Brazil

Rio de Janeiro's Rocinha favela as seen from the top of the hill.

Brazil

aka "The Hardest Country I've ever Traveled Solo in"

Prior to arriving I knew this would be a tough country with its well known crime and poverty but I honestly wasn't expecting it to be harder than traveling alone in India. Here, I met with numerous attempts to rob me, my bank account was hacked, and I was confronted by the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro. It left a bad taste in my mouth but ironically only left me wanting to experience more of this country and come to understand it. The learning curve is steep but it's a beautiful place unlike any other in the world and absolutely worth the trouble. 

First, my trip was way too short. I was in South America a little less than a month. In Brazil, I was only able to explore the environs of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. I discovered this just isn't enough time to to get the kinds of shots I came to get. A higher degree of intimacy is required. My trip was disappointing in that sense but a valuable learning experience nonetheless. 

Brazil is a gigantic, unwieldy beast. The culture and language are virtually impenetrable to the naive gringo. It's a place with as many romantic qualities as horrible; a tropical paradise but one laced with squalid hillside shanty towns built so dense the sun can barely reach the barred windows below. The people are the best and worst part of the experience. I encountered such warmth, kindness, and free spirited joie de vivre but also distrust, suspicion, and those seeking to enrich themselves at my expense. It takes time to get in sync with Brazil's rhythms but it is possible and I learned a lot about this from an interesting character I met in Rio by the name of Don Blanquito.

The one and only Don Blanquito, "the bravest gringo in Rio."

Through Don I realized the commitment it takes to fully wrap one's head around this place. To understand Brazil, one must become Brazilian. I didn't have that kind of time, I only had a few weeks so shooting here proved to be a real challenge.

The first few days were difficult. Without even having a camera out, everyone knows you're a gringo which makes it very difficult to photograph in the streets even with small, discrete equipment. This has nothing to do with the shade of your skin because the entire gamut of the human race is represented in Brazil. For whatever reason, outsiders are detected immediately. 

Whenever I'm shooting a place, I always try and go it alone at first just to see what I can get it. If it's impossible, I'll enlist the help of a local fixer or guide. This is always a mixed bag as these people give you access to places you would never be able to go alone but they almost always try and rip you off, take advantage of you, or just waste your time taking you to places you have no interest in. It's a difficulty I would choose to avoid if possible however it rarely is. After getting escorted out of the favela above Copacabana by the cops, I realized it wasn't much of a choice. 

First of all Rio, is a stunningly beautiful city. It takes your breath away and if you happen to be on top of a high hill as the sun sets, you'll hear people clapping as the sky turns orange in that final moment of the sun's light.

It's unfortunately carved out of pristine Atlantic rain forest, though much of it survives today and parts of the city feel like they're built in the jungle. It's third world and modern, it has a vibe like New York meets Miami meets New Orleans but is still unlike any other city. For all it's luxury high rises and posh neighborhoods there are even more favelas, shantytowns illegally carved out of the hillsides. There are as many as 700 of these settlements in Rio and because of the World Cup and Olympics, some of them are being integrated into the city proper. One of these so called "pacified" favelas is Rocinha, the largest in Brazil and once the most dangerous slum in Latin America. 

Rocinha is absolutely massive and denser than any slum like it that I saw in India or Southeast Asia. While it's rapidly changing, even gentrifying some would say, it's still a very dangerous place. I was able to find a guy who grew up there and for a very reasonable price, enthusiastically agreed to show me around. 

The closer to the bottom of the hill, the safer and more expensive it is in Rocinha. The further up and more inconvenient, the cheaper and more dangerous. At the very top, it's still possible to hack out a small plot from the trees and build your own house. Ironically, at the bottom of the hill is Sao Conrado, one of Rio's most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods. Because of the proximity to quality services and infrastructure built for the rich people there, the quality of life at the base of the favela is rapidly increasing. 

