Favelas: architecture of survival
The photographs of Pedro Lobo

It’s a good time to be Brazilian. Worldwide, only the Chinese are more enthusiastic about the economy and their country’s future.  And it’s a particularly good time to be from Rio de Janeiro, where next year’s Rio+20 – twenty years after the celebrated Earth Summit of 1992 – opens the floodgates on celebrations galore. The biggest sporting event of the next four years, the soccer world cup final, will be played in Rio in 2014; the city celebrates its 450-year anniversary in 2015; and massive investment will transform Rio for the Olympics in 2016. Rio de Janeiro’s startling topography, rich artistic and cultural traditions, and dazzling beaches will be ever-present in the global media over the coming decade.
Passing attention will be paid to many hundreds of shantytowns in Rio, the favelas. These are perhaps the world’s longest-lived squatter settlements, dating from the late nineteenth century and the abolition of slavery in Brazil. Wage labor arriving from Europe and the end of the Atlantic slave trade framed Brazil’s decision to end slavery. Sometimes celebrated for its non-violence, in fact, after 1888 liberated slaves were abandoned to fend for themselves in a society in transformation as the revolutionary changes of the modern world took deeper hold. As many as eight million people became the new dispossessed, without homes, education, representation, or prospects. The favelas, agglomerations of self-constructed, owner-occupied homes on invaded public and private land, are their legacy.
Freed slaves gravitated to cities as places of opportunity, refuges in the midst of massive structural change. Thus began a pattern that accounts for the permanence of the favela across Brazil through to today. Urban reforms and industrialization over the early and middle parts of the twentieth century reinforced segregation and drew many migrants into Rio de Janeiro. The dispossession of peasants in the northeast of the country, as commercial agriculture moved into high gear over recent decades, saw many millions make the trek to urban spaces nationwide from the 1970s. Just as in Rio a century before, these people too found unoccupied land and established their communities there. Indeed, by UN definition, over a third of Brazil’s population – more than fifty million people – inhabit slums, characterized by overcrowding, substandard housing, limited access to drinking water and sanitation, and insecure title to their land.
Favelas everywhere lack addresses, infrastructure, utilities, services, and security, except those negotiated over the hard decades that many have inhabited these places; and, of course, what the inhabitants themselves provide. These shantytowns are informal, parallel, or shadow cities, populated by marginalized peoples. More recent favelas tend to be found on the periphery of the city, but in Rio, where one resident in five is a favelado, fully a quarter of these settlements are downtown, among them Providência Hill, the first favela, established by former slave soldiers near the ministry of war to await quarters after a military campaign in the 1890s.

Pedro Lobo chooses to insert himself into these spaces of exclusion and resilience. He becomes a witness, working, as celebrated US landscape photographer Frank Gohlke would have it, to make the invisible visible; seeing clearly and unsentimentally what, but for him, would remain unseen. These images are the result of his travels inside the favelas, always by invitation, and always with a sensitivity to the favelas not as problems, but as consequences. They are an architecture of survival. His images would build bridges between middle class Brazilians, for whom the favelas are alien and threatening, and the real people who dwell in these places. Lobo’s landscapes hint at organized chaos as homes scale the hills behind tourist, official Rio, in old and new, large, small, and storied favelas. We intuit the careful living arrangements needed in places this densely populated: in the impossible tangles of wires that commandeer electricity from power company lines and in jerry built water and sewage systems snaking up and down these settlements.
More, these photographs capture the hardening of these urban spaces as people put down roots there and community results. This hardening sees cardboard, tin and recycled wood give way to bricks and mortar as self-constructed homes are improved over generations. Eventually, those homes are topped with new rooftop dwellings as rights to build upwards are sold. Lobo’s beautiful images do not shy away from the sprawl, nor from the hardships of the favelas; but they are filled with the optimism so necessary for that huge part of humanity that lives in these marginalized urban neighborhoods.
Lobo has some reservations about the word resistance to describe this work, but there is certainly counter-hegemonic resistance in the favela understood as greater than the sum of its parts. Here, people have lived for over a hundred years in places where capitalism’s sine qua non of title deeds is subverted, and where collective ownership of property is touted as a way forward. Here, millions are born, grow up and old, and die, largely beyond the reach of the state, for better or worse. Resistance has its limits, and so homes are bought and sold, and the state has infiltrated the favelas in the guise of the Brazilian nation. “These colors don’t run” goes the plucky battle cry, but even in the favelas, it seems, the national colors run the show.
There is poverty in the favelas, but not abject poverty. Lobo’s photos ennoble their largely absent subjects, the people who build these places. Hovels to many western eyes, the self-constructed buildings of the favelas are homes in the fullest sense of the word: places where children’s bikes lie abandoned in the yard, waiting for eager hands to right them; where umbrellas snagged over doorways, and birdcages hung outsides windows, mark these houses out as dwellings. Indeed, it is in part because the favelas are made up of dwellings that a sense of community can flourish there.
Lobo’s approach is to photograph the buildings in the favelas as though his subject were historical monuments or the mansions of the rich. He showcases the majesty of these places through this familiar visual language, allowing us to look anew at the favela and see beyond the exotica. Thus, Lobo reveals the beauty in the favela landscape: in nighttime views, in narrow steep staircases, in how people personalize their spaces through doorways, marks on walls, crazy tile paving, and, often, green, yellow and blue paint.

