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Brazil: Surviving Rio’s Favelas

Documentary photo story posted on 29 May 2009 by Q. Sakamaki

This photo essay depicts the life of favelas, or shantytowns, in Rio, Brazil, as the communities are deteriorated by gang violence. I document how the violent climate affects the residents and even people outside of the favelas.

A boy in Cantagalo favela is on a fence , looking on the rich ipanema community.Rio, Jan 18 2008.

I went to Rio first time in 1998. Then I couldn’t go back for nearly 10 years, despite the fact I wanted to return. The reason was probably I had some trauma. In 1998, I was almost killed by two wanabee-gangster teens. They strangled my neck and took my photo equipment and money. Before the accident I thought they were OK, since they were hanging out with other street children with whom I made a nice relationship by bringing food and joking. But I underestimated the risk. Unlike other street kids, I met the two teens first time at that day. On the way of my leaving, they followed me with smiles, and then attacked me. It was much worse than a simple attack, because I lost confidence and belief that being friendly makes more friends and life happier and better.

Rocinha residents pass through under dangerous, illegally picked up electricity wires. May 15 2007.

A motorbike taxi with a young female customer passes through near a burnout, abandoned car in Rocinha. May 15 2007.

In early 2007 however, I got an assignment in Brazil. Though it was in Amazon, I realized how I had been missing Rio’s passion and energy. At the same time, I felt I had to fight my haunting bad memory. Several weeks later I revisted Rio. I started to document Rio’s favelas again, hoping my photo project would eliminate my trauma, and help raise awareness on favelas’s inhuman conditions, at which people think and even discuss what they can do about favelas and its violence-affected children.

A boy stays on the rooftop of a broken building in favela Complexo Do Aleman. May 26 2007.

The life of Rio Favelas contains extremely dangerous facts. Nearly each favela has its syndicate-like drug gang organization — sometimes more than two — as there exist more than 600 favelas in the metropolitan areas. Gangs control each favela with law of violence. They are so well armed, so well organized, that even Rio military police forces cannot easily step into the community.

Members of ADA, Amigos Dos Amigos, meaning Friends of Friends in English, stay and patrol in the alley in order to prevent the rival gangs and police from entering the community. May 17 2007.

At the superficial level, such law of violence could bring stability, because gangsters work hard to avoid other rival gangs’ attack and alleged corrupted police’s extortion on the community.

In favela Rocinha, residents are hanging out at an alley, as the community is tremendously populated and most of its passes are only extremely narrow alleys. May 18 2007.

Bodies of a mother and two kids stay in a bike cart, in a forest of Baixada Fluminense, after they were killed and dumped by the own family member or father. Although the motivation is unknown, this type of fatal domestic violence is common in Rio, as violence and street crime are tremendously rampant in the community and as those factors affect its people in a variety of dimensions. Rio, Brazil, June 03 2007.

The reality, however, is contrary at the consequence. As the business of drug gangs is lucrative, the turf war of controlling favelas seems never to end between rivals gangs, or between gangs and militias who are usually former security officers, or between gangs and police. Some scholars call it even a form of the real warfare, since Rio’s urban war is very severe and hyper heavy weapons are often used. As many as one-fifth of youth in the drug gang members are killed within two years, as well as killing a large number of innocent people due to the cross shooting. In addition, police officers often become victims. In 2007 alone, more than 580 cops died due to the gang related violence.

After the capture, a suspect of a car-jacking, a member of Comando Vermelho, is forced by police to pose for the press. Rio, Brazil, May 31 2007.

Residents of favela Vila Cruzeiro pass through near military police forces who are in the operation in order to capture mafia-like gang members of Comando Vermelho. May 22 2007.

Teen Rocinha residents chill out with majijuana at a rooftop. May 18 2007.

Is it an old story? It might be yes, at least in a certain degree. As I already mentioned, I started this project in 1998. Yet after the revisit to Rio, I found the favelas’ violent landscape was still outstanding and even more deteriorating in many areas. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government and the international community have kept nearly ignoring the bloody tragedy.

In favela Rocinha, residents are washing clothes at a public laundry, as many of the community do not have running water system. May 18 2007.

In a favela, Single mother Ligia Pessanha, 16, stays with her two-year old boy Derycky in her bedroom where she also shares her mother. Ligia sister is also a single mother with two babies. In Rio favelas, girls often become singles mothers, as violence by gangs are rampant, and such a violent climate affects very young fathers and mothers. Jan 20 2008.

A homicide scene of Renato Dos Santos Oliveira, 34, who was killed in Rosha Miranda on the previous night. Jan 29 2008.

Rio sanitation workers take out a body, a victim of gang violence. Governor's Island. Jan. 1998.

In Racinha, the biggest slum in South America, a father and his daughter pass trough a typical narrow alley in the favela, or slum. May 17 2007.

