I first talked with Christian Tragni after seeing his photos of young men in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro with their masks and guns and plastic sacks of coke. Knowing as much as a I knew then about how the drug gangs work, I asked him how he was able to get so close–because everything about the images showed that he had developed a rapport with the people in the images, at least on some level–certainly much more than the average person who is unfamiliar with daily favela life. Of course, the guys wore the masks, they didn’t want to get into trouble with their bosses or with the law. But the thing is they’re acting just like guys. Despite the masks, their body language tells us their completely at ease. Granted, that might have just been those particular guys, on that particular day. But now, familiar as I am with his body of work, I don’t think so. But, besides the context of his other images, I’m pretty sure they were at ease with him and I’ll tell you why.
That first time I wrote to Christian and asked him about those pictures of traficantes–I asked, How he got so close? Was he safe? I don’t know the exact questions but I know that behind them was some of the same fear and suspicion I’ve run into a million times since–what he said was, “you just have to be honest.” I doubt he even remembers that, but it changed my life. That much of what he said, I can quote. The rest I’ll have to paraphrase. He told me just let them know who you are and why you are there and they’ll be cool with you. Just be honest.
It’s funny that such a simple, common sense principle could be revolutionary. But it is. I doubt most people would have enough confidence in it to even put it to the test. Just be honest. Be a person. Be a guy. Let them be what they are: people like you.
To some of us the life of poverty, life on the margins is unfamiliar and people fear what is unfamiliar. If we let it, that complex of emotions allows us to fear people who seem unfamiliar. It allows us to ignore their humanity–to avoid putting it on par with our own.
I almost didn’t do two things with this post: (1) I almost didn’t publish the images Christian sent me when I asked if I could feature his work. I’ve seen his other work and I almost asked for a new batch. Here at Favelissues, we typically don’t feature images dealing with drugs and violence because those things get covered plenty elsewhere, and because there is so much other material in favelas that also needs to be covered. But, also the images he sent me are scary. At least they were to me. (2) I almost didn’t use the title “Photojournalism by a guy” because I am aware that it might sound dismissive or even pejorative. It’s not.
The quality I appreciate most is the person-to-person frankness and familiarity of the images. Some of the images have a quality that approaches a sort of voyeurism. But it’s the sort that we’re all prone to–that looks as we pass an auto accident. That sort that knows the wisdom in the old cliche: there but for the grace of God go I. It’s the sort that sits side by side with an empathy we all must latch on to in the face of tragedy.
I mentioned that the images are scary. For me it isn’t the blood or the guns or the squalor. For me what is fundamentally frightening about these images is act of confronting distance: the distance that we kid ourselves into believing separates us from death; The distance that separates us senselessly from our fellow beings; The distance we feel when we’re afraid, sometimes for no good reason, of abandonment and isolation; The distance that grows out of disparities in our material circumstances. The distance that can be insurmountable if left to itself. If not confronted. It’s the uncertainty of that confrontation that’s scary. But the cure for that uncertainty is always empathy. The sort of empathy I see in Christian’s images.
And it’s that sense of empathy that made me use this batch of photos and call it what I did.
Sometimes when I’ve featured creative work, I’ve said, I hope you enjoy it. Well, I can tell you this time, you’re not going to. At least I hope not, for your sake. But also for your sake, don’t turn away. Allow Christian’s ability to capture a street scene like it’s your street wash over you and connect you to those places and those people the way he connects, person to person, with bravery and compassion. Closing that distance with fraternal familiarity. With honesty.