Over the first decade of the twenty-first century a startling milepost was passed. Largely unnoticed, the world’s population became majority urban, probably in 2008. Just as in Brazil, much of the increase in urban population is driven by new arrivals to the city from rural hinterlands worldwide. And, for as many as one billion people, big city lights twinkle to deceive. There are some 200,000 slum settlements across the planet. In Cairo a million people live in a sprawling cemetery. UN data suggest that as much as ninety-nine percent of the urban population in Ethiopia and Afghanistan live in slums. In China close to two hundred million people are slum-dwellers, as is more than fifty percent of India’s urban population. In this light Lobo’s work offers a window into places far beyond Rio de Janeiro.
This architecture of survival, however, can also help us to understand something about ourselves. Lobo holds a mirror up to the favelas and when we see our urban spaces in that mirror we must question the sustainability of our way-of-being: are our homes dwellings or merely investments; can 10,000 square foot houses ever be homes; do we value community or commodity; can we really afford ordinances that ban clotheslines; what price do we pay for urban spaces driven by the cars we so prize…?
The culture embodied in Lobo’s favela landscapes questions many of our bedrock assumptions about life in the twenty-first century. Cars, clearly, have no place there; the anonymity of life in the suburbs likewise cannot be; and in Rio de Janeiro alone millions of people have lived for generations without the private property in land we cherish. Life there, nonetheless, is fraught; and the drug warlords who play policeman in the favelas only add to the neomedieval feel of houses stacked one atop the other, perched on hills, elegant in their defiance of gravity, threaded all together by narrow, winding paths. Tensions notwithstanding, there are things to be learned or relearned in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

Mark Long, Guest Curator, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of Charleston.



In Nomine Fidei (In the name of faith) is both a quest and a warning. A personal quest for the divine, it is also a broader meditation about the constructive and destructive power of faith. The photographer’s reconstruction through light and angle of buildings and images either built or destroyed – sometimes both - in the name of faith is never silent. Each image tells a story – an intimate or collective tale of faith, hope and suffering. In Nomine Fidei tells us these stories: no words are necessary, each of these stories is left incomplete, for us to fill in with our own hopes and suffering, they form a web of architectural leftovers, ruins and crossroads. They ask us to stop and think. They are the tip of the iceberg of our long-lost hopes. Like a side-road chapel or Shinto temple, they ask for a moment of silence.
What is left of the heritage constructed in the name of some religious beliefs among the visual cacophony of the 21st century and its brand new faiths? What have we destroyed in order to open ourselves to the beliefs of contemporary culture? Was it worth it, sociologically, historically?
There is no religious questioning in Pedro Lobo’s work, as there is no hope of redemption – only an enquiry about what is sacred, and the mysteries of dogmas. His vision enquires about the mystery of transcendence. Through his lenses, a simple sculpture, naked of all attributes, now abandoned in a sacristy next to a light-switch, becomes an “Annunciation”. We follow the downward caress of the light upon that female body emerging from wooden skirts as she appears to surrender to the mystery of faith. We are far from the documental rendering of the sculpture of a saint, once meant to be dressed in full clothing, topped with a wig and carried in a procession – there is something happening here. Deprived of its original meaning by the loss of its hair and attributes, the sculpture acquires new meaning through the eye of the artist, through the apparently simple choices of model, angle and light.
From another side of the religious spectrum, we find Iemanjá the mermaid, Goddess of the Sea in the Candomblé religion, staring at us among the trees of a forest. Here is as photograph of a photograph, a washed down picture of a kitsch drawing, a mirror within a mirror of the powerful rendered powerless, a feared Goddess out of context, reduced to a Greek nymph or even a pin-up poster, yet still staring at us, still powerful …
These appear to be pictures of loss and decay, and yet not really… There is respect and wonder in those pictures. A “revelation” of some kind, maybe, maybe not…
In the early 19th century, Joseph Nicéphone Nièpce (1765-1833), one of the creators of photography, called “heliography” his first attempt– and since then, in smaller or lager degree, photographers have been the “draftsmen of light” as light is their principal tool for the artistic transformation of the objects they appropriate. And it seems curious to acknowledge light was considered in its many forms, one of the ways of the divine revelation.
Over the years, Pedro Lobo has constructed his very personal images without interfering with what he encounters, using architectural photography in order to talk about the human condition, the search for dignity in the humblest dwellings of the Brazilian favelas, and in some of its most dangerous prisons, the search for transcendence in ruined remains of religious buildings, the disappearing sound of folk musicians in the interior of Portugal.
As any work of art, photography is only an interpretation, an attempt to approach the other. The iconological or theological interpretation of works of art is not up to us, art historians: we lack the knowledge of years of theology studies and the directives of each creed. As art historians, we can only attempt an aesthetic reading and a documented search for what artists can or could propose, as far as meaning.
Those remains of by-gone or still surviving faiths, can help us reassess our gains and losses, they pose the same age-old question: as we have proven, once and again, that we cannot, and maybe should not, share the same beliefs – political or religious – how can we at least learn to live together.

