Once in a long while, photographers have assignments that follow them -- and sometimes haunt them -- for the rest of their lives. Gordon Parks, one of the twentieth century's greatest photo-essayists, produced at least two of these stories. One involved the Fontenelles, an impoverished family in New York's Harlem. The other concerned another poor family, the da Silvas, who lived in Catacumba, one of Rio de Janeiro's many favelas, and especially the family's remarkable eldest son, 12-year-old Flavio. The story appeared in the 16 June 1961 issue of Life magazine as "Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty."
Life, 16 June 1961. [Click on any of the images to see larger versions.]
Parks vividly remembered the first time he saw Flavio. He described the scene in Voices in the Mirror, an autobiography:
"Breathing hard, balancing a tin of water on his head, a small boy climbed toward us. He was miserably thin, naked but for filthy denim shorts. ... Death was all over him, his sunken eyes, cheeks and jaundiced coloring. He stopped for a breath, coughing, his chest heaving as water slopped over his bony shoulders. Then jerking sideways like a mechanical toy, he smiled a smile that I will never forget."
Parks had flown to Brazil with instructions from his editors at Life "to find an impoverished father with a family, to examine his earnings, political leanings, religion, friends, dreams and frustrations." Having spotted Flavio, Parks' journalistic instincts took over. "This frail boy bent under his load said more to me about poverty than a dozen poor fathers."
Life, 16 June 1961.
Parks' intuition that Flavio could carry the weight of a photo-essay was absolutely correct. But he didn't anticipate how deeply it would challenge him -- as a journalist and a as human being -- and how profoundly it would affect the da Silvas.
Although Parks had grown up poor, he had never known squalor. And his family was resilient. Neither poverty nor racism had broken his parents' pride. Rio was different, and so were the da Silvas:
"...Pockets of poverty in New York's Harlem, on Chicago's south side, in Puerto Rico's infamous El Fungito seemed to pale by comparison. None of them had prepared me for this one in the favela of Catacumba."
The dynamics within the da Silva troubled him even more. He wrote in his diary: "Their mother doesn't have time to give [the children] the love they need -- and the father seems incapable."
Parks spent nearly a month working on the story. It obsessed him. He took to spending some of his nights in the da Silva's shack.
In the end, he knew that the images that he had made were the raw material of a powerful photo-essay. But it almost never saw the light of day. Life's editors decided that they didn't want to run an entire essay on one favela family. As Parks told it, "...In the layout approved by the managing editor, one photograph of Flavio da Silva, lying ill, was juxtaposed against a lady of extreme wealth from Rio de Janeiro. Despair struck when I saw it...."
Life, 16 June 1961.
It's not hard to imagine the emotions that coursed through Parks' veins. Despair, yes, but also frustration and fury. It was time to take a stand, time to walk out the magazine's door. He drafted a letter of resignation:
"...To use one photograph of a dying boy juxtaposed against one of some socialite is, to my thinking, a journalistic travesty. You will, perhaps, think I am out of my senses. At this point I probably am. Nevertheless, I feel that I can no longer work here. With regret, I offer my resignation."
This might have been the end of what was already an impressive career, but fate, in the form of American anti-communism, intervened.
"In a New York Times article," Parks wrote Voices in a Mirror, "Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, warned that 'if our government didn't give immediate and sizable aid to the poor of Latin America, Communism would surely spread rapidly throughout the hemisphere.'" Politics changed Life's agenda (as it often did). "We were in," Parks wrote. "Flavio's story was rescheduled...."
Life's text (to which Jose Gallo, the Brazilian reporter with whom Parks worked and Parks himself probably contributed) followed Dean Rusk's logic to a large extent:
""The anguish which poverty inflicts is cruel and varied -- statistics cannot convey its accumulated torments and degradations. But poverty always has a human face. ...The plight of the da Silvas, seen as individuals, evokes human compassion. Viewed historically, their condition and that of other hopeless millions in Latin America, spell sharp danger -- and an economic challenge to the free world. For the most part clustered in... dislocated city slums, the teeming poor are a ripe field for Castroist and Communist political exploitation."
