Rio de Janeiro is definitely a photogenic city (and with its own Lomo store to boot!), but often times, people limit themselves to staying around the beaches and tourist attractions while avoiding favelas entirely since they tend to get a bad rap in popular culture.
As you may already know, the 2016 Summer Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro. While this is generally a cause for great celebration and preparation, the Olympics also means that the dynamic inside favelas, the Brazilian word for “slums” in Brazil, is changing due to pacification and gentrification. No longer are many favelas like the ones depicted in films like City of God or Elite Squad.
Pacification efforts — where the government brings military force into an area to reduce crime and violence — has allowed foreigners like me (I’m Mexican-American) to visit the favelas of Rio. Favela da Rocinha, South America’s largest favela, was one of the first favelas to be pacified due to its notoriety and proximity to Rio’s famous beaches like Ipanema and Copacabana.
While much safer than it used to be, Rocinha should still be treated as an other area of the city: with caution. Also, I’ve found that I feel much more secure carrying a small film camera into favelas than a bulky digital camera that screams tourist.
In Rocinha, every Saturday, esteemed graffiti artist Wark da Rocinha, teaches children of the favela how to make graffiti art. He was commissioned to do some work for the United Nations environmental summit Rio+20 inside Rocinha and I decided to follow him around. He was really quite comfortable with my presence, and in the end, he gave me a free can of spray paint in exchange for some of the photos I took.
Morro da Providência, Rio de Janeiro’s first and most historic favela is located in central Rio. It’s the home of Brazilian photographer Mauricio Hora, who teaches photography to the children of the favela in the cultural center A Casa Amarela (The Yellow House) founded by the artist JR. It is also the location of one of JR’s installations for his Women are Heroes series.
Providência, however, is going through serious gentrification since the city government wants to evict many of the residents to build a controversial gondola from the port to the Central metro station in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. The gondola would peak at the top of the favela, displacing many of the residents from their longtime homes and forcing them to move into government subsidized apartments. The demolition of many homes has already started and many residents have already been evicted.
Maurico Hora believes one of the best ways to combat this is through awareness which includes photography. So the next time you’re in Rio, pick up your camera and explore the complex yet beautiful favelas of Rio de Janiero.