Olympic Favela / Vai com Deus

“Vai com deus” is a common form of saying good-bye in Brazil.

In many of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, the city’s housing authority Secretaria Municipal de Habitação (SMH) has been enforcing policies to remove families from their homes and demolish those homes to make way for infrastructure projects in preparation of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. The evictions started during preparations for the World Cup 2014.

In response to news reports of widespread evictions of residents from their homes and businesses, in early 2012 I began to research ways to portray the people directly and indirectly affected by completed and planned evictions, as well as the residents organizing their neighbors in resistance to SMH.

The people I met face extraordinary challenges: city officials who use ever-changing tactics to sow fear and insecurity to actively erode the sense of community; and lengthy, complicated legal disputes they must wage to avoid eviction and assert their rights to remain in the homes where they have grown up. Their firsthand accounts of their uphill battle, of the perseverance and ingenuity they employed to build their homes, and of the history of their communities—many residents we spoke with are third-generation residents of their neighborhoods—revealed the full breadth of their fears and underlined the need for their voices to be heard.

Yet—after spending time together, when it was time to move on, always came the words, spoken softly and with great sincerity: “Vai com Deus.” Their well-wishing goodbye stuck with me, for in that moment, with them wishing me luck, a reversal of roles played out that highlighted the broader experience I had: Despite their incredibly difficult circumstances, the residents of the favelas retain a deep-seated optimism and generosity—and a sense of hope that their place in Rio will be respected.

Ultimately an exploration of ideas like “belonging” and “home,” and which elements build the construct we call “home,” my works in “Olympic Favela” are also an attempt at defining my own sense of place in what is my world.

Elements like mobility, relative to wealth and ultimately class; one’s relationship with the surrounding community; the connection to the actual place (land); memory, both personal and familial; language and forms of expression and the constant state of change those elements are subjected to come to mind.

In an effort to call attention to the specific circumstances at play in Rio de Janeiro, I have created two parallel bodies of work:

One group of images consists of portraits of the people who live in the favelas. Many of the residents are photographed in front of their homes, which have been designated for removal by SMH with spray-painted code numbers.

The second group features directed images of residents posing with flaming emergency torches in their communities. Referencing iconic imagery ranging from Delacroix’s ”Liberty Leading the People” and Bartholdi’s ”Liberty Enlightening the World” to news imagery of the Arab Spring, these performative photographs invoke ideas of liberation, independence, resistance, protest and crisis, whilst making use of the core symbol of the Olympic Games—the torch.

Together with the portraits, these images juxtapose the dynamics of celebration and togetherness with those of struggle based on social-economic disparity, which the mega-events are bringing to Rio de Janeiro and its citizens.

Copies of letters written to the head of SMH and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Organizing Committee asking for participation in the project are included.

None of the politicians and committee members participated in this photoessay.

The portrait of Major Priscilla Azevedo represents a key element on side of the Executive branch: Major Priscilla Azevedo headed the first successful effort of “Pacification.” Pacification aims to “pacify” a favela through increased presence of para-military police-units, in an effort to successfully push the drug- and gun-trade out of a community.

It has been implemented to date in many favelas of Rio’s, with both positive and negative results for the residents.

—Marc Ohrem-Leclef

For more information see: Olympic Favela, the book.