Patrícia Telles, art historian, CHAIA, University of Évora, Portugal



“"No one can predict what will happen in history. Essentially the past will continue to be explored. We are still in need of many retroactive forces” Nietszche

Much has been written concerning the crossed dialogues between photography and the visual arts - their importance, their hybrid quality, their radical mutation through the use of digital technology - in short, the gains and losses they bring. With his photo essay on the Architecture of Survival, Pedro Lobo reaches the ideal balance. He is a photographer without ceasing to be an artist. One need only note the plasticity with which he maps the complex urban space - known as Favela - marked by the pile up of houses built on level ground and on the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro - the Brazilian city bathed by the ocean and surrounded by stunning mountain ranges. Let the precision of the eye that scans the little streets and alleys be noted. These spread out, labyrinth-like in a maze: the best example of a disorganized architectonic space, unpredictable and chaotic- framed by the diverse construction of wooden shacks and brick houses that are raised from the community masses.

That is why it is not an exaggeration to claim that these urban conglomerates are the translation of a contemporary Hydra- the seven headed beast- that stretches itself with voracity across big Brazilian cities. In its web, the complex social network- men of the house, single mothers and widows- is entwined with drug lords, religious bosses and public authorities, the latter with insignificant impact when compared to the articulations of the parallel power that dominates the Favelas. The most symptomatic example of this impasse is the media’s portrayal of terror as if nothing in the favelas made any sense apart from proving an immoral slogan whose reversal could only be possible by the solitary conquest of a unique universe that would, in reflecting that exclusion, render it unthinkable.

From this point of view, Pedro Lobo portrays from behind the sophistication of his language, a precise dissection of the popular habitat proposed by a typological series and a certain singling out of the constructions. The visual elegy that emanates from these houses - the precarious balance, the lightness of the chaos, the emergence of an almost possible individuality - contributes in some way to the dilution of the pejorative notions: the favela becomes a poetic shelter (Bachelard), a symptom entirely different from that of disaggregation. But if Pedro Lobo’s proposal brings back the silent presence of things, on the other hand the compelling reality is bathed by the expressive chromatic range of his expression. Operating with the intensity of colors that sometimes translate into blue hues, Lobo reinforces the ambiguity of the forms destined to catalogue a world about to dissolve. He also invokes, in our opinion, the idea of subjectivity (Subjektive Fotografie), such as defended by the German photographer Otto Steiner after World War II. Something of reality awaits to be deciphered from behind the surface of appearances, placing his work in opposition to the discourse of the School of Dusseldorf (Bernd and Hila Becher) which, without artifice, recuperate the idea of neutrality as a basis of a return to the documentary function of photography.

In return, the spectator is invited to walk through the looking glass reflecting the world, experiencing himself or herself the same sensation as Alice, the character created by Lewis Carroll who finds herself torn between reality and dream. The secrets of a “magic box” are thus revealed to us in Lobo’s surprising solutions and strange luminous effects.

Thus is unleashed the subversive power and the vitality of expression when well employed. As Lobo states: “I photograph these buildings in the same way that I would photograph monuments or privileged mansions. I construct these images with geometry, composition and a carefully planned structure, searching for a contemporary result that includes historical references to art and, in particular, to photography.” No doubt, his intention is to reveal another, hidden facet of the favela occluded by the social exclusion of a “broken city”, alluded by the journalist Zuenir Ventura through a perspective unknown to many of us.

In conclusion, the unique trajectory of Pedro Lobo is present in the entirety of his work. The experience as a photographer/researcher at the Fundação Pró-Memória (from 1978 to 1985) possibly helped him to construct an ethnography that moves beyond empirical evidence. Further, his multiple studies in the area of photography, built on over 30 years of visual culture acquired in courses such as those offered by the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) and the International Centre of Photography (New York) has made him one of the most distinguished photographers of his generation. It is this rich brew of experiences that gives rise to the work of Pedro Lobo: asymmetrical, fascinating and, why not say it, profoundly human.

Ângela Magalhães and Nadja Fonseca Peregrino are associated curators. Of special importance, among the critical text published in both Brazilian and international journals, is the book “Fotografia no Brasil: um olhar das origens ao contemporâneo” (Photography in Brazil: from its origins to the contemporary), Ed. Funarte, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2004.