Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Copacabana Palace

Copacabana Palace, I learn from the introduction, is the best known hotel in Rio de Janeiro. Yet this is not what this work is about. It is about a never completed housing project on the western outskirts of Rio that is also called Copacabana Palace. "More than 1000 people – 'sem teto, sem terra' – without roof or land – live here in very difficult circumstances and in extreme poverty, threatened by violence and disease".

The pictures, photographer Peter Bauza writes, were taken over a period of eight months. He also notes that in the beginning it wasn't easy to go about this project  he first had to earn the trust of the block leaders. Eventually, he became part of the place, otherwise these pictures could not have been taken.

Flipping through the pages of this classical coffee table book that consists of 200 pages of photographs and one page (actually three pages, one in English, one in German, and one in Portuguese) of textual background information, I'm often not really sure what to think of it. I mean: Why should I look at, for instance, a completely run-down neighbourhood, the shittiest of living circumstances or sleeping people?

I know, I know, photographers are also voyeurs (and the ones who look at photographs often are too) yet it doesn't feel right to look at, say, a blurred photo of a couple making love as part of a documentary project. To be able to take such photographs is not a good enough reason to actually take and publish them. So why am I shown these pictures?
"Anyone who goes there first notices the stench, a mix of sewer, swamp and burnt rubbish. Between the six buildings you come across dead animals, bags of faeces, discarded plastic toys and, every so often, heaps of old rubbish", Peter Bauza writes.

He was most impressed by the resident's will to survive. Most photographs, however, do not show that. Well, how could they anyway? To me, the vast majority of the pictures show more hopelessness than hope.

It goes without saying that the publisher sees this differently. "Peter Bauza's superbly perceptive pictures form a highly poetic tale of their lives, their everyday moments of joy and sadness, their needs and illusions, but also of beauty and strength and the co-existence community that has emerged in these precarious circumstances."
To me, the most convincing pictures are the portraits on the pull-out page in the middle of the book. Here it is clear that there was some collaboration between photographer and the ones portrayed. These people, although they posed, don't look like they want to please. And, that is pretty rare, I think.

Peter Bauza
Copacabana Palace
Edition Lammerhuber, Baden, Austria 2016

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