Morro da Muzema
(written in response to house removals to make way for parking lot for the Olympics.
The world is a ghetto. We of the first world forget this but it is everywhere, more common than not, people living below the poverty line in conditions too raw for us to fully comprehend. When we do consider it, we vilify or romanticize; we imagine it not as it is, for rarely do we venture into the world of the underclass. Yet artists venture forth, exploring lands unexamined and unexplored, discovering stories waiting to be told. Douglas Mayhew does just this in his first monograph, Inside the Favelas: Rio de Janeiro (Glitterati Incorporated).
Mr. Mayhew observes, "The World Cup is a diversion driven by politics to keep people in line. Just like soap operas and Carnaval, they are a form of control—powerful tools the government has always used to take people’s minds off their problems and those of the country. And so, the climate of public dissidence that occurred prior to the start of the games is remarkable. Given the country’s colonial origins, public demonstrations as a form of social protest are shocking and the government hasn’t a clue of how to deal with angry citizens who are rising up, crossing class barriers, and fomenting against one of the basic tenants of Brazilian culture – corruption. The government’s reaction has been to increase police presence on the streets, ease regulatory restraints on the use of force, use increasingly confrontational forms of crowd control, and to restrict, in an informal way, access by journalists and photo journalists to protest events. Once the games are over, the elation of winning the right to host the games will quickly fade in light of their cost."
In Inside the Favelas: Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Mayhew provides a detailed account into the history of the favela, which houses 20 percent of the population. And population is on the rise, as the figure jumped 65% from 2000 to 2010. They are without fully functioning infrastructure, lacking in basic sanitation, water works, sewers and drainage systems, pavements, open roads, and public lighting. Homes are built by those who inhabit them, creating a patchwork pastiche of raw materials set together as best possible.
The first favela in Rio was created by veterans of the Canudos Civil War of 1898, when the government failed to provide housing and back pay. The settled near the old center of town, sharing the hilltop with the Braizilian War Ministry’s office complex as a symbol of protest. The government ignored them as they developed the South Zone to attend to the demand from well-heeled residents. The government turned a blind eye to the favelas, which continued to expand, making them ripe for control by drug warlords.
Mr. Mayhew brings us deep inside this world, into a landscape that is raw, brutal, beautiful, a world of basic human survival. Many photographs were taken with the permission of the favela's reigning drug lord. Through Mr. Mayhew's lens we do not see the people themselves; we are not privy to their stories as individuals. Instead we are given a look at the world in which they live, Mr. Mayhew being our personal guide through the city streets. Through his photographs we travel step by step, looking at the makeshift architecture, the spontaneous energy of graffiti written on cracked and crumbling walls, of countless black electrical wires snared in massive spider webs of makeshift stairs. A feeling of permanent transience and utter fragility suffuses every image of life struggling against the element at every turn.
Mr. Mayhew observes, "Documentary work strips away the emotional, visual wallpaper hat inures people to their surrounding. Art for art's sake doesn't interest me and I've always appreciated efficiency. My life path did not lead me to Rio’s favelas. I made no assumptions about what I would find but I grew up during the civil rights era in Detroit. What I saw and experienced changed my world; ever since those years, I’ve been particularly sensitive to inequality and cruelty. After visiting one of Rio’s most needy communities, I went back again and again looking to uncover what everyone I was meeting who didn’t live in a favela chose to cover up.
“Today, roughly 20 percent of Rio’s population lives in the favelas. Words along can’t describe the kind of organic, run-amok urbanization style that creates Rio’s favelas. Expansion and growth follow the ‘horror vacui’ theory first proposed by Aristotle, who stated, in part, that nature abhors a vacuum. Applying the principle to the spatial organization of the favelas means that empty space will not remain empty for long. Another stack of dwelling will grow to fill the void as easily as a new planet will crowd its way onto the forest floor given the slightest opportunity.
“As far as home construction goes, ‘build your own’ is the way of the world. It’s cheaper, and residents have the know-how. When they don’t know how to make something, they know someone who has the necessary skills to get the job done. In these cases, the age-old system of bartering is the dominant form of the transaction: bricks for babysitting, babysitting for jam, jam for concrete, concrete for the bricks.
