Today’s guest post is by Emily Hutto. This is her experience of a day in Salvador, Brazil with her camera. It’s a reminder that there are times that we need to put down the camera and see the world through our own eyes. – Michael Tieso
I snapped a photo of round Brazilian women with rounder costume skirts as they swayed to the tunes of a steel drum band posted behind them. Their palms were as sweaty as their upper red-tinted lips when they tied colorful ribbons around my wrists. These souvenirs, called fitas in Portuguese, are symbols of Brazillian pride, and often given to newcomers as a symbol of reception.
I would only be in Salvador for a few days, and I was already losing time in photographing the journey. I fancied myself to be like the National Geographic photographers that I admired, on a mission to expose human truth through dramatic images of daily life in distant places. I was always impressed at the raw emotion they managed to capture, wishing that I could emulate their masterpieces.
My eyes scanned in all directions for potential shots; every person I passed was my new subject. I could see them now on glossy paper with my byline underneath.
I missed the photo op of the horseback rider flying a kite in the middle of the Bahia highway; our tour bus zipped past him before I could adjust the aperture to capture him with proper light. I disappointedly slouched back in my cushy seat. Forty fellow travelers and myself headed to Saramandaia, a favela, or “slum,” community, where residents lined the narrow dirt roads and peeked out their broken windows to catch a glimpse of our colossal transportation. Our bus took up the entire road; no pedestrian could have passed it in the slim lane, let alone any other type of vehicle.
As we traveled further into the town, though, I didn’t spot any cars lining the dusty street. Not one. And a local bus line or train was out of the question in this rustic area. In fact, I wondered how often, if ever, these folks ventured past their town lines. Our transit was physically intrusive on the tiny roads, and I pondered whether the curious faces in the windows felt put off by the assembly of tourists about to occupy the streets, just the way the bus had.
When I stepped off the air-conditioned tour bus into the thick blistering heat my camera lens promptly fogged, once again preventing me from creating my famous travel magazine portfolio. I used my clean white sleeve to wipe the lens, scanning for potential shots as I worked. This town was a photographer’s dream. It had been transformed into a canvas; loopy letters and bright, animated faces covered every visible space. I became curious as to who had marked the ubiquitous graffiti.
The spray-painted artwork was as rich as the colors of the red, gold and green ribbons on my wrists. It portrayed drummers and boxers that could have jumped off the walls and into real life at any moment. I got stuck at one wall mural, falling behind the crowd and shooting every angle that I could.
The mural’s background was brilliant turquoise with detailed green leaflets scattered across. Deep green and grey curvy lines defined the shapes of the leaves. I turned my lens to capture a skewed angle as a young boy ran in front of me. I switched the screen to view the digital photo again. His innocent-looking face appeared in the lower corner of the shot. Did he create this masterpiece? Did he live behind the wall it covered? I let the camera hang around my neck while I considered these questions.
I followed his little feet, covered with a combination of scrapes and dirt streaks, down the potholed street. He ran through piles of garbage, metal scraps and human waste. The scent of urine permeated my nose. I scanned his feet up to his head; his skeletal legs and arms matched the bodies of the crowd of children he joined at the end of the road.
My group followed the children. They guided us through the gates of their school, which also sported the colorful paintings. Inside the gates, they picked up their drums and circled around us to play. These talented youngsters could play music like pros. Roaring beats and soft vibrations resonated back and forth in the school’s courtyard – it was both gentle and powerful, and incredibly compelling. I had to record this. I kneeled down low to capture their faces head-on. I took action shots of rapid mallets beating and maracas shaking.
While I crouched at their feet, I wondered if I seemed weird, or maybe even intimidating. I was much older and taller than any of the kids. I looked significantly different. I didn’t even speak their language. If an anonymous person desired to take my photograph, I might ask them what they were doing, or what they might use the image for. I might even cower away from the camera intrusion. These kiddos kept smiling though, so I kept shooting.
After the flawless performance, we met the music teachers, who also instruct the children in boxing, acrobatics, dancing, drumming and painting. They revealed to us that Saramandaia kids historically murdered each other. Many of them grew up as orphans on the street. A lack of education or any type of routine allowed them to run wild. Without guidance or activity, they turned to rage and violence. A group of locals began a nonprofit organization to combat this brutality, transforming their habits through music, athletics and artwork. Now these adolescents perform concerts and literally paint the town.
Maybe that little boy with filthy feet did paint those green leaflets.
We left the school to continue our walking tour of the favela. Outside the schoolhouse, the intense sun bounced off a tin roof and glared into my face. I blocked it with my hand, looking up to see a woman’s face under that battered roof behind a ripped curtain.
This was my Kodak moment; this young woman belonged on the cover of a magazine. Through floating dust and dirt I saw she held a baby at each hip. Above her, tattered clothing similar to the rags draped off her emaciated body hanged to dry. The bars in her window cast deep shadows across her bronze face, which looked exhausted, even decrepit. I had caught her in a moment of fatigue, and from her expression what I concluded was despair.
When she saw me, her eyes darted downward. Worried wrinkles creased on her forehead. She pressed her lips together. Her entire body stiffened.
It was then that I realized that my presence with my camera in this town was about as big as that massive tour bus. I held up my wrist to reveal the colorful ribbons sparkling in the sunlight. Those fitas represented a warm welcome into this land. I looked around me at dancing and singing children, still buzzing from their recital. They’d welcomed me, also, with a prepared performance.
The woman tending to her child above had made no gesture to welcome me. She was unprepared for my surveillance. And she certainly hadn’t invited me, or my camera, into her home, even if it was through a second story window.
The stranger above tended to her two babies, children who very well could have been on these dirty, once dangerous, streets with weaponry in their tiny hands. She wiped the face of one, ran her fingers through the hair of another, and then glared down at me somberly. My shoulders sank, and my well-fed, tall frame seemed to submerge into the dust I stood in. Even though it couldn’t murder anyone, I had a weapon in my hands as well.
I grabbed the camera separating this woman and myself. I smiled sheepishly up at her and took a step backward. I stored the device into my bag and put the lens cap on; I decided to use my eyes instead.