A vast archive of thousands of photographs produced over seventeen years charts the participants lives over a period of unprecedented economic expansion in Brazil. The project demonstrates how photography has been used to intervene in the urban landscape and serves as a powerfully expressive platform for the socially and economically excluded.
Mark Sealy Why was it deemed necessary for you as photographers to begin working with this group of kids? What were the core objectives?
Julian Germain, Patricia Azevedo, Murilo Godoy There was a confluence of events that led up to it. We became friends in 1994. We were all working with found and vernacular images, and we agreed to start working together, generating instead of collecting images. We love the potential of photography—a simple medium with deep possibilities—and we thought about putting cameras into the hands of people who have rarely, if ever, been photographed or made pictures themselves. These people live chaotic lives on the margins of a world where photography is all around, but the photographs are not for them. We wanted to create a situation where it was possible for them to discover photography for themselves. However, we never considered teaching them photography. Our basic idea was that we should all make pictures (us as well as them) using the same equipment. We would supply the cameras, process the films, give them their photographs and then talk with them about the images and experiences. We simply wanted to make this possible, to see what would happen. Beyond that, it wasn’t really planned, but in 1995 we approached three different groups of street kids from Belo Horizonte, all of whom wanted to participate, and we became immersed in a series of complex relationships in a very tough, yet incredibly productive and creative, environment where everyone was actively involved.
Patricia Film, Image of Haidé, 2005, damaged print. © No Olho da Rua Collective
MS How aware were you of the work of other photographers who have approached or developed similar ways of working with marginalised groups, for example Wendy Ewald, Jim Hubbard, Shahidul Alam and Lana Wong—all whom lay claim to a similar political objective, a literacy through photography, an ideological perspective, that in theory empowers the disaffected and gives voice to their presence?
JG, PA, MG In 1995 we were aware of Wendy Ewald’s brilliant Appalachian work, and of Jo Spence’s work too, her reaction against control through photography, and, of course, of the general ethics debates going on. Otherwise, at that time we weren’t familiar with any of Ewald’s other projects or of anybody else working in this way.
MS In Ewald’s work with children, “she encourages them to use cameras to record themselves, their families and their communities, and to articulate their fantasies and dreams. Ewald herself often makes photographs within the communities she works with, and has the children mark or write on her negatives, thereby challenging the concept of who actually makes an image, who is the photographer, who is the subject and who is the observer. In blurring the distinction of individual authorship and throwing into doubt the artist’s intentions, power, and identity, Ewald creates opportunities to look at the meaning and use of photographic images in our lives with fresh perceptions.”1. How much shared terrain or influence is there with photographers like Ewald? How does this project differ in purpose from Jim Hubbard’s work with kids, if at all?
JG, PA, MG No Olho da Rua deals with the politics of identity and visibility, self-expression and power, and, just as importantly, it is about the pleasure of establishing relationships with people through making photographs and working together. Where we might differ from other practitioners is that we do not teach—we seek a dialogue. We never have workshops or classrooms. We spend a lot of time just looking for the kids because the environment they are in is so unbelievably chaotic. We go to wherever they are, and the work is adapted to their routines. When we started we had no outcome in mind, and even now it’s open ended. It may be that other projects have a clearer sense of purpose in terms of campaigning for change or transforming people’s lives—but we don’t have this purpose. Now, we look at the work in the perspective of time itself, of the 17 years of experiences, rather than simply in terms of aesthetics or as a documentary. The archive and relationships with the same people have been built up over years, pointing to the prominence of the place of the subject.
MS If there was no pedagogical agenda, how have you transferred knowledge when dealing with the kids or the partners on the project? What’s being learnt or offered by this archive?
JG, PA, MG We give basic instruction about the cameras—use flash when it’s not bright, keep fingers away from the lens, etc.—to make sure that images come out. Unless they ask, we don’t delve further into photographic techniques. It’s not really practical, and we also like the direct and spontaneous way the kids use the cameras. It’s a simple way for them to look around and frame their own environment, look at the things that matter to them in a different way. We try to engage them in conversations about the pictures they make, so they do get a sense of what is interesting for us and so we know what they like. Whether or not a conversation is meaningful depends on the circumstances, which change from one day to the next. As for transferring knowledge, a lot of that comes in the other direction, from them to us (and, ultimately, to the wider audience), as they talk to us and show us in pictures what’s happened in their lives. For them, the archive is their photographic history, which otherwise would not exist. For example, this week we have been reprinting old pictures for them, which give them a lot of pleasure, but we were astonished that one guy had two battered photo albums in his rucksack containing pictures that spanned the entire project. He has obviously been carrying them around for years, which suggests that the archive has real value for him.
MS What have the kids got out of the project? Was there a sense of future embedded in the project?
JG, PA, MG Respect, images of themselves, pleasure, being able to put their views across, a sense that someone cares about something they do and is listening and looking. If by ‘a sense of future embedded in the project’ you are implying building an organisation around it, maybe an NGO that works more Published on 20 January 2013 Commissioned by Photoworks Originally posted in Photoworks Issue 11 David Campany is Senior Lecturer in the History and Theory of Photography at them University of Westminster. He is the author of Art and Photography (Phaidon, 2003) and Photography and Cinema (Reaktion Books, 2008). Photoworks 12 (May 2009), pp 46
Published in Photoworks Issue 19, 2012
Commissioned by Photoworks