I’ve been putting off this post for some time now. It’s been almost two months since I returned from Rio de Janeiro, and I had already edited and processed my photos before leaving. I could have posted most of this in real time, were it not for a certain uncertainty about how to tell the tale, and more importantly were it not for other events going on globally that by comparison made our little buddy trip to Rio seem trivial. Japan was rocked by an earthquake and nearly drowned by a tsunami. The “Arab Spring” that had Egyptians dancing in the streets, and the whole world celebrating the rising power of social media as a vehicle for political change, was segueing into news of the Libyan uprising and a nasty civil war. And friends and colleagues were getting caught in the crossfire. Veteran New York Times war correspondent Tyler Hicks was kidnapped. Rising star Michael Christopher Brown was shot in the leg. And then, most tragically of all, two of the field’s greatest talents, Oscar-nominated Tim Hetherington and Pulitzer-prize nominated (and NC State grad) Chris Hondros were both killed in a firefight in Misrata.
Before all this went down, we were getting reports that these and other intrepid photographers were making their way into Libya, pooling funds and joining forces to make the overland desert trek from Egypt to cover what began as a peaceful demonstration but was rapidly escalating into an armed insurrection. For conflict photographers the anarchy of the situation meant unprecedented access to the heart of the story, if they were brave or foolhardy enough to jump into the fray without the luxury or protection of “embedded” status. Now that the fighting in Libya has reached somewhat of a stalemate, we are left only with the tragedy. That, and the hope that something good comes out of it all.
I have always had a hard time with the way that the photography community celebrates war photography, but, like war itself, it’s a very thorny conundrum. It’s often necessary, sometimes noble, sometimes insidious, and always tragic. And it always seems like tragedy trumps everything else; so I suppose the most appropriate reaction, for the time being, is to offer a prayer for the loved ones of those lost, and for a speedy end to the bloodshed.
Anyway, with all of this going down, I haven’t felt much like writing about my little trip to Rio with the boys…
But now spring is here, and Bin Laden is dead, and Animal Kingdom has won the Kentucky Derby, and Donald Trump is making a fool of himself again…so I guess now is as good a time as ever to tell the tale of Rio. Only, what to say?
The dilemma with the telling is that I could spin the story in a number of different ways, and they would all be true. I could talk about it in terms of the big adventure, the “buddy trip” with Lance Rosenfield, Anthony “Tony Skater” Smallwood, and David Alan Harvey. “Spring break in Rio”, as Harvey put it. I could talk about Carnaval: the wild street parties and parades, the energy of samba pulsing through the city, the street-corner bandas that danced and sang in their local cafes and gave me t-shirts and kisses. About the river of bodies in Santa Teresa, the dark streets of Lapa, the people cruising down the strip in Ipanema hanging out the sides of their cars with their stereos blaring reggeaton…I could tell of our photographic exploits–about me and Lance bluffing our way into the no-access-without major-credentials ground floor of the Sambadrome; or me sneaking into the $1000-a-head Copacabana Palace Magic Ball at 4 AM dressed in a black suit like I’d just popped out for a cigarette. And of course I could wax poetically about our guardian angels Roberta and Renata Tavares, a double-the-pleasure-double-the-fun pair of beautiful Brazilian twin sisters who shepherded us through their city with laughter and genuine care. Or I could talk about the crew themselves: about Lance, who kept having girls come up to him asking if they could make out with him, and how he managed to be super-focused on photography while being a total gigolo at the same time. About Tony Skater, who rolled in like a rock star for all of three or four days and hooked us up with the Rastas in Lapa just because coolness emanates from him like a purple-colored aura. About the man, the myth, the legend David Alan Harvey, who somehow manages to be one of the most talented, most famous, most successful and most hard-working photographers in the business while still acting like the fraternity brother who’s always in trouble with the authorities–always the life of the party, and always egging everybody else on to do outrageous shit.