Because of the strong police presence in Rocinha the neighborhood has been deemed "pacified." While most of the people who live Rio's favelas are normal working people just trying to make ends meet, there is always an element of crime. A pacified favela is one where the influence of drug trafficking gangs has been largely minimized and been deemed safe for civilians. The situation between Brazil's gangs and the government remains for all intents and purposes, a state of undeclared civil war. The Federal Police's response to organized crime in these areas is ruthless and shootings are common. 

Mototaxi's take people up and down the paved parts of the hills in Rocinha night and day. The further you go up, the steeper and more narrow the passageways become, eventually inaccessible to vehicles. Because of poor access, in the event of fires and other emergencies, there's often little that can by the authorities. 

Imagine building a three-story house with no dump truck. I find the logistics and the odds stacked against settlements like these fascinating. People needs a place to call home and where there's a will there's a way. There's no stopping these things. 

The favelas are their own world. Dark and intimidating in places but warm and inviting in others. They have their own culture and economy and I encountered pride in the fact that many here carved out their own life in their own way. Social inequality is an enormous problem in Brazil and lack of access to basic education and economic opportunity are the strongest correlations to the crime that too many have just accepted as a part of life here.

I met these cool young dudes on the way out of Rocinha and they showed me some incredible capoeira moves. Their enthusiasm, positive vibes, and outright friendliness towards an outsider was extremely refreshing. 

From Rio I traveled to Sao Paulo, an even bigger megacity with a metro population over 20 million. I love big cities and was expecting to like SP but instead discovered a polluted, dangerous, endless sea of drab gray buildings.

A city like Sao Paulo is Best Appreciated at Night.

Within the first 12 hours of arriving in Sao Paulo someone tried to grab my phone right out of my hands. Because of thieves, I had an even harder time shooting here than in Rio and was unable to find a solid contact who would take me to the parts of the city I knew would pay off. There's a tragically interesting area called Cracolandia that just saying the name, Paulistas would scoff. There was no way to gain access in such a short period of time and honestly, trying to shoot there would have been a bad idea, even with local protection. Brazil's stories are perhaps best left to Brazilians to tell. The culture and language barriers are massive for an outsider and without a command over them, probing deeper here is a dangerous prospect. 

One thing that immediately struck me about this city is that it's covered in spray paint. There are many beautiful murals but also a lot of what looked like ugly, visual polluting tags that I learned are called pichacao

These are encrypted letters only legible to other pichacao writers. Sometimes gang related but not always, the notorious Comando Verhelmo, who still operate openly in this city have been known to write them. More often than not, they're a form of political and social protest and pichacao crews will free climb the sides of tall building to write them. The higher one goes, the more prestige and I was shocked to see 30 story office towers completely covered in tags. 

Brazil is a fascinating place but I left it feeling like I didn't get it photographically, also realizing what "getting it" would entail. I would need a lot more time and If I were to do another trip here it will be one focusing on Amazonas and Agri-Business there. I have the burning desire to see the extent of its environmental devastation. Maybe it's not as bad as I suspect but for some reason I doubt it. 

There's a common thread emerging from this work I've been doing for the past year and a half now and that is the culture of extreme poverty and how it relates to the world's densest urban areas—Megacities, megaslums, and their impact on society and environment. This is what I realized I've been exploring. What will come of all this work down the road, I'm not sure just yet but I feel compelled to keep going with it. 

PS www.negativespaces.com still points here but the main url is now bennettcain.com. You may need to update RSS accordingly.

Manhattan's Garment District - a Microcosm of "Old" New York

Methadone patients on 8th Ave @ 35th St.

Manhattan's Garment District - a Microcosm of the "Old" New York

On July 19th, 2015, the New York Times published an article profiling the infamous “Zombie McDonald’s” of 490 8th Ave at 35th Street in New York City’s historic Garment District neighborhood.

Its corporate designation, McDonald’s #3078, has 2.5 Yelp stars and has been described by its users, among other colorful analogies as, “a cross between Disneyland and a homeless shelter.” 