Life, 16 June 1961.
But the magazine balanced political calculus with compassion: "A figure of Christ looms above the mounting zigzag of shacks which comprise the favela where Jose and Nair da Silva live with their eight children. The statue seems to brood not only upon the favela's hunger and disease but on the sunny elegance of Copacabana Beach and the gleaming villas of Rio beyond the hill."
Parks understood that Flavio was the da Silva family's moral center, something that both his photographs and Life's text reflect:
The elder da Silva's, the magazine told its readers, "are beaten people. In the family the spark of hope and warmth and care which keeps life going comes from the boy Flavio. ...at 12 he is already old with worry. In the tormented, close world of the shack, assailed by the needs and complaints of his sisters and brothers who are always a little hungry, he fight a losing battle against savagery and disorder."
Life, 16 June 1961.
At Life, subtlety was never a virtue. This dictum applied to its photos and layout as much at to its text. The magazine's writers, editors, and designers did everything they could to mask the inherent ambiguity of the photograph and to impose a single, easily legible meaning. Life's photographers, on the whole, shared magazine's aesthetics, if not its politics.
The photos that appeared in "Freedom's Fearful Foe" -- selected from among the hundreds that Parks made while he was with the da Silvas -- show him at his most insistent and least ambiguous. They emphasize the dirt, deprivation, and hopelessness of the favela. Throughout, Flavio is described and depicted as Christ-like in his love and sacrifice for his family, and in his suffering. In the spread above, he's seen (on the right), ill and possibly dying, in a pose that mimics the Crucifixion and that echoes the posture of the corpse in the photo on the opposite page.
Yet Flavio is not the Redeemer. He is, as we shall see, the (potentially) redeemed.
Life, 16 June 1961.
For neither the first nor the last time in his career, Parks formed a close and enduring bond with his subjects. His editors sensed this and understood that excerpts from his diary would add to the article's emotional punch. This was the first time that his words appeared in the magazine, and it marked the beginning of his emergence as a writer as well as a photographer. Over the next decade, the Life essays that he both wrote and photographed made him one of the nation's most important interpreters of African-American politics and culture.
His diary entries underscore the intensity of his involvement with the da Silvas:
"April 7: This was the day I had promised the trip to Copacabana Beach. When I arrived this morning at 7, Flavio and Mario were already waiting at the entrance to the favela, waving and jumping excitedly. They had made no attempt to dress up so the dirt from the day before still covered their bodies. Excepting for soiled, tattered pants, they were naked. I started to suggest their tidying up a bit but their eagerness had got the better of me. They scrambled into the back seat and pleaded for us to go."
Life, 16 June 1961.
Parks also found himself musing the impact his encounter with Flavio would have on the boy. He wasn't a fortune-teller, but his words were prophetic.
"March 24: Flavio was daydreaming when I arrived today -- looking out over the shacks, past the football field, the lake, and the great white buildings. Though he is 12 he has never been across the small lake to downtown Rio. None of the kids has -- not even to Rio's famous Copacabana Beach, which is only 10 minutes from the bottom of their miserable world. I have promised Flavio to take him there. Maybe one trip outside will give him the added incentive to someday get out of this. I may create a longing impossible to fulfill, but I think it is worth the gamble."
When the story appeared, the response from Life's readers was instantaneous and overwhelming. Somehow, some way, they wanted to help the da Silva's. And they were particularly concerned with the fate of Flavio.
Five weeks after Parks' essay appeared, Flavio was back in the pages of Life. In fact, he was on the cover.
"Three weeks ago Flavio da Silva, 12, lived in a Rio de Janeiro hovel, wasted by malnutrition and bronchial asthma, with only a few years to live. Today he is in Colorado, and his smile, his new clothes, his Hopalong Cassidy watch flopping down his skinny wrist and his chance to live -- all are the work of hundreds of generous, compassionate Americans. They saw and read of Flavio in Life's photographic essay, 'Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty," where he symbolized the enormous problems of Latin America's impoverished millions. Touched by Flavio's plight and bravery, Americans took up the cause. Letters and money poured in. The Children's Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver offer to take Flavio as a free emergency case and try to cure him. Photographer Gordon Parks, who did the original story, went to Rio to bring Flavio back."
