With soccer’s World Cup in full swing (through July 13), international attention is focused on Brazil, host country for the games. Unfortunately, for the 1.4 million residents living in the favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro, the arrival of the most popular sports tournament in the world—along with the 2016 Olympics—is bringing tremendous hardships.
Since 2009, Rio’s municipal housing authority has been dispossessing thousands of individuals and demolishing their homes—ostensibly to make way for new facilities to support the huge sporting events. However, “many of the evictions are happening in the very center of Rio, in the hills, where you certainly cannot build anything that will have any impact on the infrastructure of those games,” says Marc Ohrem-Leclef, whose photography book Olympic Favela (published by Damiani) features portraits of those threatened with eviction.
In 2012 and again last year, the German-born, Brooklyn-based photographer traveled with his medium-format camera through Rio’s various (sometimes dangerous) favelas to document the impact on the local population of what officials call “pacification.” But rather than replicate news images of distressed protesters amid the effects of tear gas, Ohrem-Leclef chose a more tranquil way to highlight the issue.
For instance, there’s a photograph of a half-smiling woman named Suzana in front of her house in Favela Cantagalo, high above the famous Ipanema Beach. Ohrem-Leclef says the blurry “H” on the door behind her indicates the house is slated for demolition. “In their quest to bring Suzana to abandon the home she built, city officials had threatened her with the removal of her children, arguing that they are not growing up in a safe environment,” he explains in the book. A few pages later, we see Suzana carrying a torch, in the form of an emergency flare. Apart from the flame’s connection to the Olympics, Ohrem-Leclef wanted to represent his subjects in an “empowered situation.”
“After researching imagery depicting historically significant moments of liberation, defiance, and resistance,” he says, “it all came back to the raised hand.” Other torch-wielding favela residents include Eomar, a restaurant manager, posing with his arm outstretched in front of his four-story home in 2012. By the time Ohrem-Leclef returned to the site last year, the house had disappeared. Then there’s Vò Zeze, a retired theater seamstress, standing proudly in the lush backyard of her soon-to-be bulldozed Colônia Juliano Moreira home. It sits in the path of the proposed TransOlympic Highway.
Ohrem-Leclef doesn’t expect that Olympic Favela will prevent such demolitions, but it could satisfy another hope of his, “that more people will get exposure to this issue experienced in Rio, as well as in every other city that hosts a mega event.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 24 under the title “The Rio World.”