“You Make Us Look At People We Do Not Look At”: An Interview with Photographer Marc Ohrem-Leclef
Photographer Marc Ohrem-Leclef never met Marielle Franco—the black, gay city councilwoman who was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro on March 14 and who is now being called a modern-day Harvey Milk—but his years of documenting life in the favelas of Rio brought him into contact with the people Franco represented and inspired: mothers, activists, and members of the LGBTQ community.
“She was a rising star and a symbol of hope for people who didn’t have a voice,” Ohrem-Leclef told me in a phone interview less than a week after Franco and her driver were killed in a politically motivated drive-by-shooting. “Her assassination is a reminder of the violence and police brutality in favelas. Marielle spoke out against police brutality pretty much right away when she was voted into office. That’s why so many people wanted her dead.”
Ohrem-Leclef spent four years, from 2012 to 2016, trying to put a human face on Rio’s campaign to remove thousands of residents from favelas and, in many cases, reshape the city’s landscape. Favelas are sometimes referred to as “slums” or “shantytowns” and are most often in the news for drug trafficking and gang violence. Ohrem-Leclef sought to capture a different side of life for those who call favelas home. His book of photos, Olympic Favela, was released during the World Cup in 2014 and focuses on the fight against evictions in the buildup to that event and the 2016 Summer Olympics. He adapted Olympic Favela into a short film that premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2016. Last year, he screened the film in Rio with some of the film’s subjects in attendance.
“I always thought Rio was stunning and gorgeous,” Ohrem-Leclef said. “But I never really felt the heart and soul of the city until I went to the favelas.”
Ohrem-Leclef first traveled to Brazil more than a decade ago to do a photoshoot for a pharmaceutical company. He was working as a commercial photographer at the time. “We took lifestyle photos of happy people on the beach,” he said. “At that point, my interaction with the favelas was next to none.”
One morning, Ohrem-Leclef and his team were on their way to another beach location when their bus broke down. Ohrem-Leclef recalls that his producer was nervous about any white people getting off the bus because they were next to Rocinha, one of Rio’s largest favelas.
It was around this time, in 2006, that Ohrem-Leclef started hearing about evictions in Beijing as China prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Working with a local NGO, Catalytic Communities, Ohrem-Leclef, with help from a translator named Cafe, decided to go into the favelas to depict life there before the government demolished these neighborhoods to make way for stadiums, highways and Olympic housing.
The ensuing project consumed Ohrem-Leclef’s professional life for the next few years. (His current work, for which he received a MacDowell Fellowship, documents male intimacy in India. It consists of hundreds of portraits and hours of interviews.)
Ohrem-Leclef, who is openly gay, described a vibrant gay scene in the favelas in spite of the powerful influence of the Catholic Church. “There are queer people left and right in the favelas. You spend time with people, get to know them and you say, ‘Oh, duh, she has kids and she’s with a woman!’ And there are the flamboyant boys who go out at night. I never felt like I needed to be extra careful because of my sexuality,” Ohrem-Leclef added. “I didn’t meet anyone who had an issue with it.”
In many of Ohrem-Leclef’s photos, like the one on the cover of the spring issue of Foglifter, residents are pictured defiantly holding aloft emergency flares, a reference to the Olympic torch and to historic imagery like Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.”The elderly woman pictured on the cover of Foglifter is a retired seamstress who used to work in one of Rio’s municipal theaters. Her friends and family call her Vò Zeze. (Vò means “grandmother” in Portuguese; Zeze is a nickname.)
In 2013, when Ohrem-Leclef took Vò Zeze’s photo, her home and garden in Colonia J. Moreira, a densely forested community in Rio’s West Zone, were slated for destruction to make way for a highway connecting the Olympic Village to nearby stadiums. Look closely at the photo and you can see the red spray paint from Rio’s housing authority, Secretaria Municipal de Habitação, on the palm tree next to her. Eventually, Vò Zeze was able to save her house. The highway was moved to the forest a few hundred yards away.
Ohrem-Leclef and I chatted about taking photos that go beyond traditional news coverage, how people in the favelas responded to his work, and being out as a photographer.
GM: The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are sometimes called “slums” or “shanty towns.” Other times they’re referred to, euphemistically, as “low-income neighborhoods.” For people who may not be familiar with the term “favela,” can you define it in your own words?
MOL: They are informal settlements that occupy parcels of unused land throughout the city’s varied topography. The difference we see in the fourteen favelas I worked in is that people there built houses to last. Some favelas are a hundred years old, so there’s a lot of history there. They’re proper neighborhoods even if they’re not drawn by city planners. It’s actually sort of rare to see huts made of corrugated steel or weaker materials. Yes, there are problems with sewage, water and electricity but there’s also a lot of making-do. Some of the places I worked were borderline middle class. Some of them had pools in the back. These are neighborhoods that have been around and will be around barring the state grabbing land back.
GM: Olympic Favelaseems like a reaction to sensationalized news coverage. Is it?
MOL: I had this impulse to portray people in a value-free way, just as people, outside of that moment of defeat with the bulldozer coming, the news-type photography that shows people in a moment of loss and injury. That was the impulse. I feel like these people need to be shown in a different way, because they’re people like you and me. Having been in Rio before and not really engaging with the community, I knew they were treated as people who are not worthy.
GM: How did people in the favelas respond to you?
