This raw, powerful, visually distinctive street photography essay was given the 1st place, Series award in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all the winners, jurors’ picks and finalists as well as single images from the jury’s Top 100 highly rated entries.

After the results were announced, Brambatti’s series generated a particularly polarized response from our readers. Rather than take sides, we decided to learn more about this young photographer and his unusual approach to street photography. Below is an edited transcript of our exchange.

LC: Fabricio, what’s your story? How were you first exposed to photography?

FB: It’s a cliché, but my first interaction with photography was through my family’s photo albums.

My family and I always liked taking pictures of our trips: the fun times, birthday parties and so on. So initially, it was just that—I was just another person who wanted to record those moments.

Meanwhile, I always had a very strong connection with art—I even quit a stable job with a good income to become a full-time artist. At first, I did everything: I painted, drew, filmed, made graffiti…everything. At that time, photography was a tool I used for archival purposes.

In 2014, my wife gave me an analog camera, and this camera woke something in me that I can’t explain. After this shift, I no longer had the desire to paint or draw or even take pictures on someone’s birthday. Now, two years later, I think about photography 24 hours a day. I have feelings of withdrawal when I leave my house without a camera. During the day I chase strangers on the street for photos, and at night I have horrible nightmares where my pictures are out of focus. At my studio, I transformed the kitchen into a photo lab. I spent all of my money to sustain my addiction to photography.

Today I’m in debt and my bank account is negative. In a way, I could say that photography ruined my life…

LC: How did the project “My Sweet Paradise” first begin?

FB: Today, I recognize that this project began the day I got my analog camera. I wasn’t immediately aware of it, but some of the first pictures that I took fit perfectly into this project. I do this work every day—when I go out onto the street for lunch or to walk my dog. At any moment in São Paulo I can make a photo that fits into this project.

After all, this city has millions of stories, a million conflicts and millions of lost people trying to find their way to happiness. I’m also looking for happiness, and I’ve always been interested in documenting other people’s search for paradise.

LC: What is your relationship with the subjects you photograph? Do you talk to them and collect their stories? Are there any particular stories you want to share with us that weren’t conveyed in the pictures?

FB: Some of them I talk to, while others I know from the streets. Some fight with me. But I believe that the main character of this project, the city of São Paulo, is my oldest friend.

In Brazil, it is difficult to shoot in the street. People usually don’t like it, and often they’ll fight with you. They think photographers will make money as a result of their pictures—they also worry that the photos will incriminate them in some way.

I often had to fight to get my pictures. Each of these photographs cost me dearly in terms of curse words and punches.

I can recall one instance particularly well: the day I took the photo of the bleeding woman [seen in the slideshow above]. I think she believed I was protecting the skaters who were beating her, or maybe she thought I was one of them.

The fight occurred right outside my house—I even saw the agitation beginning from my window above. I ran to grab my camera and headed downstairs to shoot. My wife was at the window watching the fight and calling the police. She did not realize that I had gone down to get closer. When I reached the street, I begged the skateboarders to stop told them to leave. Perhaps the woman thought I wanted to help them escape, but I just wanted the fight to end as quickly as possible.

After that, I took a picture.

She said, “Call an ambulance!”
I replied, “We’re already calling one.”

I took another picture.

She said, “Take a photo of their license plate!”
I replied, “I already took one.”

I took another picture.

As soon as I clicked the shutter, she grabbed my camera and we struggled for a long time. Finally, I broke free. I ran back home and found my wife and a friend coming down the stairs. They were desperate to help me. My friend had a samurai sword in his hands and my wife had the angriest expression on her face. I had never seen him with a samurai sword nor her with such an angry expression. So, I took another picture.

Like I said, photography has ruined my life.

LC: I appreciated the contrast between the title you gave the project and the images you showed. Could you talk more about this title choice and what it says about the project as a whole?

FB: Homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes and many marginalized minorities are always thought of as lost and unhappy. Paradise seems very far away for these people. But the truth is that every human being is in pursuit of happiness: the drunk, the millionaire, the prostitute and the Hollywood actress. Everyone is looking for a sweet paradise for themselves. But everyone’s idea of happiness and heaven is different. To find happiness, the millionaire needs to make his fortune, while the drunk needs to find his drink.

This project aims to capture everyone’s attempt at paradise in this hard city.

I think it’s very important to portray this view of the city—important because I feel the people of Brazil have lost any notion of the absurd. They seem blind and deaf to inequality. It isn’t shocking anymore to step over a homeless person on the way to your favorite restaurant. I wanted to capture that grim contrast.

LC: Do you identify with the genre of “street photography?” If so, why? What about it attracts you, and how does it fit into your philosophy of photography?

FB: When I want to take pictures, I take my camera and go out to the street. On the street, people interact—you’re able to observe the contrasts of the city. The street is a stage where several stories happen all at once. You can simply shoot a scene randomly, or you can connect the dots and extract what you want from these scenarios. One does not exclude the other.

LC: Your project generated quite an engaged response when we announced the winners. Many people loved it while others said, “Great work, but it’s NOT street photography!” How would you respond to the latter group?

FB: Street photography consists of photographs that are taken on the street, right? I can’t imagine how my photography could be more street than this.

I’m a street photographer who likes to tell stories, but the fact that I’m telling a story doesn’t take the “street” aspect out of my work. All of my photos are frames of daily life from the center of São Paulo—the street always surprises me.

LC: Who are your creative heroes? Are they street photographers, documentary shooters, or are they from outside the field of photography altogether?

FB: In the traditional sense, Miguel Rio Branco, Antoine D’Agata and Jim Goldberg are great references for me.

But since you used the word “hero,” I can only think of young Brazilian photographers in general. Being a photographer in Brazil is very difficult, and creating original, quality work is for the hard-working few. So I consider the real heroes to be the people who decide to become photographers. It’s a constant work of resistance. Strengthening Brazilian photography motivates me a lot, so my partner and I created Angústia, an agency that produces and discusses photography here in Brazil.

A name that I also would like to mention is Gabriel Bianchini: a great friend who not only helps me out of fights (he was the one with the samurai sword!) but also inspires me, encourages me and teaches me about photography every single day.

LC: Overall, what’s the message you would like your viewers to get from this project?

FB: That all people are in pursuit of happiness. We could all be more understanding and compassionate toward those who have more difficulty in finding their version of it.

—Fabricio Brambatti, interviewed by Alexander Strecker