Olympic Favela – Marc Ohrem-Leclef

Olympic Favela – Marc Ohrem-Leclef


The World Cup is a mere penalty shoot-out away, and we are all aflutter with excitement. However, beyond the rowdy songs and shouting of the stadiums, there is the tragedy of mass evictions from the favelas of Brazil, which have been co-ordinated in order to build the infrastructure for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Brooklyn based photographer Marc Ohrem-Leclef travelled to Brazil, and documented the people displaced by construction in the cities. He has collated the photography into the incredible tome, Olympic Favela, which has been published by Damiani, and is available for purchase on the website, olympicfavela.com.

The forced eviction issue was first brought to your attention during the Beijing Olympics. What coverage in the media, or elsewhere, really spoke to you?

I can’t even remember how I heard of the evictions in Beijing, or from what source specifically. I don’t remember seeing images of those evictions and demolitions, maybe they did not even exist in a place with such tightly controlled media coverage.

The fact that historic, functioning neighborhoods were razed, and people forced to move away – all that to make way for new infrastructure projects for the Games struck me like such an incredible oxymoron and quite frankly an expression of arrogance by those few who profit from hosting the games, and a missed chance to integrate the ‘existing’ into the ‘new’. I am drawn to places where ‘history’ is palpable and breathes it’s spirit into the presence, so the eradication of it – and the human toll I imagined – are what I remembered.

You had already been to Rio on other projects – how did you feel that the atmosphere in the city had changed?

When I had been to Rio previously it was for commercial jobs, with tight production schedules and lots of work. So my impressions of Rio were mostly of superficial nature: it’s natural beauty and the beauty of its people, paired with an edge of constant danger (once a production bus broke down close to Ciudade de Deus, a very large favela where City Of God was eventually filmed, and our Brazilian producer was terrified; she instructed all white people to stay inside the bus until a replacement vehicle arrived to take us away, for fear we would be recognized as foreigners. So to be frank, there never was enough time to really feel the spirit of the city and thus any comparison I could make to the city nowadays would be rather superficial. But I knew just enough of the long history of the many favelas sprinkled all over Rio, and their role as an integral, if complicated, part in Rio de Janeiro as a whole, to understand what it would mean to begin removing them from the city.


What were the most affecting moments for you in the Favela?

During the weeks we spent in the favelas, me and my guide Cafe had long conversations with all the residents in order to establish a sense of trust and explain what I was was trying to do with my images, and how they could possibly help them communicate their situation to the outside world. Hearing their stories, of their lives, families and their fight to keep the homes they have made and built over the years was both beautiful and saddening. Once they understood my approach to their plight, they were generous towards me with their time and how they allowed me into their lives. The biggest surprise for me was, that – even when resisting the city government in a very uneven fight – most residents remained somehow optimistic and hopeful and displayed a deep-seated warmth. Aside the contrast of Rio’s natural beauty, with many favelas offering amazing views of the city, and the dire situation many residents find themselves in while living in under-served communities that still are very much dangerous places, it was that spirit that was unexpected and beautiful. It was the most beautiful experience, and it made the biggest impression on me.

How did you develop a rapport with the favela community, especially considering the inherent dangers?

Most of my research from NYC had been into historic background and into possible partners on the ground in Rio, who could help me establish a positive and productive, and safe way to connect with residents in the affected favelas. I found one such partner in a small local NGO (after being turned down by a few others) who appreciated my approach to creating a portrait project in lieu of news-type photography covering scenes of evictions. They connected us with community leaders who would welcome and introduce us to their neighbours. Once that introduction was made, we always felt very welcome. It really came down to a positive approach, and I was lucky to have found a great local in my guide Cafe, who knew how to communicate my ideas well. The initial distrust we faced regularly, especially given the recent push to evict people form their neighbourhoods and resettle them on the outskirts of Rio, was at times immense. Imagine a white guy showing up with a big camera in his hand, asking to take photos of people who are afraid of media-exposure in a neighbourhood where the city has employed various tactics to get people to abandon their homes and are actively aiming to erode the community… On a return trip to Rio I brought many small prints for the people I had photographed previously. They were happy to receive the photos, some ran up and down the street to show them to all their neighbours – it was quite gratifying and beautiful, and this kind of small gesture goes a long way to further the relationship.


