In the run up to both the World Cup and the Olympic Games 2016 hosting city Rio De Janeiro has come under increased scrutiny. While millions are being spent to update the city’s infrastructure and amenities, a darker side to the development has come to light as these sporting events shield what has come to be known as ‘social cleansing’, whereby tens of thousands of favela dwellers are being driven from their homes to the city’s periphery.
This social unrest struck a chord with photographer Marc Ohrem-Leclef, who had witnessed a similar situation in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. Armed with only a camera and a sense of justice, Marc’s latest project, OLYMPIC FAVELA documents the changing face of Rio’s favelas, and more importantly, the plight faced by their inhabitants.
WHY DID YOU WANT TO DOCUMENT THIS PROJECT, WHY WAS IT CLOSE TO YOUR HEART?
I became aware of the issue of forced evictions for the first time as a result of a sporting mega-event during the preparations for the Beijing Olympics. The general idea of the paradox of destroying historic neighbourhoods and displacing the residents for an event that historically is meant to unite people, that impressed me, and stuck with me.
Ultimately the project was an exploration of my recurring discourse of what ‘home’ is for me, where it is located and which elements build what we call ‘home’. My work in OLYMPIC FAVELA is 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.
So when I heard about similar events taking place in Rio, I began specifically researching the policies of evictions as enforced by the government and the concept of “pacification” of the favelas. Having been to Rio to shoot for commercial clients a few times, I felt a direct connection to the events and felt drawn to research the singular reports existing in early 2012.
THE UPCOMING OLYMPICS AND WORLD CUP HAS TRANSFORMED RIO, WHAT HAVE BEEN THE POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES OF THIS?
This of course is a loaded question and how it is answered depends greatly on who you ask. I think that many issues that mega-events bring to their host cities due to the nature of their size and commercial aspect are universally acknowledged to be very complicated. While urban development is in every citizen’s interest, the fact that time to build infrastructure for these events is very limited leads to planning ‘from the top down’ without properly involving all the groups of citizens affected by those changes. And therein lies the biggest potential for failure of the mega-events – improving the lives of a majority of citizens on the local level.
YOUR BOOK DOCUMENTS THE PEOPLE LIVING IN FAVELAS THAT HAVE BEEN FORCED FROM THEIR HOMES – WHAT IS THEIR OPINION OF THE CHANGES HAPPENING IN THE CITY?
My portraits are of residents threatened by schemes of evictions, and of those already evicted. Both groups are deeply unsettled, and the sense of being powerless is pervasive. However, many residents have learned how to protect themselves more efficiently through legal means recently. The recent attention to the issue of evictions by the international press has certainly helped greatly in exposing the governments’ shortcomings in adhering to existing laws protecting favela dwellers. So the emotions on their part range from devastation to hopeful – the beauty in making OLYMPIC FAVELA really was to discover that there is a strong sense of hope. It certainly took a lot of talking and explaining the goal of my work to be able to win the residents’ trust, make a connection with them, and finally portray them.
WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES OF SHOOTING THIS BOOK? AND DID YOU FACE ANY PREJUDICE FROM PEOPLE LIVING IN THE FAVELAS?
I didn’t really face prejudice, the biggest challenge was the “way in” which was the most crucial part of my research.
Many of my requests to NGOs in Rio, which seemed like the most likely possible partner with connections to affected people, were left unanswered but I then established positive communication with a small local NGO. They appreciated the fact that my focus was going to be portraiture, not news-type photographs of the evictions. So with their help I was connected with local community leaders. My guide and translator Cafe and I would meet outside the favelas, then walk into the communities with them. They introduced us to residents, and we began a slow process of explaining carefully who we are, and what I was trying to do by photographing people who were threatened with evictions, or had already been evicted.
AND WHAT DO THE REST OF THE PEOPLE OF THE CITY THINK, ARE THEY AWARE OF THE IMPACT THE DEVELOPMENT IS HAVING ON THE FAVELAS?
The large scale protests sweeping all major cities in Brazil since last summer have shown that there are many citizens across various classes that are frustrated with government overspending for the events, while education, healthcare and transportation lack investment badly needed. While “favelados” are still very much stigmatised in Brazilian society, there are common problems and goals which in the future may lead to a greater sense of ‘community’ across class-lines.
WHAT DO YOU THINK COULD BE DONE TO MAKE THE CITY’S DEVELOPMENT MORE PEACEFUL FOR ALL INHABITANTS, NOT JUST THOSE OUTSIDE THE FAVELA LINES?
This is very difficult for me to answer – I am not a scholar of urban development. but I think there are obvious things to not do, like using force against your own citizens on the large scale the city government in Rio has, instead of involving them in the planning. I had to focus my work on one of many facets the events present, one that spoke to me as an artist and human being.
RIO IS A TURBULENT CITY, WHAT CHANGES DO YOU THINK THE UPCOMING WORLD CUP AND OLYMPIC GAMES WILL BRING TO THE CITY OVERALL?
We’ll have to wait and see. For all the people that I photographed I hope that they can celebrate the events on their terms once they begin. Until then, many of them will surely keep fighting against unfair treatment by city officials.
WHAT IS THE NEXT PROJECT YOU PLAN TO WORK ON, AND WILL YOU REVISIT ANY PROJECTS IN RIO ANY TIME SOON?
I hope to be back in Rio soon to share the work with the people I photographed, and to show the work in a local gallery. Once an intense project like OLYMPIC FAVELA is made, I never quite say goodby to the people and places that are so present in my mind, and heart. In the meantime, I will start thinking about a project in South East Asia that I had been planning on for a long time, before I got captured by OLYMPIC FAVELA, and side-tracked, of sorts.
Support OLYMPIC FAVELA, a photography book by Marc Ohrem-Leclef, to be published by DAMIANI in summer 2014, on Kickstarter now : http://kck.st/1k8UiGq