Interview by Régina Monfort
Peter Bauza is a German photographer within the documentary and storytelling world. After graduating in international commerce, he first pursued a career for an international company, which took him to several countries where he also developed his visual language. He is very committed to social and geopolitical issues related to conservation, global health, diminishing cultures, sustainability and the environment. He resides in South America and Europe now more than 20 years, frequently also traveling to Africa.
His life-long respect for multicultural viewpoints fueled by the fluency in five languages also afforded him opportunities.
His work "Copacabana Palace" won the 2017 World Press Photo 3rd prize for contemporary issues. Peter was awarded the POY Latam 2017 for daily life as well as the 2016 Visa D’or for features. He has received multiple awards and honorable mentions from American Photography, Hansel-Mieth, Latin American Fotografia, Los DIEZ by Epson, Px3 – Prix de la Photographie Paris, Days Japan, MIFA-Moscow International Photo Awards, and the IPA -International Photo Award, among others.
He is the author of the book "Copacabana Palace," sharing life with the Sem Teto, Sem Terra - without roof or land in Rio de Janeiro. Generally hidden from view, they represent the dark side of Brazil’s multibillion-dollar spending spree on global sporting events, financial/political and corruption crises.
What brought you to Copacabana Palace? Can you take us back to your first experience there?
In 2015, I started to work on a project about the changes on the Avenida Brasil, Rio de Janeiro. Inspired by photographers that have done works in Africa, I thought it would be a good idea to document the modernization of the old colonial infrastructure. I realized that I arrived too late. However, 26 km from Rio de Janeiro I noticed a strange building, covered in graffiti, surrounded by love motels and with no windows. Driven by curiosity I came face to face with the squatters.
I started to research about squatting, adequate housing, etc., and I found that I had uncovered an important topic, a hidden part of Brazil’s society.
Very quickly I noted that this first dwelling was important but would not represent the tremendous topic. I learnt about a place called “Jambalaya” or “Carandiru.” I had to search a long time to find it, hidden from our eyes, located on the outskirts of Campo Grande, 60 kilometers from all the beautiful beaches and the real five star hotel, Copacabana Palace.
When I first arrived at Jambalaya, in mid 2015, I was impressed by how so many people could live under such conditions. We talk very often about “bad favela life” but many of the favelas rely on energy, water and transportation infrastructure. This was a No Man’s land. No real infrastructure, no power, no water supply and many of the people with severe health issues. I realized that this story was important and could be representative for millions of other Brazilians living under similar conditions.
This was the beginning of my long-term project. I knew I had to stay and tell their story, the story of their challenges and needs, but also their joy, happiness and love. The ironical “Copacabana Palace” name was given after I found it scrawled on a dormitory wall as graffiti: a name that has been used later so often by the people.
A view of the six occupied buildings that make up the “Copacabana Palace” squatter complex. More than 300 families have been living here for the past 10 years. They live under extremely poor conditions, awaiting help from the official housing program called “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (My Home, My Life). 30 years ago, a Brazilian construction company OAS S.A., built this series of would-be condos designed for the middle-class in this area. Construction and financial problems left many of those buildings incomplete.
Were you ever challenged as an outsider? Was your intent as a documentarian ever tested? How did you justify your presence?
The beginning was not easy. The people thought that I wanted to do a short moneymaking story. Several television channels had been there in the past, for an hour or two, but never showed a deep or ongoing interest in their lives. I first met the leaders of the 6 blocks, who act as a kind of administrators and I explained what I had in mind: documenting their real life and bringing them out to the light, to the other part of the society. I tried to explain that showing their life and their daily challenges before the next upcoming Olympics could give them a name, a voice, an identity.
As soon as I was able to talk to the dwellers, many of them told me about their own individual situation. It was a tsunami of information.
At some point in your process, you moved into the complex. How long did you live there?
I was there nearly every week, several days per week. It was important to be constant on this topic. So, I decided to stay in an empty room. I also built up a tent in an occupied room and experienced myself how it is to be a squatter, without the basic necessities, like power, water and sanitation. I wanted to be as close as possible, to be one of them, knowing that only so would I be accepted. When I look at my series of photographs, I can see it took some time to get really close. Sharing my work, eating with them and talking with them brought me closer. I knew that if I showed that I was not afraid to share their burden, I would find their trust and confidence to open their doors and souls.
In the beginning, I often stayed there overnight. Later, I preferred to stay in the nearby cheap motel, to keep stuff and equipment safe, as well as to shower and to back-up my work. The project went over several months, from June 2015 until August 2016, when I came with several magazine writers for the publications.
A young father lives with his two boys in a small room of 15 m2 that was intended to be the machinery room for a lift.
What were the decisive relationships you formed?
I tried to search quickly for the leaders of the buildings. It was a great help to open doors and it was also a kind of protection. The militia knew that I was working there. They stayed hidden, but were informed about my movements. The leaders and some of their relatives became my trusted companions.