“In favelas the benefit, besides the bricks-for-babysitting equation, is the shared ability to adapt to a rapidly shifting environment. Because residents live in such close proximity to one another, the health and viability of the community is essential. The fragile stability of the social body is always at stake where day-to-day interactions run so close to the wire.
“So how is competition and disagreement actually addressed in the favela neighborhoods? The answer is surprising to outsiders though logical to the favelas inhabitants: drug traffickers. Traffickers don’t like problems of any kind. Traffickers don’t like outside intervention of any kind—especially from the police. Because of this, every neighborhood conflict—from land disputes to shoplifting and assault—is ‘handled’ by the traffickers. The rationale is simple: conflicts bring cops and cops cause trade disruptions.
“In the favelas run by traffickers, solidifying civil control through extra-judicial proceedings is commonplace. In this hilltop ‘court’ there are no jurors, court reporters, attorneys, or appeals. There are enforcers, occasionally complainants, witnesses, and sometimes onlookers. The accused present their case. Rules are to some extent codified throughout Rio’s favelas, although punishments are not. Verdicts and punishments are carried out swiftly. In the case of violent crime, repeat offenders are executed immediately.
“I’m not being dismissive when I say there is no drug war being waged in Rio—there are battles, fights, and skirmishes but there’s just too much money to be made by those tasked with defeating the drug trade and by those who profit from importing and selling drugs to stop; sustaining the traffic becomes the goal and not its eradication. But let there be no mistake, traffickers are not good guys. They are ruthless killers. Internecine battles for territory, the favelas, are waged daily between the three factions that control the drugs and arms trade.
“In part, because of a ‘look the other way’ attitude by too many of the state’s security enforcement agents the traffic continues. Security forces are not bad guys; their pay scale is just so low that many families barely subsist. State sponsored publicity campaigns supported by Brazil’s largest media group report only gains not losses. It’s unfair to say there have not been improvements and there is hard work being done to free the city’s most needy residents from domination, but it’s an uphill battle at best and its being waged by one indefatigable man—he is Rio’s good guy.
“Unfortunately, Brazil is at the end of a long series of international policy decisions that have made the city’s ports the largest transit point for drugs moving from countries bordering Brazil’s frontiers to Africa and Europe. Macroeconomics prevails.
“Drug traffickers and arms dealers do not relate to journalists or photojournalists—they dominate and sentence. In the favelas they control they are omnipotent and their word is law. Local journalists are often treated with quixotic brutality—deaths occur. As an outsider entering a community in order to take pictures and talk with residents, I am always subject to interrogation and any number of futures that the trafficker may chose; some are brief —‘get out of my face—whatever man’, alternatively, public and private humiliation, threats, long periods of detention, or small, non-lethal acts of violence are routine given where I go. I don’t write about specific instances where I was made an example of and I don’t know any other journalists doing what I do.
“As far as cameras go, I can never raise a camera to my eye to take a shot; it draws too much attention and too much attention can be dangerous. Drug and arms traffickers don’t like cameras, they don’t like surprises, and I’ve learned the hard way never to point anything at them. “
We see no faces, except in Mayhew’s photographs of street art, making these portraits of the way artists see themselves, the stories that are left behind as we read the writing on the walls. We see one small child sitting on steps of poured concrete, wearing a Mickey Mouse tank top, and shorts with bears dressed in nightclothes, and on his head is a yellow motorcycle helmet, his small hand gripping it in place. It is an image like this that hits, this small life force amidst the empty streets, the knowledge that a new generation is born into the heaven and hell of the mythology that life in the ghetto tells its young boys and girls. We can never know what it is to live in the crossfire, to live and die in a land dedicated to a war without end, a land that is the darkest underbelly of the land where the girl from Ipanema goes walking along.
Morro da Providencia - Peace
Morro do Pavao-Pavaozinho
Morro dos Cabritos - I am too interrogated in this life.
Vila das Canoas - This is a portrait of three ruling drug generals.
Douglas Mayhew outside Miguel Couto hospital w pre-op/post-op kids