Or I could talk about the trip in terms of the challenges and logistical nightmares that kept obstructing my forward movement; how at some point it started to feel like the photo gods were against me on this one. About the last-minute scramble to secure a visa to Brazil involving a long drive up to Washington, DC and the aid and hospitality of Gina Martin, guardian angel of the photo world. About my flight out of Norfolk being canceled due to weather and my losing a precious day of boots on the ground in Rio before Carnaval weekend. About the “one bedroom” apartment I had rented on craigslist turning out to be an efficiency about the size of my kitchen and the advertised wi-fi being nonextistent. About the bills I rang up arguing with the “landlord” who lived in San Francisco and who, aside from never getting the wi-fi fixed, didn’t offer me a dime of compensation for the inconvenience and false advertising. About how it rained the entire time. About how my 40 cent texts would go through anywhere between and hour and twelve hours after they were sent, making communication with the rest of the party well nigh impossible at times. About how after the longest, rainiest, most tiring day of shooting I found myself abandoned by the rest of the crew in a not-so-safe part of town, forced to overpay for a long cab ride home, only to find I’d left my keys in the cab once the driver had sped off. About how I had to wait three hours for the boys to come back and rescue me because they had to make a quick pit stop to chat with the Rastas in Lapa–one that turned out taking longer than expected due to the immense crowds and the informal formalities of making friends with Rastas. About the three hours I spent wandering the rainy early-AM streets of Copacabana waiting for them to come back, with a full day’s worth of shooting on my cards, my gear in my bag, and suspicious characters lurking in the shadows. I can talk about my multiple equipment malfunctions: how two of my lenses were dropped on the ground in unrelated incidents; how the lamp in my main flash was damaged in the flight making the unit inoperable; and how my backup flash started having intermittent issues as well. How my main camera stopped operating in the rain and I had to wait until I got home to North Carolina and dry it out before I dared trying to operate it and risk further shorting or damage. How I was too paranoid to even use my water housing for fear I might further compromise my equipment, as I have in the past made careless and fatal mistakes with my housings. About how our hostess Roberta was nearly robbed of her purse on the night of Fat Tuesday–an event that was chronicled on the front page of local newspaper, since Harvey was with us at the time and anything that happened to him was front page news in Rio since he was shooting a big NatGeo article on the city. About all that, and the insane cost of living in Rio, which had me living on cheap cheese and bad lunchmeat and forsaking many simple tourist pleasures due to extreme expense. About how finally I’d had enough of swimming against the tide and left three days earlier than I had planned; and about how Harvey made me feel even worse after coming home by showing me pics of all the cool stuff that happened after I left. Like it got sunny again. And a whole new crew of people came around. And there were a lot of great parties, always great parties.
Or I could go into academic mode and talk about the history of Carnival in Brazil, about the complex mix of race, class, and crime in Rio, and how the city, as carnival towns often do, has gone to great lengths to absorb the Carnival into “official” and contained events such as the Sambadrome parades and Samba school competitions, while every year more and more “blocos” or street parties are held, mainly comprising hordes of young people with cheap costumes, bands playing on the street, and lots of making out with strangers, drugs, alcohol, and general mayem…in short, a return to the Dionysian spirit of Carnival. I could get mythological, historical, musicological, racial…but unfortunately I hadn’t had the opportunity to get as steeped in the history and culture of Rio’s Carnival as I have done with New Orleans and Venice. It was a last minute trip, and I was pretty much flying blind, the only Portuguese I knew being “Por favor” and “Obrigado”…And now that Carnival has come and gone in a blur, I’m left with the sense that I was air-dropped in and evacuated out, without really understanding what the mission was.
I came home to two weeks of solid OBX winter weather, dark and windy and rainy and cold. Somehow the whole experience, with all its ups and downs, had shaken something loose inside, and I was left to ponder my situation in the dark days of late winter. While I had gotten a few spectacular photos, I hadn’t gotten enough, didn’t feel like I had a well-rounded “story”, and knew that I was going to eventually have to decide whether to go back and finish what I’d started in Rio, get deeper into what the city is all about, and make closer connections with the friends I’d made there; or I’d have to just chalk it up to one more stop along the Carnival tour and be content with the photos I got to be representative of the particular expression of Carnival that Rio has developed over the last couple hundred years. If only I had the energy of ten men and the ability to be in multiple places at once.
So with all that and numerous other aspects to the trip to think about, it has taken me a while to get a clear perspective on it all. In the end, I suppose, I’m left with some really great stories, four or five “home run” photos, and enough high-quality filler to make for a decent photo essay, or a short chapter in a future book. And, of course, some new friends; notably Roberta and Renata, who were truly angels to all of us, and whose constant cheerfulness and ever-changing, ever-tantalizing wardrobe selections kept us all in a good mood. Already there is talk of a return trip, and if I have the time and money, how could I refuse? I’ve only scratched the surface of Rio, and it is, to be sure, a fascinating place. And there are Cariocas there that I met only for a brief who that have stayed in my mind, who have contacted me on facebook, and who have me believing that my own personal Rio has yet to be fully revealed. I received only glimpses of it this time around. But spectacular glimpses they were, moments of a strange, savage, refined, sexy beauty and depth…light and darkness dancing with each other on the streets, swaying to the sultry syncopations of samba, waiting to take off the shackles of the “face” of Brazil and show the heart and soul that lie beneath the masks and the costumes. The pure, naked, dangerous, loving heart of Brazil. Next time, next time.