given cameras and asked to photograph what life is like in their school. They took all the pictures and published a book of the work. The talent was unbelievable.
That was a light way to start the second favela tour. So I knew it was inevitably going to become more difficult. And it did. Fast. We went inside the most cramped spaces I have ever walked in, and a span of fifteen feet could belong to three or four homes with big families. Seeing the actual houses was something I will never forget. People have toy kitchens in the US bigger than the kitchens in the favelas. There was a woman in one of the smallest houses I’ve seen who was sitting on the ground and sweating to no end. There was no fan to cool her down. The entire experience was painful. There was this desperation gnawing at me, and there was nothing I could do.
On the ride back to our hotel, a flood of emotions like no other consumed me as the images from the last few hours ran like a never-ending flipbook through my mind. At first I continued to feel a disquieting uneasiness. But as I looked through the photographs I had just taken, I learned something that became one of the most valuable lessons I have ever taken from my travels. In my camera were snapshots of a little girl making art with her father, a toddler kicking a soccer ball back and forth with his friend, and a mother inside her meager home laughing with her children. We all walk into scenarios with so much mental baggage. So many opinions, beliefs, and judgments. Just like I did as an outsider journeying into a place I didn’t know. And as much as these thoughts define who we are as unique individuals, letting go and taking life for what it is can be such a beautiful and expanding quality. Yes, the favelas were plagued by drugs, violence, and social hardships, but there was something far more compelling that embodied the slums: a fascinating culture that stayed true to the same, beautiful values of love, family, and sacrifice that everyone else in world, myself included, have experienced at some level. It wasn’t really a “bad” place. Just people with the same emotions and needs as me surviving in a different, more challenging environment.
Maybe this journey was about something more than just being a photojournalist. Maybe it was about learning that surrendering to a moment without any presentiments can be incredible….that when I liberate myself from the bonds of my own filters, an amazing freedom of thought and observation emerges.
The favela experience is something I will never forget, and the drastic range of emotions I felt throughout just convinced me even more of what I want to do with my life. The more I see, the more my passion burns. And the more my passion burns, the more obligated I feel to see the people and places that life has turned its back on.
If you’d like to learn more about Marcelo’s favela tours, click here: