The poetry of Rio’s ‘Suppressed Favelas’

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While visiting Rio de Janeiro, photographer Matteo Bastianelli explored the city's infamous favelas

He observed the consequences of "pacification," a state security program designed to reduce crime

CNN  — 

When Italian photographer Matteo Bastianelli traveled to Rio de Janeiro in August, he wasn’t planning on visiting any of the city’s infamous slums, known as favelas.

But within a few days, he decided to explore a few of these vast microcosms and get a glimpse into the lives of some of Rio’s poorest residents and their complex relationship with the state’s security forces.

“It was my first time in Rio (and Brazil) and I was attending the screening of one of my documentary films that was in competition at a local film festival,” Bastianelli said. “I had heard a lot of stories about the favelas through television and the news. I’m a very curious person, so I decided to take a look for myself.”

During his trip, Bastianelli visited three favelas: Rocinha, Cantagalo and Pavao-Pavaozinho, as well as a squatter community that has sprouted near Jardim Gramacho, a former landfill that was shut down in 2012.

Photographer Matteo Bastianelli

“I wanted to discover this invisible city confined to these areas far away from the beach and sights of Rio,” Bastianelli said. “I’m not the type of photojournalist who typically covers news events; I follow the consequences of the event and study what remains.”

In the case of Rio, Bastianelli wanted to observe the consequences of “pacification,” a state security program designed to limit the reach of armed drug gangs by installing permanent police posts within the favelas where they typically operated. Launched in 2008, the strategy has been put in place in nearly 40 favelas and has received mixed reviews.

Many have credited the pacification program with reducing overall crime throughout the city. According to authorities, homicide rates have decreased by nearly 20% since the program was launched.

But others have criticized it for mostly benefiting the wealthier and touristy neighborhoods and accused it of being a temporary Band-Aid for a chronic security problem that has continued to weaken the relationship between the police and favela residents.

A recent Amnesty International report found Rio’s military police were responsible for 16% of the city’s homicides over the past five years. At least 100 police officers were also killed last year, state media reported. Inside the favelas, innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire in shootouts between officers and gangs.

For Bastianelli, it was important to gain the trust of both the favela’s residents and the police in order to show all sides. In addition to circling through the neighborhoods on foot, he also embedded with officers on the ground and accompanied them on patrol.

“It was surprising to be accepted so quickly by the people I was photographing. I don’t usually use zoom. I was working with a very small, fixed-lens camera that required them to see me right in front of them,” Bastianelli said. “Human relationships are the most important part of my pictures. It has to be personal.”

But not everyone accepted Bastianelli with open arms. On one occasion, he was approached by two young men with guns and asked to stop photographing. While they didn’t identify themselves as drug traffickers, he deduced that they were affiliated with one of the city’s powerful gangs.

“These boys must have been like 12 or 13 and tried to take my camera,” Bastianelli said. “I could tell we weren’t alone, since they were yelling at others who, up until that point, had been hidden to me. You can’t see them in plain sight, but you know the gangs still have a presence there.”

Much of Bastianelli’s body of work deals with housing issues, including his first 2003 reportage on the struggles of a homeless woman from his hometown of Velletri, about 40 kilometers from Rome. Most recently, he’s been following the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. He’s also made several documentary films, including “MaldiMare,” which he was screening during the festival in Brazil.

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    “When I was in Rio, it reminded me of a lot of the inequality that you see in the center of Rome,” Bastianelli said. “More importantly, I started to see myself in the faces of the people who were just living their daily lives inside the favela. The children walking to school, the people going to work; the ones who knew that, at any moment, someone could just walk by you with a gun.”

    Bastianelli said he hopes to return to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 to continue working on his project, which he has titled “Suppressed Favelas.”

    “There is a poetry to some of these places and images,” he said. “The most symbolic photograph for me was the one of the boy who climbed up on the lamppost because his kite got caught. … Kites are playful; they are meant to soar in the air. This one was tangled, much like the favela’s residents continue to be in Rio’s ongoing ‘war on drugs’ between the police and the gangs.”

    Matteo Bastianelli is a photographer and filmmaker based between Rome and Sarajevo, Bosnia. You can follow him on Facebook and Vimeo.