Inequality in Sao Paulo, Brazil between the favela of Paraisopolis and the apartment buildings of Morumbi.

The "most famous photo" of inequality in Brazil: Paraisopolis, São Paulo. 

Brazil is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. 
For starters, it's huge: Over 211 million people and the fifth biggest country by area. 
It's diverse: the racial makeup of the average Brazilian ranges from European to African to Indigenous to Asian (São Paulo actually has the world's largest Japanese population outside of Japan). It's got incredible cultural, religious, and culinary heritage that are both traditional and new. 
 It's instantly recognizable: the Amazon rainforest, the beaches, the Carnival are all here, and they are truly larger than life. Better than those, though, is the warmth and welcoming of Brazilian people. In most countries, this might be said as a platitude without really meaning it, but in Brazil it is absolutely true. The people are really incredible.  
Lastly, and most distressingly, Brazil is completely unequal. 
It's the democratic country with the highest concentration of income in the top 1 per cent. Millions of people live in slums in plain sight of affluent mansions and beaches, or are forgotten altogether. Crime and corruption exist side by side with law and order, and journalists, politicians, and activists are killed defending human and environmental rights. And the problem of inequality in Brazil is getting worse
slums and hotels at sunset, Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro Brazil.

The favela of Cantagalo overlooks some of the highest price real estate in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro's famous south zone.

Reflection of a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This office building and hotel complex reflects the Morro de Providencia favela in Rio de Janeiro.

Favelas in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Favela houses glow orange in the sun during a break in the clouds over São Paulo.

Yacht club next to a favela, Niteroi, Brazil.

The Jurujuba Yacht Club offers accommodation and berthing slips for sailors in its strategic location in Guanabara Bay. Next to it, across a narrow fence, sits a traditional fishing colony. 

In the early 2000s the story in Brazil was mixed. Much like in other parts of the world, the middle class shrank as production and technical jobs moved offshore (mainly to Asia) and processes became automated. This resulted in gains for the poorest and for the rich, but a relative sinking of the middle class, a broad trend not dissimilar to the USA. This actually resulted in Brazil's Gini coefficient dropping during the period 2000-2015. 
However, a financial crisis brought about by low commodity prices (Brazil's economy being dependent on commodities such as oil, soy, and metals) and a political crisis brought about by corruption scandals (resulting in the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff) destroyed Brazil's once vibrant economy. The rebound since then has been largely unequal, with the top 1% seeing a 10% rise in income after the crisis ended, as compared with the poorest people, who suffered a drop of over 17%. This has sent Brazilian inequality measures to their highest levels in a decade. 
The story of the future is hardly yet written, but ominous signs are appearing. A new President, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected in 2018 on a platform of neoliberal economics, resource extractivism, and populist appeals. The COVID-19 crisis has gripped Brazil, with high death tolls and a "hands-off approach" from the Presidency that has been widely condemned as disproportionately affecting poor communities. Lastly, the economic impact of the worldwide shutdowns is expected to hit developing economies particularly hard, and especially those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Far from being a virus which is a "great leveler", the future increasingly looks like a dire dystopia of those with "access" health care, jobs, and services...and those without. 

A rainstorm in Manaus moves over the boundary between the Amazon rainforest and the city.

Inequality in Santos, Guaruja, Brazil.

Separation in Guarujá, in São Paulo state. 

drone picture of rich and poor in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Belo Horizonte is famous for its "beautiful horizon", due to the many rolling hills surrounding this mining town. 

Fishing village next to skyscrapers, Salvador, Brazi.

A traditional fishing colony sits underneath skyscrapers in Salvador, on Brazil's northeast coast. 

Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Rocinha, perhaps Latin America's most famous favela, sits on a steep mountainside with Rio's famous south zone in the background. 

São Paulo, as is often said, is a big place. It's the world's fourth-largest city, the largest in the Western hemisphere, and by far Brazil's most important. 
But strangely, São Paulo is also in some ways a small place. It's got a warm, friendly feel, with distinct neighborhoods that felt strangely walkable. Almost everyone lives in 30 and 40-story high rise apartment buildings, meaning the population density is much higher than a comparably sized American or European city, and services are much more clustered together. Rarely do you need to walk far to a supermarket or a restaurant in SP...and when you get there, you probably know everyone inside. 
Moreover, I already felt like I knew the city, or at least one specific part of it, the part which is so synonymous with the term "inequality" that people put it on book covers that don't even have to do with Brazil.  
Of course I am talking about the famous photo of inequality that Brazilian photographer Tuca Vieira took in 2004. Not only does Tuca work in the same medium of aerial photography as I do, he also experienced a strange sort of “fame” from his photograph, which I saw as a kind of a parallel history to mine, 16 years apart.
Inequality in Sao paulo, Brazil.

São Paulo, Brazil. 

Inequality in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Morumbi - the wealthy area next to Paraisopolis, São Paulo.

Inequality in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Three iconic apartment buildings at the center of Brazilian inequality, made famous by Tuca Vieira. 

