An Ode to Life Magazine and Gordon Parks
An Ode to Life Magazine and Gordon Parks
As part of my trip to Brazil, I wanted to pay homage to one of my favorite photographers, Gordon Parks. In 1961, Parks released a photo series for Life magazine, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” transporting Middle America from the comfort of home into the squalor of the favelas of Brazil. The portrait of young Flavio and his families struggle for survival brought out an outpouring of sentiment and donations from hundreds of Americans. Subsequently, transported to the US and given proper medical care, Flavio’s health improved and a new home was purchased for his family. This was a bright moment in the story of Flavio, which ended in several sad truths. For more information see Life Magazine Gordon Parks
Free flying in the Favela part 1
My visit to the favelas arrived courtesy of Tulio Olivera, a professional Brazilian skateboarder. Brazil is home to millions of skateboarding youth, many of who commute from favelas to the urban areas despite access to few resources. Tulio and I befriended a skater residing in the favelas of Campinas, a suburb of Sao Paulo. Though not the most dangerous favela, all favelas are isolated community where outsiders are rarely allowed. He offered to arrange safe passage, if I documented nothing to garner the attention of authorities. I agreed.
Tulio stated that with everyone required to vote, the favelas only see outside activity during election time. He visits them often saying, “Things can be so corrupt and people need help all the time. Spending time and money in the favelas is the least he can do.”
During nightfall, we descend into the favela via an unmarked road, upgrading from paint-drying pace to painstakingly slow only after vetting by local lookouts. Two hours later, I am still physically and mentally pulling focus and capturing a glimpse of love and life in the fringe.
Women rule in one section. Female pimps in aged, plastic lawn-chairs monitor the ingress of flesh, holding court over kitchen-sized strip clubs run from private homes. The night invites the physical. Personal garages masquerade as rent by the minute hotels sating sexual hunger and children engage the embrace of the beautiful game under amber streetlights.
Amid this cacophony, I spot colorful swathes seeping past decaying plywood windows and walls on my left. They are images of high-flying kites. A father and child at the facades entrance are backlit in blue and monitoring our night mission. Pulling to the roadside we explain our late night arrival, to the neighborhood as a good-hearted photographic mission. Understanding, the father invites us to meet his kite-making family.
Free Flying in the Favela part 2
Amidst clothing lines and a blue makeshift nylon kiddie-pool, a family survives under trying circumstances. A far cry from Gordon Park’s subjects, three generations of family, grandmother downward offer a loving backdrop, despite little material wealth.
The father is warm figure; dressed in blue football jersey eagerly espousing the import of small kites sales for income and entertainment. Tulio translates his Portuguese, while the children analyze me, until I notice their stares and smile. Turning away the youngest boy spots my skateboard and is overwhelmed with excitement. I, too, am excited. My old faithful still breaks the ice with youth everywhere. I grant them permission to investigate and tell them Tulio is a pro skateboarder for Citystars skateboards. The elders are impressed their countryman works with a U.S. company. Tulio then invites them to free lessons at his skatepark.
The father asks why a foreigner would visit the favelas. “It’s important to see all aspect of the city”, I say. I tell him how Gordon Parks is an inspiration and few Americans see favelas beyond movies. I explain that areas in the U.S. are left by the wayside as well, and we all try to survive past our environments.
“He would like to visit the U.S. or for his children to in the future”, Tulio translates. “Now he provides for his family. “ We discuss Sao Paulo politics and the power of the World Cup. Afterwards I purchased some of their kites and play with the children.
I thank him for the opportunity to meet his family and to chat. It’s late now and the novelty of the tall, dark, American skateboarding stranger wears off. The youngest girls in the clan wander back to their homework.
This was a truly wonderful experience to share stories with our global family in Brazil. Off the beaten path travel is not easy, but I challenge everyone to try. A little time and money granted me a priceless memory and I hope I presented a new view of America to my hosts.
Photos by Neftalie Williams