If you have not yet seen the seminal photo essay by the trail blazing African-American photographer Gordon Parks, you still have another week to do so before the exhibition departs for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, its only other stop in North America before it ends up at the Instituto Moreira Salles, in Rio de Janeiro. On a recent “curator’s tour” personally guided by Paul Roth, the backstory to this remarkable feat of photo journalism was unpacked in all of its cultural, economic and political complexity.
Originally published in Life magazine in 1961, where it was then entitled, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty”, the photographs detailed the life of the da Silva family who lived on a hillside favela that abutted the wealthy neighborhoods of Rio. In particular, Parks focussed his camera on young Flávio, a twelve year old boy who suffered from the debilitating effects of severe asthma and who lacked the financial resources to seek medical treatment. At the time of their meeting (Parks and Flávio), the chances of the boy’s survival were slim.
“You have to understand the political context of the period,” said Roth. “The Cuban Revolution had triumphed in 1959 and there was a rise in revolutionary movements throughout the region. Increasingly, the working class and poor people of Latin America did not see any future in capitalism and this worried the U.S. Department of State. So an all out propaganda campaign was waged through magazines like Life – who was known for it’s long photo essays on various subjects – to back organizations like the Alliance for Progress which had just been initiated by President John F. Kennedy as an alternative to the various socialist movements in countries throughout the region.”
The spread in Life was a great success, eliciting thousands of letters and nearly $30,000 USD (more than $250,000 today), sent to the da Silva family with the intention of bringing Flávio to the U.S. for medical treatment. In Brazil the opposite was the case. The story provoked great controversy with one major magazine dispatching a team of journalists to do a photo essay about poverty in America.
The exhibition runs until December 9th.