No Olho da Rua (In the Eye of the Street) is a long term collaboration between young Brazilians living on the streets of Belo Horizonte and artists Julian Germain, Patricia Azevedo and Murilo Godoy. 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 is on show at Fabrica in the exhibition The Beautiful Horizon as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial until 25 November 2012. No Olho da Rua 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 Director of Autograph ABP interviews the artists about their work.
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.
Casa Apoio Group Film, 1995. © No Olho da Rua Collective
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.
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.
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.
Otacilio Film, Image of Haidé, 1995. © No Olho da Rua Collective
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.
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 coherently, on a permanent basis, with the clear objective of transforming the kids’ lives, getting them off the street and so on, that has never been a goal of ours. While we have admiration for other projects that do aim for this, we cannot operate as social workers; we’re photographers. We see ourselves as three independent artists, and we work on a personal, perhaps even micro, level. In this way, we do what we can when we can, and that includes, of course, taking responsibility for the archive, taking care of their images, and we are very serious about respecting the participants at every point in the process.
The idea of the future doesn’t really exist for them — they live from day to day. So, when the project is ‘live’ we work with them day to day, in the present. We found that otherwise it doesn’t really work. They don’t have expectations for the future, either for themselves or for the project, although having said that they do have ambitions for a book. Perhaps for them this would be tangible evidence that they are taken seriously. As such, it is a primary goal for us to achieve this.For us, of course, our lives are very different, and we do think about the future. We talk about the work as the ‘archive’, by definition suggesting we value it, consider its importance, as a resource, something to be referred to, an extensive (surely unique) historical document about contemporary Brazil, in which the subjects have played a vital role; as a collection of visually very powerful and extremely emotional photographs.
It’s also about time itself and people’s lives over time as well as the outcome of the experience of working collaboratively, and we also, of course, think it’s important art—engaged, critical, provocative, moving… We hope the archive will be preserved in its entirety, and made available as a public resource for its artistic as well as social value.
Once the images began to have a more public life — street posters, newspapers, etc. — what did this do to the dialogue across the project?
JG, PA, MG: The way we’ve conceived exhibiting the work in Belo Horizonte has always been to include and engage the kids in the process and to make strong connections with the general public. Flyposters and newspapers are popular forms of mass communication, and they were distributed
on the streets of the city where the kids live, and, in the case of the newspapers, they physically put their work directly into people’s hands. The work (and them personally) speaking directly to the general public. We don’t have the resources to scientifically test how successful this was, but on both occasions the broader news media became involved, and the work received a lot of attention. From our own observations, we saw that the public did take notice and were engaged—for example, when we handed out flyers about the flyposter exhibition, many people already knew the images from around the city and had read something about them somewhere already.
Within the chaos of their lives, how many kids have survived, and what did you do about those that didn’t survive?
JG, PA, MG: In the 17 years since we started working, most of the original 55 participants have died, disappeared or been sent to prison. Several have died from AIDS or been run over by traffic. Some have been killed in fights, or may have been murdered. Those in prison are there, we assume, because of theft, violence or selling drugs. We do not know, and it is clear that they do not want us to know, who did this or that crime. We accept this, and we do not indulge in any form of judgement about their lives. Participating in this project is not a reward for good or bad behaviour. We are still in touch with 15 of the original group. In the last 18 months, three of them have benefited from a government social programme, and been allocated apartments, but unfortunately they are all still spending most of their time on the street, where their social life is and where they can use crack. Because the project is sporadic, we are much more often not there than there, so dramatic and tragic events often (though not always) pass us by until we hear what happened later on. We have all of the pictures, of course, and these are evidence that people existed, some kind of testament we suppose, and the pictures have been some comfort for the bereaved parents and partners.
In general, we do what we can for the kids that are there. We try to give practical assistance when participants ask for it, helping them get ID, trying to track their kids in the care system, or their partners in the prison system and so on. This is not why we started the project, but we are happy to help them as much as possible. Some of the kids have Patricia and Murilo’s phone number, and they do get a late night call very occasionally, but they have never ever been pestered or hassled, which suggests a level of respect.
Can you elaborate more on how the image dialogue worked. You spent time looking for the kids and at the same time looking at the kids. How did they respond to you looking at them?
JG, PA, MG: We always try to get their processed pictures back to them the next day. When the pictures arrive, it’s fun but pretty chaotic. There’s a lot of swapping going on because they generally want pictures of themselves, and there’s an understanding that the person in each image should have the image. For them, it’s not about the person who pressed the shutter. We try to speak to people individually—it’s very that rare you can have a discussion with a group. We’ve found that the best way to get a dialogue about photographs is for us to make a broad selection of images that we are interested in, and to stick these in notebooks.
We then use these notebooks to get coherent feedback that we can verify. If they have comments, we ask them to write them down under the picture, if they can; otherwise, we make the note and they sign it. Sometimes it’s just a case of ‘Si’ or ‘Não’, which is pretty clear cut, but there are more elaborate comments too.
