Like many people I had the impression that I knew Rio de Janeiro before I had even lived there.

Images and descriptions of it were so visual: the city and the beach, the dazzling light; all your senses are blown away. In fact, when I arrived, I thought to myself: “this is Paradise on Earth.” Like those travelers that the writer Blaise Cendrars made fun of when they discovered Guanabara Bay, the ocean gateway to the city.

Now, three years later and my fascination is as strong as ever for Rio. But these days, I look at it more from within. The power of illusion that it radiates entices me more than its beauty.

But what if the myth wasn’t the city itself, but the idea of it? A part of the world that has always been a fantasy, a distant jetty, the promise of a new beginning and at the same time, discovering a reality far from the imagined depictions.

Rio still summons the same repetitive, if not stereotypical figures. On the one hand, an idyllic sea front, neighbourhoods with famous names, a certain exuberance of bodies and customs. On the other the favelas, exuding other energies and Brazil’s primal vitality. Yet in a city that stretches over 30 miles and comprises 160 neighbourhoods, the favelas or tourist areas in the Zona Sul represent only a fraction of the urban fabric.

From the 70-year old administrative Centro, to the more recent housing developments in the western and northern parts—not forgetting the huge plant-covered wastelands and stretches of motorways linking them together—another perception is slowly imposing itself. The backdrop of this city appears unresolved; an empty, silent almost artificial urban community. Solitary, pensive and motionless figures, unfailingly captured in their everyday environments emerge in these successive spaces.

There is unspoken correspondence between the locations and the individuals: the inhabitants of this city do not communicate with each other. In fact, where are we exactly? And when? And there is almost always a humid and milky light creating vagueness and obscuring benchmarks.

In this city, now as strange as it is familiar, I find hesitant, empty and silent characters. I interpret and visualize a search for balance, located somewhere between a fading order and its resurgence.

—Vincent Catala