The torches in some of the imagery are incredibly powerful. What do they signify?

Thank you. I had been interested in imagery of liberation, protest and defiance when I began the work on Olympic Favela. My research into what type of symbols and gestures have the biggest common denominator, both geographically and historically, led me to the raised arm and fist. Whether it holds a flag, sword, or light – it is a powerful gesture of the acts of both liberation and defiance. Seeing how the symbolism of the celebratory Olympic torch is related to those ideas and to the issue of evictions in Rio, I decided to propose a series of directed images that embody this aspect in my project. At first it was almost a surprise to experience how well the concept I had come up with in Brooklyn resonated with the residents – but to see them in this moment of empowerment was both beautiful and an explanation why they wanted to be photographed holding the torches.

How did you find and choose your subjects? Who was resistant to having their photo taken, or particularly eager?

Some of my subjects are the community leaders, many others we found just walking around and letting the activity in the neighbourhoods drive us. As with any project that is essentially based on street-photography, very little of any plan can actually be realised. While choosing who to photograph, especially with the torch-images which were costly to make, I did have a certain representative mix of residents in mind. Only very few residents refused to have their images taken – some only agreed the next day, or after hours of talking to them. As I have found in most places I have worked in, the children are most eager to be photographed – but while they are of course affected as well, Olympic Favela is a story of struggle led by their parents, uncles and aunts, and grandparents, so I was conscious to focus on adults. I realise there are many realities and factors at play in Rio de Janeiro right now – as an artist I have to focus on one expression of the events that touches me most. While I was trying to include officials from the city-government in the project in a effort to include a representation of the “other side”, I was very conscious to give most room to the people who have not been heard and included in the planning stages in the run-up to the World Cup and Olympic Games. Not surprisingly, most city official declined to be photographed. And interestingly, only Major Pricila of Rio’s Military Police, which plays an important role in the ‘pacification’ process in the favelas in order to make the city safer from gangs engaging in drugs- and arms-trade ahead of the mega-events, agreed to be photographed. Her portrait is an important element within Olympic Favela.


Have any of the participants seen the completed project? If they have, how did they react?

They have not yet seen the completed project, other than those images I had brought back for them to have. I cannot wait to show the work locally and am actively working on plans with a curator to find the most efficient way to bring the work to Brazil and to Rio. My first effort, long before I received book-offers, was to make use of the images through a grant with the Soros-Foundation locally to help the residents communicate their needs better by way of creating a public campaign. Sadly I did not receive the grant, but the book has already sparked a wonderful conversation about this issue brought on by the mega-events in Rio, and in general.

How does fine art photography of a social issue differ to news-footage, in practical terms?

It differs in that I bring my own history and perspective into the visualization more extensively, and make certain decisions on how to deal with and find ways to represent the social issue. Thus it becomes more interpretive, and possibly more selective. I do not let the events drive my work wholly, but I use the events as an opportunity to create a discourse to tell the story – in my case the ideas of ‘home’ and ‘community’, and the ways how certain communities form under certain circumstances, are recurring themes in my work.


What would you like the legacy of this project to be?

Legacy – a big word. In a way the legacy I’d hope for has in some small way has already begun, when I received messages form people as far away as India, Uganda, Honduras, Brazil, France and many more, during the Kickstarter campaign (to help with cost associated with production of the book) and the press coverage my images have garnered. Many people thank me for educating them through my work, and for creating a new conversation about what mega-events do, what they could and should do. If Olympic Favela can be a part of the awareness that promotes change to the way mega-events like the Olympic Games, which in essence and in spirit are a wonderful and joyous celebration of togetherness, that would be a wonderful legacy. In terms of my artistic practice, I loved how a recent review of Olympic Favela by Jonas Cuenin, in L’oeil de la Photographie, put it: “While Marc Ohrem-Leclef … may not be the best documentary photographer in the traditional sense, we can only praise his approach. Or perhaps we should accept that representing misfortune by kindness is a perfectly honest perspective to take. The one that emerges from many photographs here is the complicit relationship the photographer formed with his subjects, eschewing the ease of despair to pave the way for empathy through close contact.”