We take pictures when we’re with them, using the same cameras as them. Given the relationship we have, which is founded on photography, everybody making pictures, it’s just a normal aspect of the project, and we feel comfortable doing it, and they are comfortable with it. Our photographs tend to be a secondary consideration for us, though, as the primary purpose is to deliver their pictures, reload cameras, try to work out what will be a promising time/place to meet up tomorrow, and chat about what’s going on. Actually, we generally don’t stay with them for very long, often one hour, sometimes less, and rarely longer than a couple of hours. We always have to go and find the next group. Occasionally, we spend the whole day, in a zoo, in a park, visiting their families or helping with a variety of practical stuff.
What is it that you got from back from the kids in terms of understanding photography, and what do you think they now understand about photography?
JG, PA, MG: We always knew that photographs are important to people, and it was the knowledge that these kids were excluded from photography and a feeling they would grasp the opportunity to use it in a significant way that led to us embarking on the project. Then, from the beginning, they exceeded our expectations. They were often breaking all the rules of photography without even knowing what the rules are, which seemed appropriate somehow. We were inspired by their images, the sheer spectacle of them. They were shooting into bright sun, getting too close to the subject and so on.We learnt from their pictures, and it was liberating for us, using cheap point-and-shoot cameras with lovely big viewfinders—so easy to use in a spontaneous way. We come from an environment of using valuable professional equipment carefully, being conscious of it all the time, and we loved the realisation that these aptly named point-and-shoot cameras had little value. All that matters is the images on the exposed film.
Picture by Patricia from ‘Foresta’ Gang, Brazil, 1997© No Olho da Rua Collective
The pictures are important to the kids too because they want to see their images. There is something very seductive about photography, how once you’ve pressed the shutter there is a strong urge to see the moment you have recorded as a photograph. When we began, a lot of people predicted that the cameras would be sold immediately for the price of a pack of cigarettes, but this has never happened. We have lost cameras in recent years since crack addiction became prevalent, but we are pretty sure this is down to chaos rather than anything else.
The kids all understand photographs as mementos, evidence of their past. Also, that pictures communicate information and ideas, especially through the posters and newspapers. Some of them are really good photographers. They record what’s going on in a very intentional and determined way, even when it’s really intense, and we get the feeling they want this to be seen.
Was the pleasure in establishing relationships across the project reciprocal? What did the kids think of your photographs of them, and has that been acknowledged?
JG, PA, MG: Definitely there was pleasure on both sides. We are sure the kids appreciate the respect we give them, and the meetings are usually very enjoyable. Our photographs of them are considered in the same way as all of the others. It is who is in the picture that matters to them.
How did you manage the kids’ desire to be the centre of attention, balanced with your desire to represent their condition?
JG, PA, MG: Obviously we didn’t want a flood of pictures of kids with cheesy grins and their thumbs up, but that isn’t what we got. We got great images from the very beginning. It’s inevitable that some kids are much more interesting photographers than others, though. We would try to encourage the ones who are a bit boring away from constantly repeating the same posed shots, not by telling them not to do it (we never tell them what to do or what not to do) but by saying ‘OK, you’ve got lots like that now, how about trying something different?’ We have always been more than happy with the overall quality of the photographs.
There is obviously some tension between our ambition as artists and photographers working in a serious way about a serious subject and their feelings about how they want to be represented. For us, this would still be an issue if only we three professionals were making the pictures, but their role as producers gives them clear rights to be an integral part of the editing process, which we touched on earlier.
Accordingly, the pictures used in both newspapers and flyposters were a compromise between what we wanted and what they wanted. We had to give up images we thought were really important and include pictures we were less enthused with. We did fight for images, try to persuade them, but in all cases their reasoning was sound and we accepted it. We understood and respected their position. In the process of these discussions they have indicated that a book will be different: there seems to be an understanding that if they want to be taken seriously, they need to be honest, to be prepared to show bad as well as good things.
The big ethical issue that we often reflect on is that it is their images that have sustained the project for all these years. It is the images that have built and reinforced the relationships that we cherish.
How do these images serve them as producers of the photographs. Is there an autobiographical memory of the project that is comparable with yours, or is it all about the moment of exposure and participation?
JG, PA, MG: It’s obvious that they mostly get pleasure from participating. Some of the kids are certainly more deeply involved, although it’s a complicated claim and difficult to verify. Perhaps they are just more serious people, but for whatever reason they make serious pictures. What’s going on inside them is sometimes deep self-reflection, and they are using photography in a complex, intense way, even if they don’t know it.
A lot of the project happens in our absence. We are not there when the vast majority of pictures get taken, and we are not there after we’ve delivered their packets of photographs to hear what they might say about them when we’ve gone. We do know that they talk about the project, that they’ve discussed whether or not we make money out of them for example. We also know that, despite having nowhere to put things they value and despite being regularly moved on from one sleeping ground to another, some of them have kept their photographs for more than a decade.
How do you think these images will work outside of the context of Brazil?
JG, PA, MG: Pretty well, as they are surprisingly relevant to all of us. So much of it refers to universal themes, like time, beauty, love, birth and death—the human condition, within a context of extreme poverty in modern society. This is not in any way exclusive to Brazil but points to the lives of millions of people, an underclass, living in the margins of big cities around the world, and also to capitalism, consumerism and so on.
