Bearing the Torch: The World Cup in Brazil's Favelas

By Conor Risch

© Marc Ohrem-Leclef
Fernanda, Santa Marta, 2013, from Marc Ohrem-Leclef's Olympic Favela.

Hosting duties for major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games always come with a promise of economic stimulus and prestige. For the citizens of host nations, however, the honor of hosting a major international competition can be a poisoned chalice. Protests over lack of government services have erupted as Brazil spends heavily to prepare for the 2014 World Cup this summer. And Rio de Janeiro’s preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games have fallen so far behind schedule that some are asking whether the event should be moved.

Preparations for the World Cup and Olympic Games have also meant the forcible removal of thousands of people from their homes in Rio’s slums, also known as favelas. Often these removals come with little warning, and the homes are razed in an effort to alter the complexion of the city. Reading about the forcible removals struck a chord with Marc Ohrem-Leclef, a Brooklyn, New York-based commercial and fine-art photographer. Ohrem-Leclef had traveled to Rio several times to shoot commercial jobs and felt an affinity for the city. In 2012 he set out to create a body of work about the people whose lives have been upended by these mega-sports events.

Through street portraits made in 13 favelas across Rio, Ohrem-Leclef’s new book, Olympic Favela, released this month by Damiani, tells the “David and Goliath” story of the people whose homes have been destroyed or threatened by Rio’s housing authority.

“I wanted to create this portrait of the people who live there from a very human perspective,” Ohrem-Leclef says. From his previous experiences in Rio, he felt there was “a stigma attached to people living in the favelas,” which he was interested in breaking down. For access and introductions to the people affected, Ohrem-Leclef worked with a small, local NGO called Catalytic Communities.

The help of a local assistant was important, he says. “I needed somebody who was sensitive and knew how to explain [the project] to people who are very insecure and unsettled,” Ohrem-Leclef explains. Seeing his medium-format film camera, some residents worried he was working for the city government. He would joke with them: “If I [was working for] the city I would come with a little digital camera, not this monster.”

Some people took a couple of hours of convincing. “These people are really worried about being too visible for fear of repercussions from the city government,” Ohrem- Leclef says. But most everyone chose to work with him.

Ohrem-Leclef’s color photographs show men, women and children in the narrow lanes of favelas. The images are full of character and atmosphere. Two boys pose on the limbs of a tree; a couple embrace outside their home, a dog standing on the roof behind them is caught mid-bark; three generations of one family sit together on a concrete bench, Rio’s lush green hills stretching out in the distance. Architectural details and street scenes add to the sense of place.

Interspersed throughout the book are images of favela residents holding red torches up in the air. Ohrem-Le- clef created these images as symbols of empowerment. He came up with the strategy after researching imagery related to certain keywords on Image Atlas, the art and programming project created by photographer Taryn Simon and the deceased Internet activist Aaron Swartz. Image Atlas, which allows users to sort image results by geographical location and gross domestic product, enabled Ohrem-Leclef to research local image results for keywords like eviction, liberty, strength, unification, displacement and other related terms. A common theme emerged of a “gesture of a raised hand, whether it’s carrying a flag or torch or weapon,” Ohrem-Leclef says.

While it was “nerve-wracking” to be in the streets of favelas lighting maritime emergency torches, which he purchased at a high price, Ohrem-Leclef says people understood and appreciated the symbolism. In fact, he says, they understood the idea better than anyone else he tried to explain it to. The resulting images draw on the symbolism of the Olympic torch, and on the common practice of lighting torches in the stands at soccer matches, something that happens throughout the world. They also signify the sense of emergency felt by favela residents.

On the title page of Olympic Favela, which includes essays by local leaders about the history and present challenges faced by favela residents, Ohrem-Leclef thanks “the many generous people I have met on the hills and in the flatlands of Rio de Janeiro, for showing me the heart and soul of their city.” Despite their reputation as dangerous places, Ohrem-Leclef says that he felt welcome and safe in the favelas. “My experience in general is, when you go to these quote-unquote dangerous places and you go with a very open and positive attitude, it usually flips the script.” He felt most uneasy, he says, when the military police were present.

Ohrem-Leclef hopes that the book, which is being distributed in Brazil, will “enhance the conversation” around the favelas in a last- ing way. In addition to the book, Ohrem-Leclef has made his images available to Catalytic Communities and other NGOs, and he is working on raising funds for an exhibition that will travel throughout the favelas and “further the conversation locally.”

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