Life used contributions from its readers to move the da Silvas out of their shack in Catacumba and into a house in a solid, working-class neighborhood. In the midst of the self-congratulation, however, the magazine sounded a note of caution.
"...in molding human lives, money cannot finish what it begins. The da Silvas will have to build on their miracle, not lapse into dependency. And a well, happy Flavio does not solve the problems he dramatizes. Life's readers... all recognize that Flavio is just one in a numberless multitude. But his story can be a catalyst... and bring on the massive help and change... to the many who so desperately need it."
Life, 21 July 1961. [On the right, Gordon Parks and Flavio at Rio's airport, leaving Brazil for Denver.]
Life was right to be cautious. The da Silva's seeming bounty was hard on everyone, including their neighbors in the favela. Embarrassed by Life's article, the Brazilian government bulldozed Catacumba shortly after Parks' essay appeared in print. It provided no new housing for the displaced residents, and they were scattered to the four winds.
Things were no easier for Flavio. Many years later, he told Parks about the mixture of excitement, sadness, and dread that he felt when he left his family and landed in the United States. In Voices in the Mirror, Parks recorded his words:
"Things were so strange, the language and everything. I didn't know if I would ever see my sister and brothers again. They kept putting me in rooms with strange-looking machines with all kinds of lights blinking. It was scary. The doctor from Argentina thought we could talk together, but he couldn't understand me and I couldn't understand him. ...It was crazy -- just crazy."
After two years in the Denver hospital, Flavio returned to Rio healthy, but thoroughly Americanized. No longer feeling Brazilian and longing to returned to the United States, he didn't fit in with his peers and was expelled from the boarding school that Life arranged for him to attend. After a number of false starts, he gave up on school altogether.
As an adult, Flavio's lingering physical weakness and lack of an education made finding work difficult. But he always held a job and kept himself and, eventually, his wife and children out of dire poverty.
He also stayed in touch with Parks. The two men saw each other for the last time, in 1976, when Parks returned to Rio for a visit. He found the da Silva's still living in the house that Life purchased for them. It was filthy, however, and the family was again very poor.
Flavio, who lived nearby with his own family, was doing better. Yet he still longed to return to America. He implored Parks to "[p]lease help me do this. In America I can live better and do something good for my family. I feel like an animal in a trap here." Realistically, there was little that Parks could do for him.
A little over twenty years after that last encounter, Michael Astor of the Associated Press interviewed Flavio. The story ran in the Los Angeles Times as "Poverty Reclaims Flavio, a Brazilian Made Famous by Life Magazine.
Astor reported that "[t]ime and disappointment have worn deep wrinkles into Flavio's face, but he holds little bitterness. He takes comfort from the Bible -- he belongs to one of the evangelical Christian sects popular in Rio's poor neighborhoods -- and picks up the odd construction job when he can. 'At least, here [my family is] separated from the multitudes,' Flavio says. 'Look, someone who was all ready to die and now is alive through an effort that was really incredible.... It's difficult to arrive at an easy conclusion about that.'"
Astor also spoke with Parks, who, he wrote, "has few regrets." "If I saw him tomorrow in the same conditions," Parks told him, "I would do the whole thing over again."
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Parks talks about Flavio in the clip below, which is from a 1970s documentary about Life's photographers. It's worth a listen.
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Postscript: In 1978, Parks published Flavio. As the book's title suggests, it's about his long involvement in the lives of Flavio and his family. It's out of print, but easy to find in libraries and in second-hand bookstores. A while back, Life's website featured a short piece about "Freedom's Fearful Foe" that's notable for including an interview with Bobbie Baker Burrows, a former Life editor who was also one of Parks' close friends. You can read it here.
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