There are so many desperate youths in favelas. The gang members themselves know well — about how risky being gang is. Many teen gangs think they are lucky if they live to the age of early 20s. Despite the fact, many favela youths and children still would like to join gang members. They often say the coolest is “King of Favela,” the leader of drug gangs. Yet, the reason to respect gangs is not only coming from money and power. It is also coming from hopeless feeling in favelas whose community and people are often neglected, discriminated by their own government. It is also coming from the harsh reality of favelas: prevalence of poverty, unemployment, no reasonable school and medical systems, and over-populated situations.

In such circumstances, even if people are not joining gangs, they have to look for their own way of survival. In the case of children, they are often likely to become street kids, after all, creating anther chance to be involved in gang or other illegal, dangerous activities, such as drug smuggling, robbery or prostitution. Unfortunately, often in future, they are also likely to be imprisoned, or even killed.

(This Rio favela project continues.)


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  1. great story!

  2. Thanks Paulo.
    Let’s keep to post nice stories.

  3. Fantastic series of photos plus great story to go with them. I am a big fan of Brazilian music (Jobim, etc) and I would love to visit Rio. But after watching films like “City of God” and “City of Men” I am more than hesitant to visit this place. Better to enjoy the music and see this city from the comfort and security of my home in Seattle. Thanks for a great story!

  4. The photos give a real and haunting insight into the plight of the people living there. I have visited Rio ( in Nov 09) and it was a wonderful place. However, at times when I could see the Favela’s in the distance and wondered about the other side and how I could help. I can see it is never ending circle that is very hard to get out of.

    Thank you for the story.

  5. Refer to above. Sorry miss typed date visited Rio. It was Nov 08

  6. Awesome…simply awesome.

  7. Now that Rio has been picked as the site of the 2016 Olympics we will see some serious dumping of people out of the Favelas into the surrounding countryside. There will also be a concerted effort to remove the drug gangs from the Rio area. That will cause a spike in killings the like of which Rio has never seen. The next 4 years are going to be very interesting as the world comes and takes a look at the ‘Modern Brazil’. A place where 10% of the population controls 80% of all the money and property. Where the increase in the population in the favelas is 10 times the increase in outside them. Where people have 7,8,9 children born into abject poverty and we can thank the Catholic Church for that. These people have no education, most are illiterate. The government is powerless to change this and it will only get worse as the years go by. The Olympic Committee has no clue what they just did.

  8. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for mentioning about it. I’m worrying, too, about such a turnout, especially in the large increase of gang violence and the related killings.
    We’ll see it.

  9. wow, amazing photographs.

  10. After years of stays with family in a traditional Carioca neighborhood. witnessing the steady expansion and descent over time of the nearby favelas toward the apartments fronting on the beach, I am overwhelmed by the power and accuracy of this essay. The detailed depiction of the complex socio-economic structure that results from the coexistence in extraordinary proximity on the streets of Rio De Janeiro, of affluence and poverty, ruthless violence and carefree charm, is all the more remarkable for being the product of foreign photojournalist. Futhermore Q. Sakamaki text is as incisive as his photos. Five Stars!

  11. Thank you for posting this. Thought provoking and very sad. It seems like there is no solution. Most youths understandably want to be in gangs and get stoned. Its the best option available to them after being abandoned by their government- and the other classes of society who for the most part turn a blind eye.
    Killings of prodominantly poor black youths are not condemned by all and not all poor black youths are thugs.
    Just as some police are thugs whilst some legitimate.
    There are few establishments trying to help delincuents (and most fail to understand them)- who do not have a choice. Their behavior is a consequence of how sociey has treated them.
    Still I have always wanted to go and experience the passion/frantic/dark/alive city of Rio and one day i hope i will.

  12. [...] FAVELAS A photographer Q. Sakamaki from GAIA Photos captured some amazing images in Rio slums. Check it out. His images are so powerful, and some of them are mind bothering. You can help: Art and Justice [...]

  13. Very nice photographs with beautiful composition. i’m currently staying in belo horizonte, and have only seen these favelas in passing. In addition, it is very brave of you to take such photos.

  14. Thank You for your courage, professionalism and amazing artistry for this very well made reportage, keep shooting please. GREAT WORK!

  15. Well done! A friend of mine spent some time in Rio last year and said the favellas were the worst slums he’d seen. Good idea to spread the word.

  16. I would like to say that this is the best job I Ever seen from a journalist.

  17. Horrific really. Now that we see Brazil as fast growing economy, possibly one of future economic super powers, it looks dangerous to keep following the path of neglegence,inactivity and inequality. The article is story of failing political parties and lack of statesmen in this land with great potential. Given the facts I do not think Olympics will bring in a miracle for the country but only exposing Brazil’s ugly reality and widen social and psychological divide between poor and rich. I wonder how the leadership of such a nation is content to show case its football and shemales alone. It could have done lot lot more and still it can, it should in fact.

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