Photographer Interviews

Photographing the Dark Side of the Gold Medal in Rio

December 1, 2016

By Martha T. Moore

Peter Bauza.

Peter Bauza.

During the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro’s squalor was on display along with its beauty, despite the billions spent by Brazil to prepare for the Games. For photographer Peter Bauza, documenting the “dark side of the gold medal’’ led him far from the newly built sports venues to a hidden corner of the city: a complex of unfinished buildings where 300 families of squatters try to make a bare-bones shelter into a home.

“Six great rusty, dirty buildings,’’ Bauza says. “Trash and waste and garbage.’’

Built 30 years ago as middle-class housing, the complex was never completed and has only deteriorated. Scrappers have ripped out pipes and wiring from the concrete shells, leaving holes in walls and floors. Whatever electricity and running water is available has been pirated from nearby neighborhoods. Residents have several ironic names for it, including “Copacabana Palace,’’ a pointed reference to Rio’s five-star beachfront hotel.

Beginning in 2015, Bauza spent 15 months photographing the buildings and residents. He has published his work in European magazines. In September, the project won the Visa d’Or award for features at Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan, and Edition Lammerhuber released it as a book.

As host of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil attracted attention that intensified the conflict over Rio’s substandard housing. The government forced thousands of residents out of favelas (slums) to make room for Olympic venues, and police used teargas to evict squatters from various buildings.

Bauza, who divides his time between Brazil and his native Germany, focuses on stories about people who are without—without money or housing, without power or protection. “I feel that my photography is helping people that need some help to be defended,’’ he says.

He heard about the large squatter community called Copacabana Palace—but no one could tell him where it was. “It was more like a saga, a legend, a story,’’ he says. He began researching the scope of Brazil’s homelessness—and with the help of a contact he declines to name, he finally located the Copacabana buildings, about 35 miles from the center of Rio.

“I wanted to try to understand what it means to be a squatter. Nobody is born to be a squatter. Each squatter is made by the society, by the government, by us,’’ he says. 

© Peter Bauza

The complex is home to a woman who was awarded housing from the government but was unable to move in because the apartment was occupied by gang members. “Nobody is born to be a squatter. Each squatter is made by the society, by the government, by us,’’ says Bauza. © Peter Bauza

During his first visits to Copacabana Palace, in June 2015, Bauza took no photos and simply tried to make some contacts. Hostility, including the occasional shove, diminished when he won tacit approval from the “militia,’’ a local mafia that keeps some order in the complex by selling protection. He pitched a tent inside one of the buildings and camped out two or three nights a week.

Bauza was determined to avoid what he refers to as “typical NGO pictures’’ of impoverished children with runny noses. “You need those photos of course to collect money, but I want to show their life,’’ he said.

He told residents he would show the fullness of their lives and make sure that those outside the complex saw it. “I cannot promise you [prosperity] because I am not rich, I am not the government,’’ he says he told them. “But I can promise I am going to show…that you are human and that you deserve a better world.’’

Bauza says that his decision to wait before he began shooting, and his persistence in returning to Copacabana over and over again, eventually gave him the entrée to photograph intimate scenes. Hanging out with residents, “you listen, you see, you drink coffee, and… you are disappearing as a photographer,’’ he says. “Once they learn that they can trust you, and that later on you share your work and your thoughts, it opens the door.’’ Although such is the poverty of the place, “They don’t have really doors. They have wood panels.’’

His images show filth and dilapidation and children playing in trash, and colorfully decorated homes with electronics powered by pirated electricity. Bauza made 400 formal portraits of residents, and he photographed them sleeping, dancing, playing, flying kites and making love. There was one constraint: He agreed not to photograph militia members.

“You see the misery, the need, you see the joy, the happiness, you see a housewife trying to [beat] her husband because he was not very loyal. You hear the shouting, because people don’t know how to talk without shouting. Because nobody is listening, probably.’’

He met Edilane, a mother of eight children, who has cobbled together a single computer from used parts and runs a video game room for local children; and Fatima, who has lived at the Copacabana Palace for 18 years. He saw a baby dying of tuberculosis. He got to know the institutions of the complex: a church run by a pastor who holds religious services in his home, little stores selling Cokes and snacks, nail salons, hairdressers, places to get a meal.

“What I admired so much is the strength every day to get up, to start again with the energy to say, ‘I need to eat, I need food for my kids,’” he says.

Bauza published photo essays on Copacabana Palace in Vanity Fair Italy, Spiegel Online, Stern and French, Dutch and Norwegian magazines. Upcoming exhibits will be shown in Siena, Italy and Daejon, Korea. An exhibit in Quito, Ecuador, opened in late September in conjunction with the U.N. Conference on Housing & Sustainable Urban Development.

Publisher Silvia Lammerhuber says that upon seeing Bauza’s photos, she immediately decided they should be presented as a book. Photo projects on extreme poverty are hardly rare, she says. Bauza’s work has not only “very good formal construction,’’ but “a certain light’’ that “transports” the subject to a poetic level. And she liked his choice to use color, which she felt provided immediacy. “The disaster is not so close to the viewer in black and white.’’

Bauza often shoots in black and white, and says, “This is typical—when people make misery it’s black and white.’’ But he continues: “No, this is color. I tried not to oversaturate and make a Caribbean story out of it, because it’s not a Caribbean story. But it’s colorful because their life is colorful.’’

He avoided using intrusive equipment, relying on available light and wide-angle lenses, from 21mm to 35mm. “You need to be intimate, you must be respectful and you should not shock them with the big lenses, the big zooms,’’ he says.

Bauza self-funded the project, and calculated that the Olympics would make it salable. He figures he has broken even with publication fees. While risky, self-financing allowed him to spend much more time on the project than he would have had from an assignment.

“It was a personal project, with illusions, with expectations, with devotion,’’ he says.  “This project is the most deep, the most time-consuming, the most, let’s say, professional. I took my time for this project.’’

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