“A grimy McDonald’s with a rough clientele” is not a story on its own, but “people openly buying, selling, and consuming drugs and alcohol inside a McDonald’s” is. Chasing this lead, The New York Times reported that within a few blocks of the fast food franchise, there are two outpatient substance abuse programs, a methadone clinic, and a needle exchange. Meanwhile, right out the front door is a pickup/drop-off point for the ubiquitous double-decker tour bus. The restaurant’s bathrooms must remain unlocked and accessible to the steady influx of tourists. This along with McDonald’s “Dollar Menu” and a relatively comfortable place to escape the weather combine to create the “drug addict’s paradise,” described on Yelp.

As a New York City-based photographer concerned with social issues, I often reference The New York Times’ Metro section to identify places that might be of photographic interest. I noticed the seediness of this particular block years before the Times ran the story, but reading it piqued my curiosity enough to go deeper and do some documentation of my own. 

So, camera in hand, I've been hanging out at the so-called “junkie McDonald’s” nursing coffee like the regulars, watching, listening, and stealing shots. In this blog, I'm sharing only a few images and observations but this work is becoming a much larger project. The story of this particular New York neighborhood is in my opinion, one of the more interesting ones and points to much larger problems stemming from growing income inequality in the city.

I used a Leica M9 rangefinder camera, a perfect digital tool for this sort of “fly on the wall” photography. The preferred camera of legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Leitz II, and Robert Capa, Leica became synonymous with the golden age of reportage. Their cameras are built strong enough to literally survive a war and yet are substantially smaller than SLRs. They utilize a fast and accurate focus system that allows a skilled photographer to shoot “blind” when necessary, i.e. not having to look through the viewfinder. Leica brought this tried and true analog technology into the digital realm with their M8, M9, and M rangefinder cameras, combining speed and size with the instantaneous feedback of digital imaging.

I can attest to the Times‘ writer’s observations that the police and McDonald’s management’s efforts to erase the drug scene there appear futile. However what The New York Times article glosses over is that while this McDonald’s is somewhat an anomaly among fast food restaurants, it is consistent with that can be seen in the still gritty axis between Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Perhaps because of the high volume of transient traffic and concentration of homeless shelters, this area has proven somewhat resistant to the rampant gentrification of the West Side. Within this little pocket remains images of poverty that contrast sharply with the picture of today’s wealthy, elitist Manhattan where once notoriously blighted areas have been transformed into playgrounds for millionaires.

The gentleman above declined to be ID'd but he stands at this spot for most of the day just keeping an eye on things. He said the restaurant has gotten a lot worse in the past two or three years though offered he no insights on why that might be. An additional layer of security, an off duty NYC cop is employed here as well though only until the early afternoon. 

The activities on display in this McDonalds are a reminder that New York’s meteoric rise to prosperity has left many behind, harkening back to a time when the city was a far more raw and visceral place, a place where visibly desperate people weren’t concentrated in a few small areas, but a fixture across much of the city.

Sony Alpha A7RII. Yeah!


This s the original R as official images of the Mark 2 haven't been released yet.

Sony Alpha A7RII. Yeah!

 

This camera might be the most badass little chunk of digital imagemaking technology bestowed on us yet. But you already knew that if you’ve been keeping up with the blogs and early reviews. The response to the A7R Mark II has so far been overwhelmingly positive as there’s a lot to get excited about - more resolution, more sensitivity, improved autofocus, in-camera image stabilization and 4K video @ 100 Mbps. If you’ve already pre-ordered, then you’re counting down the days until early August, especially if you’re like me and unloaded your A7S and A7R a month early because you read the release date wrong. Oops.

On my last big photo trip, I carried both the R and the S and came to fully realize the advantages of mirrorless cameras. In my own use, I found the high resolution, 36.4 Megapixel A7R performs exceptionally well during the day whereas the S, with its enhanced low light capability and Silent Shutter, is best appreciated at night. The "Stealth" Shutter feature in particular became an indispensable asset that allowed me to get shots that would have been impossible without.

In six months of traveling and shooting, I kept thinking these two cameras really should be one. The resolution of the R combined with the sensitivity and stealthiness of the S would in this shooter's opinion, make for pretty much the perfect digital camera.