We see the working process as being as important as the images, and in this exhibition we’ll try to show that. It’s a response to people’s exclusion, founded on principles of inclusion, collaboration, sharing and respect.
Flyposter project, Belo Horizonte, 1997
What work do you expect these photographs to do?
JG, PA, MG: For people to understand the work fully they have to know about the project, to understand the process and what it signifies. Then, we think that the images become even more powerful.
We are confident that audiences will be impressed, but of course we want them to look more deeply and open their minds. We hope that the universal themes we mentioned earlier will touch people and connect them to the street kids’ feelings even more than their circumstances, while making them think about their own comfortable lives. We also hope they get a feeling of respect and pleasure—our key words whenever we talk amongst ourselves about our dealings with the kids.
We have never really expected that the work could change the life trajectories of the participants. They are very difficult to help in that way. But, as we’ve said, it wasn’t conceived as a social project but as an art project, and on that basis we believe it has had and will continue to have cultural and social impact, altering and adding to people’s perceptions, understandings and feelings, being a reference point for discussion and debate and so on.
Do the photographs move us further across the field of representational politics?
JG, PA, MG: We are not expert in the theory, but in the sense of the philosophy of inclusion behind the project and the particular significance to the street kids of their own visibility and identity, maybe it will be deemed useful.
Is it possible to read these kids’ lives/photographs as anything other than exotic poverty for liberal consumption, and what are you saying about the violence/chaos of their lives, especially when we consider how many are dead, drug users or in prison?
JG, PA, MG: We trust the photographs and our process, the relationships built up over so much time. These factors have set up something different, an inclusive and personal perspective, quite distinct from what is generally displayed for liberal consumption.
The violence is a tragedy. It has a huge, fundamental impact in the kids’ lives, as it’s often the reason they are on the street in the first place. From what we can gather, most of them ran away from home to escape being beaten or abused. They were on the street by the age of nine, and by the time they were 13 or 14 they already had babies of their own.
Nomadic, no house, no education, no job, kids to deal with, living from hand to mouth, within a different range of behavioural boundaries. They get involved in crime, use drugs, nowadays especially crack.
The whole situation is very destructive, and it causes a lot of violence, and it surrounds them. They are in turn harassed and repressed and occasionally helped by the authorities and the law. All street kids have to deal with violence, and it is hardly surprising that many of them reproduce it, even in their most loving relationships.
When we began the work in the mid-1990s, there appeared to be no properly organised social policy to deal with street kids at all. There were a few ‘supporters houses’, places where kids could take refuge and get cleaned up and fed, although they didn’t offer them the serious, intensive and sensitive care and attention necessary for them to stand any chance whatsoever of being integrated into mainstream society. In recent years, there has been a shift, and a concerted effort has been made with the provision of a range of central and regional government-funded social projects. Three of the kids we know have received homes, although they find it a huge challenge to live in them and not to return to the street.
The significantly different policy now, though, is to try and break the cycle of street kids breeding more street kids by ensuring that babies and small children cannot live on the street. If the parents do not accept this and do not play by a set of rules laid down by the social workers, their babies and kids are taken away from them and put into care — a traumatic scenario we have witnessed. Now, in Belo Horizonte at least (one of the richest cities in Brazil), you very rarely see babies and kids under the age of 12 or 13 on the street.
How do issues of race and class manifest in this project for you as artists?
JG, PA, MG: Directly, but as individuals. We are white, educated, middle class and have all kinds of opportunities. We leave the kids on the street and carry on with our middle-class lives, eating in restaurants, going to concerts, art galleries, bookshops and home to our comfortable beds.
When you show the archive, will the audience have a sense of who took what photograph? Will you indicate the author, and if they are alive or dead, or indeed anything about who they might be? Tell their life story, for example?
JG, PA, MG: We will indicate who was responsible for the camera, who is in the pictures (if we know) and the year. Being responsible for the camera does not indicate authorship and in the vast majority of cases we don’t know the detailed stories behind the pictures or of their lives. As we said earlier, the kids are quite reticent about details. We probably still don’t know some of their real names. However, the exhibition does feature a series of audio/visual portraits that offer another perspective, other layers of information.
What’s the end game for the project. Is it when there is no one left? Or is it the book?
JG, PA, MG: We are not really sure. Perhaps it will end with a book, and hopefully we can count on some of the kids still being around for a launch party in Belo. In the end, after we are all dust, we hope that the archive will still be kept somewhere safe, where it can be accessed and appreciated as an artwork, a historical record and as a testament to the kids.
How do you reconcile closure?
JG, PA, MG: It won’t be easy to let go after so long. With the experience of working with them and each other, we’ve become part of each other’s lives. Perhaps if the work is published successfully and if the archive finds an appropriate home it will be easier. In some ways, it becomes more difficult to go back as well: in recent times it’s been particularly traumatic, with them losing their own kids and also with the crack situation, where people who have hitherto been heroic survivors just seem to be losing it altogether. We obviously have an enormous sense of responsibility to the work and them. We will just do our best.
1 ‘Wendy Ewald’, Literacy Through Photography Blog, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University. literacythroughphotography.wordpress.com/wendy-ewald