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.

One Year Out

One Year out

"On Long-Term Travel, career and lifestyle changing, and what comes with it" 

It's been one full year since I did my last day as a "DIT", a.k.a. on-set digital image management for film and television production. I worked extremely hard over the better part of a decade to build this career, spending much of 2007-2014 sitting behind a DIT cart. I loved my job in many ways and was lucky to spend those years with great people but I could never shake the incessant need to reconnect creatively. It became clear it was never going to happen spending 50-70 hours a week on a TV set.

Last September after wrapping season four of HBO's Girls, I obeyed the long gestating feeling in my gut and walked away from everything I worked so hard to build. Surely this was lunacy but I needed to get out of my comfort zone and to immerse in the unknown. If I just stayed in New York, it would have no doubt been more of the same. It was time for a radical change of scenery.

A few weeks later I was in Hong Kong. On my first night there, I watched the sun set from Victoria Peak. I vividly remember the warm drizzle, the smell of ozone, and the city lying vast below. I took out my camera and framed up the first shot of the trip thinking, here we go. This is what I’m doing now.

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong. My first night back in Asia after 15 years.

It felt good to be so far from New York and more importantly, to be shooting again. I gave myself the next six months to explore a list of places scattered across Asia with only a vague trajectory traced between them. I had no real plan, only the thrill of being a stranger in a strange land and no purpose other than to simply explore and learn. Such open-ended travel came with its own set of unforeseen challenges but it was exactly what I needed to reignite my creativity.

September 2014 - March 2015. 10 countires but I Missed Nepal and Myanmar!

Those six months whizzed by in a blur. Fast forward to late February 2015 - Colombo to Chennai to Bangkok to Taipei to JFK and before I knew it I was back in Queens, looking out the window of my sixth floor apartment at the snow covered roofs below, thinking I could still be on the beach in Sri Lanka instead of this cold, miserable city, finally confronted with the inevitable question of, now what?

Six months later, I’m still asking it.  

For awhile I was assuming something palpable would come along like a concrete opportunity;  something that would open up a new, perhaps unforeseen professional path. That didn't happen. Instead my new life is really just my old life before I joined a labor union and had some job security—the freelance game of going paycheck to paycheck, chasing work, chasing invoices. Only now it's a little writing here, a little photo there, some video, some consulting. Whatever comes along that seems interesting or rewarding. The days of identifying as a singular profession are clearly over. It's not exactly what I was expecting but it never is and that's just fine.

Not everyone is able to do something like this. Not everyone who's able to would even choose to. What I've found though is that long-term travel and living abroad provide a unique lens through which to observe the staggering diversity of the human race. We're all people after all—but do we have more in common or in opposition? Only through immersion in cultures outside our own can we arrive at an informed conclusion. 

The rewards of these exchanges, though immaterial, are vast in their own way but can also present a new dilemma and that is what is one to do with this drastically altered worldview? This new perspective can disrupt everything, including our most closely held values.

It's not always pleasant but disruption is the antidote for stagnation. 

Meeting some nice kids in a remote village in Northern Laos.

New friends in Saigon show me how to fix an iced coffee, Vietnamese Style.

There's no better place to get to know India than riding the rails. Prepare for many long hours of conversation with strangers.

Close encounter with cobras in Rajasthan. Note the snakeman's sheer delight at my terror.

My fixer in Sri Lanka, Priyantha, at home with his kids. 

The biggest takeaway from my year of literal and figurative wandering is that what's most important is to just feel good about what you're doing, whatever it may be. It should be accompanied with the feeling of growth and progress and if not, perhaps it's time to try something different.

At this stage in my life, I'd rather have a head full of incredible memories and experiences, like the photos at the top of this blog, than a house filled with stuff I don't need. I drive a Honda Fit instead of a European car and live in a rent stabilized apartment in Queens instead of a condo in Brooklyn. It's a choice and I choose to live cheap so I can keep exploring all this planet has to offer. It's what brings me joy but it certainly isn't for everyone.

As of September 2015, I've visited 34 countries, 271 cities, and there's still so much more. Though it would be virtually impossible, the thought of there being no place left to see with fresh eyes is a sad one. Fortunately I've barely scratched the surface and cannot wait to get back out into the unknown.

 

 

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.