Iris had come to pick me up in Copacabana...
... in front of the Copacabana Palace in which I was lucky enough to stay during a work-related trip to Brazil. We jumped on a local, crowded bus and headed for Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, home to almost 200,000 cariocas on 1 square km. I was about to live, in a matter of minutes, a contrast like life sometimes throws at you: from the surreal glitzy palace on the most beautiful beach on the planet to the most notorious favela in the world.
This moment was nothing short of extraordinary.
8 months earlier I had met Iris Della Roca, who was then 25 years old, through a common friend and I had decided to exhibit her photographic work in an art gallery nested inside a luxury shopping destination. Iris’ exhibition “As the King is not Humble, may the Humble be King” depicted another vision of the children from Rocinha’s favela, far from the media always terrible images.
Through Iris’ extraordinary photographic eye the children from Rocinha were able to escape their difficult circumstances for a moment and enter a world of innocence and make-believe, enabling their imagination to run wild as they dreamt of becoming fashion models for a day… Rocinha became a backdrop for a fabulous catwalk, the children dressed in extravagantly colorful fashion outfits and striking a natural pose, showcasing their environment with joy and immense poesy which Iris captured beautifully.
The idea behind this partnership and exhibition with Iris was to also raise money to be donated in full to the “Swap a weapon for a paintbrush” charity Iris was involved with in the favela, a charity created by the very charismatic Tio Lino (Iris is French but was then living in a Rio’s favela 6 months a year).
This exhibition was Iris’ first and it was a great success: moving, beautiful, different and Iris’ photographic talent and big heart were perfectly fitted, in a strangely inadequate at first glance but obvious way in this luxurious Parisian shopping and fashion environment. The purity and the sincerity of her work was only equaled by her talent and the intrinsic beauty of her photographs. Her project was enriched by a story of love that touched us and was universal.
Iris explained her project in beautiful words:
"I met these children (…) with the association “Swap a weapon for a paintbrush” (Rocinha mundo da arte) in the favela of Rio de Janeiro where I was living. We saw each other nearly every night, from 7pm until 11pm and did everything together, homework, drawings, paintings, we talked about their lives, about everything, they came to my place, we cooked together. I know their families as well. It was then that I explained my idea of creating a fashion magazine. It was a way of bringing power to their lives:through photography, they forgot the “rules” of the society in which they live and even challenged some of the superficial aspects of fashion.
These children left behind their childhood at a very young age, they rarely play, are very violent and unusually stoic. This was another aspect that shocked me, it was a struggle to get them to show happiness. They are very reserved and guard their emotions tightly.
Through role playing, I wanted to help them have fun, become more like children, begin to think that they are “stars”, they are beautiful and strong. Through role-play, I wanted them to leave their inhibitions behind, and that this be a form of liberation for them. That their daily problems do not spoil the pleasure of playing. I wanted the favela to be ever-present in the backdrop, my goal was to photograph them in their home but in a new light, touched by the fruits of their imagination.
These photos are their imaginations, their dreams. When they saw the results, they were happy, proud and found themselves beautiful. "
So, this day in Rio I was very excited to meet again with Iris but this time in her usual, vibrant environment, that of the favela, and meet the children behind the photographs we had exhibited a couple of months earlier.
We left the bus at the bottom of Rocinha. From then on, and as far as the eye could see, was a succession of small and colorful houses, going up a large and very steep hill, drawing a landscape that would be better-fitted in a cartoon as it seemed like everything might crumble in a flash, with houses built on top of one another, sometimes up 10 stories tall. It was such a powerful sight I could not help but find immense beauty in it, amazed by the power of human spirit to create its own space despite seemingly impossible conditions. A lot has been written on Rocinha, the misery, the violence, the impossible justification of touristic tours as if visiting a banal attraction. Rocinha was of course a vision of poverty and difficult conditions but it was also a glimpse into lives, families laughing together, sharing a moment, offering the little they had.
Iris was everywhere at home as we were going up the labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways, people would wave at her and she would offer her huge smile and kind words in return, gathering news from family members, sharing anecdotes.
Of course this day I was just passing by, I was also some sort of tourist, and that same evening I would go back to the Copacabana Palace to enjoy a cocktail by the pool, and this irony was not lost on me, but for a few hours I was part of these stories, showing and offering the children the fashion magazine Iris had dreamt to create with them, which had become a reality as we had decided to produce and sell it in Paris. I would meet Isabelly, the little girl with the butterflies, whose grace Iris had captured and I had admired for many months and is still a very powerful sight on a wall at home, I would discuss with Tio Lino and visit the atelier where he welcomed the children after school so they would have a place to learn, play, create and dream rather than being left alone in the streets; I would visit houses, meet families, and be taken in a swirl of laughter, smiles, energy, good spirit, like I rarely experienced before.
I left Rocinha later that day with more than memories: the knowledge that I had left a little bit of myself in this place and that this place had changed me.
When I left the kids gave me a gift: a small sculpture they had made, round like the Paio de Açucar, covered with small bits and pieces of woods representing the houses of Rocinha, with the Cristo Redentor standing atop.
This gift is more moving and far better than any souvenir I could ever get from any trip: it’s a vivid memory, handmade with love, with an incredibly strong meaning, the power of an object and the memories attached to it. It has been sitting prominently at home for a few years now, a daily reminder of the power of encounters and of living your dreams.
Cover photograph by Iris Della Roca, portrait of Isabelly, then 13 years old, in Rocinha