MOL: It took a long time for people to trust me—the white guy with the big camera—but once they did it was very personal. They were clearly compelled to share their stories, and they have since been really supportive and embraced my work. The beauty in being around people over four years, even if there are big gaps in between, is you see what they’re going through and they’re not delivering something to you. They’re just being themselves.
Over the course of a long-term project like this, you’re always concerned that people may change their mind or that there’s something that makes them not want to be part of the project anymore. But that never happened. Everyone was very happy. I’d bring everyone I photographed little prints. A lot of these people are poor, so for them to have a photo taken and get it printed is not something that happens that much. Even just that simple gesture of returning with a print means something, for me as much as for them.
GM: You’ve traveled all over the world for work. What was it like sticking in one place for a while?
MOL: Part of what motivated me to do this work and stick with it for four years was that it told the story of home and connection to the land, which is something I don’t know in that way. I moved from Germany to the US years ago. This ability to pack up and go, like I do, is the opposite end of the spectrum from someone who has built their home with their own hands and is trying to stay there and keep it alive. There was something to be learned from that experience.
I’ve befriended a circle of filmmakers and creative people in Brazil through working on Olympic Favela. All of them have been super supportive. They said, “None of us could have done what you did because we couldn’t have gone in with a clean slate and a balanced perspective because of how we’re raised to look at these people and these communities.” That meant a lot. For as much as being an outsider limits your access in some fashion, it also gives you a perspective that people who are raised closer to the subject matter may not have. One of my friends said to me, “You make us look at people we do not look at.”
GM: I wonder, as a gay man, if you’ve felt like an outsider and that’s given you an outsider’s gaze into all these different worlds. Or is that a stretch?
MOL: I think that’s a bit of a stretch. The one thing that probably is connected is, growing up being a minority, I think it’s made me be sensitive to the fact that I just want to be seen as who I am and that’s how I want to show people, as who they are. I don’t want to create portraits that impose any sort of value onto their persona. A lot of people, knowing the subject matter of Olympic Favela, were surprised when they saw the work because, they said, people looked so proud and resilient. And I was like, “They are. They are strong, they are proud, they are happy. But they’re also going through a really shitty, hard time and are really afraid. They don’t know if tomorrow people with sledgehammers will show up and take down their houses.” I chose purposefully to show my subjects in moments of dignity and pride.
GM: Were you out to the people you photographed in the favelas? Was that a topic of conversation?
MOL: It really wasn’t because it wasn’t part of the work. Some people knew. I hung around for weeks at a time over the course of four years, so of course some knew. We didn’t ever really talk about it. The most important thing when you do this kind of work is that you have to be yourself, you have to be human. I don’t ever lie or hide anything, but I also don’t want to make it about myself. It’s about them, not me.
GM: Let’s get back to the star of the show, Vò Zeze. I loved the photo you took of her the second I saw it. What do you think it is about that image that makes it perfect for the cover of a queer magazine? What was her vibe?
MOL: She’s not outwardly feisty, but she’s a strong woman. I think that’s one of the reasons why the image is one of the important ones in the series. There was the directness of the beauty and the looming destruction. She embodies these two sides, the David and the Goliath, and she embodies it because she’s this frail little old lady, yet she stands there proud and strong with the flare and is ready to take on the fight. Which she did, and she was successful with her neighbors: The highway was moved into the forest. It’s still there, really close to her home, but she didn’t lose her home.
And then there’s her personal story. Hearing her talk about working her whole life in the theater, it illustrates the fact that these people no one wants to talk about, they’re all around you in Rio. They work in your hotel. They drive your taxi. They make costumes for the opera you attend. They coexist with you, yet they’re really disregarded in many ways.
GM: Did she like your photos of her?
MOL: I visited her a bunch of times after I took the photos. She has a copy of the book and she was super happy with it. I think she was proud to see her story being validated.
GM: Let’s talk about your next project. You’re working on series of photos and interviews about male intimacy in India. I’ve had the chance to see some of the work. It’s incredible.
MOL: In a way, the India project is even more personal than Olympic Favela. It takes a look at India as the country goes through a period of rapid development and social change. Same-sex intimacy has always been around in India and ambiguity was traditionally accepted. But the sense of patriarchy is strong there and the idea of two men having sex is associated with shame. Against that backdrop, we now have a queer generation fighting for equality.
ABOUT MARC OHREM-LECLEF
Marc Ohrem-Leclef’s work has been exhibited in Brazil, Germany, India, Spain, the UK and US and reviewed in Artnews, Artforum, British Journal of Photography, Hyperallergic, Out, Slate, The New Yorker and The Advocate. It is held in the collection of Museo de Arte do Rio (Brazil).
Olympic Favela, a book of photographs by Ohrem-Leclef with a text by Luis Perez-Oramas (MoMA), was named “best of 2014” by American Photo Magazine.
Ohrem-Leclef is currently working on a project that explores male intimacy, friendship and love in India.
Signed copies of Olympic Favela can be purchased directly from the artist ($50 including shipping within US). Email email@example.com. For more information about Olympic Favela, visit www.olympicfavela.com or www.marcleclef.net.
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Greg Marshall is the recipient of residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo and is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. Leslie Jamison chose his essay “If I Only Had a Leg” for Best American Essays 2017. Find him on Twitter @gregrmarshall or on his website, gregrmarshall.com.