Your photographs are quite intimate; did you show them to the residents? If so, how were they received?
Yes, I always showed the residents what I was shooting. I definitely tried to avoid photographing weapons and extremely violent scenes, knowing that this could interrupt my work and stay there, immediately. I saw the “protection groups” and knew also, that I was not allowed to photograph them, as they advised me before through their channels. Everybody can imagine, that in such places, drugs, weapons and violence govern, so I decided to have this part only as a side dish inside the documentary.
Edilane and three of her seven children are resting on a mattress on the floor. She is pregnant with a boy. The official social housing program “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” provided her an apartment but drug gangs surround the area of her supposed new home beside a dangerous favela, #CidadedeDeus. She doesn’t want to expose her children and especially her oldest daughter, who is 14, to possible dangerous situations. So, she prefers to stay here and tries to negotiate with the government for a new home. Edilane is a strong woman and she never gives up. Her income is from small jobs and an in-house internet and video game facility that supplements the family’s monthly social services money. Families are entitled to receive monthly social help (bolsa familia) if the children are registered and attend public school regularly.
Did you find that, despite the extremely difficult living circumstances at Copacabana Palace, there existed a social cohesion that should be acknowledged?
Absolutely. The needs are big, the expectations as well, and this brings very often fights, tensions, jealousy and envy between the dwellers. Some of the people may, from time to time, have a better access to some little money and others suffer from extreme hunger. But when it comes to the distribution of housing within the buildings, the people defend their rights as a group.
Under the government of President Lula a social housing program was born. Every one with no economical backing was entitled to register and apply for Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life), a program based on low or no interest loans that subsidized housing possibilities. Up until last year, the government had distributed approximately 2.6 millions of these housing units. The list of registered people is endless and receiving housing is also a matter of luck. Politicians use this social housing program very often during elections, promising housing against votes. In the case of “Jambalaya/Copacabana Palace” many of the dwellers registered up to 5 times over periods ranging from 1 to 15 years.
"Duda" and her friend in the bedroom of an occupied building.
In our first and brief conversation, you referred to the late Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's raw and eloquent language and how your feel it resonates with what you have witnessed at Copacabana Palace. Please explain.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book “One hundred years of solitude” inspired me a lot. Allow me to refer to something I wrote:
“ The thread between life and death is noticeably gossamer thin and the transience is noticeably near. It makes me afraid. Whether it is the death of a neighbor's horse that was kept in the building through the bitter poison of bee stings, or the death of the emaciated three-month-old baby from nearby, it is clear to me that I am a long way from quickly understanding this life in the "modern Macondo" — the fictitious village in the story by Gabriel Marquez. That initially paradisiacal place that lay only a small step away from the light of the gloss, protection, and the hand of rescue. Copacabana Palace, Carandiru, or "Jambalaya" is this place in which people's fates, dreams, nightmares, longings, hopes, and discoveries seem to be repeated once again.”
I think about Fatima, one of the first and oldest inhabitants, a good and helpful soul, a kind-hearted person, emaciated by illnesses, just skin and bone, and about her statement:
“We are here despite all the problems, conflicts and miseries of a society. When it comes down to it we stick together. Moving into social housing means being torn apart from one another."
What could be closer to Marquez quote:
“They were so close to each other that they preferred death to separation.”
Fatima, who has lived 18 years in these squatter places, registered herself already 5 times during the social housing program campaign for a better home and roof, before presidential and communal elections.
Do you see Copacabana Palace as a microcosm of the large homelessness and poverty crisis in Brazil?
Copacabana Palace is a reflection of one part of the darker side of Brazil. The project is representative for millions of Brazilian under similar conditions. Brazil is facing one of its deepest financial and political crises.
Do you feel your previous career path has provided you with a unique understanding of the situation in Brazil?
Absolutely, I had been a manager for many years and learned to deal with complex situations. This helped me to understand the complexity of the economic system in Brazil and also the idiosyncrasy of the culture. Furthermore, I learnt over the years to deal with business plans. This translated to my project “Copacabana Palace”, working on the storyline, to be significant.
You have turned your attention to the plight of the oppressed and the forgotten. What do you hope to achieve? Have you worked with local NGOs?
I tried several times to address the project to the authorities, including the secretary from the Prefeitura de Rio de Janeiro. They have the mandate for the social housing program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida. No response. There is no NGO working on social housing topic.
We should not forget that the situation has worsened since the Olympics and that the state of Rio de Janeiro is somehow in bankruptcy. So, there is no money for social projects.
The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, that teaches newly involved politicians about their responsibilities, used my material for teaching and presentation purposes.
Young Eduarda sits outside a window and observes the street happenings. She lives with her seven siblings in one of the five unfinished buildings of a planned middle class condo project, not far away from Rio de Janeiro but still far enough to be hidden from our view.