Every other year, there’s a photography biennial in Rio, known as FotoRio, and it’s now the largest photography showcase in Latin America, with every museum and cultural space in the city exhibiting photos.  In 2003, the seven photographers of Viva Favela mounted an impressive show of their first two years of existence during the biennial called Por Dentro da Favela: Fotografias do Projeto Viva Favela (From Inside the Favela: Photographs of the Viva Favela Project).  At the time, I was teaching a study abroad class on human rights and media in Rio and when I took the students to the exhibition I remember how astonished they were that there were pictures of joy and happiness and resiliency and dignity.  It was the first time, they said, that they saw positive representations of favelas.

From the beginning of the project in 2001, I had been keeping an eye on Viva Favela, but it was at this point, after their first exhibition, that I decided to follow the photographers more closely.  As a photographer myself, I was more interested in the visual aspects of the project in part because the aesthetics of the favelas are rarely represented.  Researchers also seldom represent those who work in the field of grassroots media production.  So for the next several years, whenever I was in Rio, I began to follow the photographers when they were photographing an assignment.  My initial research goals were to study the rise of a visual inclusion project and the process of social change related to participatory media.  I also wanted to trace the human rights connections to this kind of photojournalism and to more fully understand the joys, the risks and the possibilities of photographing in the favelas. 

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have witnessed Viva Favela’s early years because, in many ways, they were part of the first wave in new media citizen journalism in Brazil.  Ten years ago, no one was seriously photographing inside the communities yet alone uploading videos from cell phones, which is happening today.  This transformation in just ten years has been a radical actualization of human rights.  By following Viva Favela, I realized that human rights and media do not only have to be about a space for denouncement.  Rights can also be approached from an affirmative perspective.  I also learned that there’s a critical difference between the dissemination of information and the transformation of information.  Mainstream media just moves information around from producers to consumers concerning the favelas.  As a transformative media project, Viva Favela empowers people to produce media, circulate news and receive visual stories that reflect their lives. 

In celebration of these past ten years of participatory media projects in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, we offer this book and a modest selection of images, which the Viva Favela team allowed me to curate.  Although the photographs of Viva Favela are rooted in the published stories from their online magazine, each image is also a world of its own.  One photo is a study of night falling in the favelas.  A rush of bodies in motion is a dance class.  A wall pock-marked with bullet holes evokes tales of conflict.  A police helicopter fires tracer bullets at the top of Rocinha.  Children jump over a mound of construction dirt in a moment of sheer happiness.  A writer living in a favela lingers in thought over his typewriter.  A woman holding her bag of candy that she sells everyday is a heroic image of dignity and integrity.  A boxing ring in the streets at night testifies to the spirit of sport and community.  And a crowd at a baile funk party expresses their communal love for music and the right to culture. 

There are no collective photos of favelas like this unless one lives there.  But these stories are not about the past ten years.  These are the visual archives for the future. And as the portal opens today up to a wider national community of citizen correspondents, there will be new visual stories about these joys, risks, and the discoveries of everyday life in the favelas of Brazil.   

Peter Lucas teaches at New York University and The New School.  He received his Ph.D. from NYU in 1996.  His teaching and scholarly writing focuses on human rights and media, with an emphasis on participatory media, documentary practice, the poetics of witnessing, human rights education, and youth media. He is also a photographer and filmmaker and in 2012 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his documentary projects in Brazil. 

His visual work can be seen at: peterlucas.net