Rocinha: giving away disposable cameras in Rio de Janeiro
In January I spent a couple of weeks in Rio, as part of my first vacation in almost two years. I have this whole CDC-be-damned attitude when it comes to prohibitions on using third-world icecubes, drinking third-world water, or eating third-world street food, which usually makes me a daring stud, but in January it made me violently ill and that illness lingered for months after I got home.
The physical drama of Rio is pretty unique: you turn a street corner downtown and three blocks ahead a steep mountainside rises out of the urban maze, lush jungle green against the grey-beige city. The beaches are crowded, and little islands dot the shoreline along the coast. And as you’ve probably heard, people walk around with no clothes on. Not just the beautiful people; I watched a mass of skin and rippling fat spill out of a bus wearing only a speedo, and thought: where does he keep his money? or his keys?
And machismo and sex are in the air. A guy in my hostel got his face broken by a roving gang of drunken Brazilians during New Year’s, near Copacabana beach.
My friend Costin says that northern Brazil is “America Squared.” He’s got a point: the store shelves are piled high with Red Bull and bleach-front jeans. Energy drinks seemed especially appropriate there, but I couldn’t find a sedative stronger than chamomile in the whole city. Save, of course, the Caipirinha.
I only spent 12 days in Brazil, so though I may have impressions, I can’t claim any real understanding or deep insight. And mainly I was just convalescing and admiring what an incredible city Brazil has. But I did do one interesting thing while I was there.
Built up on the hillsides that surround the city are intricate and crowded slums called favelas. The best-known favela in Rio is Cidade de Deus, made famous by that fabulous movie of the same name.
In our hostel, there was a guy who took small groups into Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, with about 250,000 inhabitants. You ride a motorcycle taxi up to the top of the hill and then walk back down through the favela’s twisty, shoulder-width streets. My friends and I had serious reservations about going — it seemed exploitative to tour someone’s neighborhood, especially if that someone has much less money than you, notably not a feeling I have about walking around the wealthy neighborhoods in Boston or taking the 9-mile drive in Monterrey — but curiosity eventually got the better of us and we went.
And it was fascinating. First off, it was visually intense: the tiny houses and crazy vertical separation from one street to the next made the whole place feel like an ewok village, and ensured that every rooftop had a stunning view of Copacabana beach, Corcovado, and the rest of Rocinha curving up and around the mountain.
And whether or not we were exploiting them, people were very friendly, and little kids ran out of their houses excited to see us. I let them use my camera, and showed them pictures of themselves on the LCD, and they’d laugh and call their friends over.
As we’re nearing the bottom of the hill and starting to head home, I was thinking about how much the kids enjoyed using my camera, and wouldn’t it be interesting to see what they photographed on their own, if they had their own cameras.
And so The Plan was formed.
A few of us from the hostel spent the next several hours buying out the disposable camera inventory of every street-side camera store we could find. Prices varied widely, though film and developing were very expensive in Rio, so there was much talk of “volume discounts” and we had to buy a few underwater cameras that would never be used underwater because stores were closing and our mission was Urgent.
The next morning, we went back into the favela and started passing out cameras. We were mobbed. It was sad not to have enough cameras for everyone, but we tried to encourage people to share.
The main logistical trick, should you ever want to do this yourself, is to take a picture of the recipient with the camera before giving it to him. Then, after the roll is developed, you’ll know which prints belong to which person. Unfortunately, the first shot on a disposable camera is sometimes a little bit overexposed, and so we didn’t get scans of two of the first photos. I still have the negatives, so I’ll fill those in at some point.
The return rate was pretty good; many of the kids were waiting in the street from 7am to noon for us to pick up their cameras. We got 26 back out of maybe 32 we handed out. This amounted to 632 photos. Many of them are excellent, especially for someone who’s probably never used a camera before, and with a cheap disposable. Some are sad, some are funny.
After I got back and started telling this story to people, I read a newspaper article about some Kodak marketing team that hands cameras out to starving kids in Kenya and posts their photos on kodak.com somewhere, and it made me sick. So I don’t know if my project will disgust you. We did our best to explain the project to everyone who got a camera, some people declined, and everyone who got prints was thrilled to have them.