To my surprise after only one year, the wish has been granted and everything we love about both the R and S has been combined in a brand new body along with a wish list of improvements and slick new features. Thank you, Sony! 

AT A GLANCE:

The resolution of the S is skimpy at best. 4K is in my opinion, not enough for stills anymore. Perhaps I've been made greedy by the R’s 7.5K photos that can be radically reframed in post without penalty. The RII packs a whopping 42 Megapixels ("8k" 7952x5304) onto a newly designed back-lit Full Frame sensor that scales down to a mathematically perfect Super 35mm Crop for 4K video mode. No pixel binning so no aliasing or moire and the smart downsampling has the added bonus of minimizing the “jello effect” inherent to most DSLR video. All this in the robust XAVC codec, Slog2 @ 100 Mbps, selectable in NTSC or PAL, and recorded in the camera to SDXC card. Remarkable! 

I'm comfortable shooting the S at 25,600 ISO and the R at 3200 ISO. The R is a noisy camera and in practice, not great for night work. The S on the other hand sees beyond what we see with our own eyes and I was constantly baffled by what I was able to get with it. For example, shooting f/4 @ 1/320 with barely a foot-candle and somehow making pleasing pictures such as this -

This is a "no light" photo. Sony A7S, Leica Summarit 90mm @ f/4, 1/320", 25,600 ISO

Despite a maximum ISO of 102,400 on the RII, no one is expecting it to perform in low light as well as the S. If it comes close, all the better but I'd personally be satisfied to be able to shoot with no penalty at ISO 6400.

The Autofocus on both the R and S is comparatively poor and there have been many times I discovered heartbreaking focus problems in Lightroom long after it's too late. Unacceptably soft shots because the R just couldn’t tell that piece of junk Zeiss FE 35mm where to focus. Sony’s lenses for these bodies are definitely the weakest aspect of the product line so it’s good news that in addition to the new camera's vastly improved 399 AF detection points, using the Metabones adapter, Canon EOS lenses will apparently perform natively. This surprisingly open source attitude towards camera design is uncharacteristic of Sony but it's awesome that they're doing it. And though I detest zooms, it would be quite nice to shoot with an autofocusing Canon 24-70mm L on this small camera. Sony’s Zeiss FE 24-70mm is a laughable lens in comparison. Flat, totally lifeless, and with unpleasantly jagged bokeh. In my opinion, a lens only good for video shooting.

Perhaps this is a better solution.

With that sweet little Leica 28mm.

With that sweet little Leica 28mm.

Another problem with the R and S known to cause imaging grief is the lack of In-Camera Image Stabilization. Some of the Sony lenses have it but if you’re not using them, hand shake is an issue, particularly on longer lens, and one that's boned me many times on my Leica Summarit 90mm. The RII features the same 5-Axis In-Body Stabilization found in the A7II which solves the problem and allows for slower shutter speeds when shooting handheld.

And for good measure, one more big blur-related problem has been solved - the new camera's redesigned shutter reduces the excessive release slap of the R that literally shakes the camera enough to potentially blur the shot. With my own A7R, I often found the issue with exposures slower than 1/125 which presented a serious limitation to how I could shoot. The newly lighter, more dampened shutter puts far less stress on itself so beyond not ruining your photos, it's also now good for as many as 500,000 actuations, more than double the expectation of most current cameras. And of course the best feature of all, the mechanical shutter can be bypassed altogether using the Silent Shutter Mode for those situations when the sound of it could get you in trouble or be a distraction. I personally think a silent, electronic shutter for shooting stills is the coolest thing ever but because these sensors aren't global, they roll and occasionally you'll discover some weirdness in your photos - anomalies where the phase of the capture at the sensor and the phase of the light sources didn't agree with one another. It looks something like this - 

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Every now and again, this fluke will yield some interesting, even aesthetically pleasing weirdness like in the image above. But usually not!

List price for the A7RII is 3200 USD. Expensive but well worth it if you've found this style of camera helps you do your best work. Don't cheap out on your tools.