Vieira was working as a photojournalist for the daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo when he shot the iconic image of the São Paulo favela of Paraisópolis next to its wealthy neighbor Morumbi, from a helicopter (with film, no less). He told me that even though the image was published in the newspaper, it wasn’t a hit right away — only later, once a European magazine ran the image, did it achieve a kind of virality in the early days of the internet.
Vieira found success with the image, winning awards, exhibiting the work, and being published in many outlets, but with that success came a distorted understanding of inequality in Brazil. The image became, and remains, a symbol of excess, divorced from not only its author, but in part, from São Paulo and Brazil as well.
Vieira writes on his website, “In this building with the pools are not the richest, who, in turn, do not live close to the poorest, who, in turn, are not residents of Paraisópolis…Perhaps this is the great merit of the photo. It freed itself from the author and the original context to enrich a debate about Brazil, about Latin America, about inequality. For a socialist’s son, raised in an environment of indignation and desire for social transformation, nothing could be more rewarding.”
Sunset over Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Sunset over the hills surrounding Belo Horizonte. 

Sheraton hotel and favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Morro de Vidigal is a historic favela which encircles the luxury Sheraton Resort hotel like a set of pincers. On the opposite side of this mountain is the huge favela of Rocinha. 

Inequality in Salvador, Brazil.

Salvador, Brazil. 

Gated estate in Santos, Brazil.

Santos, Brazil.

Something about Vieira's words rang true for me. Since arriving in Brazil, I had lost count of the number of times someone said that Vieira’s photograph “doesn’t represent real Brazilian society.” And it’s true — Paraisópolis is well situated for a favela. It's close to wealth, to transportation, and to jobs in more affluent communities that surround it. Most favelas in São Paulo are located on the periphery, far away from fancy apartment buildings of the kind that looms large in that photo. Those favelas are forgotten, unknown to foreign photographers in helicopters and newspaper editors. In this sense, the critics are absolutely right.
But wait. Isn’t it still a “true image”? Isn’t it still a legitimate photograph of Brazilian society? It hasn’t been Photoshopped. It hasn’t been dreamed up as “fake news.” This place, this view, exists. And, moreover, how could a photograph be any more nuanced than what it already is? It's our understanding of the image which can become more nuanced — but not the image itself.
About two weeks ago after arriving in São Paulo, I met with Vieira and we agreed to recreate his famous 2004 helicopter flight over Paraisópolis. Unsurprisingly, the divide was still there, and the eerie, somewhat abandoned-looking luxury apartment block still looms over the squat brick houses below. What I didn’t expect was the radical change from 2004 in the built environment. Homes in the favela have been replaced, or modified completely. The road is obscured by new development, the trees are now fully grown, and even the wall seems less imposing. The two photos, 16 years apart, are recognizable as siblings but also distinctly different. It made me reflect that maybe this is part of the importance of aerial photography — not the fact that a single image can sum up “the truth,” or has nuance, or does not, but that by freezing a moment of time we can create comparisons, data points of our own.
(Read the entire blog with both of our images on's website.)
Leme Beach, Rio de Janeiro Brazil.

Leme Beach is a lively mix of favela and affluence, that would probably not work in any other city in the world. Here, it's normal - and by and large, people get along.

Dense floating favelas near Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The largest port in Latin America, Santos, is surrounded by informal homes on stilts extending out over the water called palafitas. 

Sunlight shines onto a favela, Sao Paulo Brazil.

São Paulo.

Inequality in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro.

Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Vila Autódromo, at the site of the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

Vila Autódromo - a story of David and Goliath.
Accused of being at turns a safety risk, an impediment to development, and an environmental hazard, residents of Vila Autódromo, near Barra de Tijuca in Rio's west zone, have been threatened with eviction and “upgrading” measures for many years. There are many favelas and low income housing areas in the west zone (the film "City of God" was shot nearby) but the decision to host the 2016 Olympic Games, and the selection of the location alongside the Lagoa de Jacarepaguá (immediately adjacent to Vila Autódromo) finally turned those threats into reality. 
Developers wanted to turn the entire lakeside into a mix of Olympic facilities, roads and other improvements, and Vila Autódromo did not factor into those plans. Many saw a clear anti-poverty agenda in the actions of the state and private developers, and accusations of hasty development decisions, corruption, and anti-poor motives soon surfaced. Owing to previous successful actions of community organizing, residents of Vila Autódromo came together to protest the decision to resettle them, a protest which gained strength and notoriety due to a series of confrontations and the energetic presence of one resident in particular, Maria da Penha. “They smashed up my face, demolished my home and called me crazy. But I knew the value of my land. I like living here and you cannot put a price tag on happiness. If I left this land, I would not find anywhere like it, because here I have my history, my roots”, da Penha writes in a moving essay
Vila Autodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Vila Autódromo has 20 houses today, down from several thousands inhabitants in the early 2000s.

Finally, after many negotiations, demolitions, protest action, and community organization (and international media attention) the City conceded that “anyone who wanted to stay could stay” in Vila Autodromo. But most people, by that point, had already left. The ones who did stay attempted to force the developers to adhere to a community plan for redevelopment, something that at one point was agreed to but never followed through with. 
The current iteration is an orphan, a strange polyp hanging off of the side of the Olympic Park. Gone is the access to the water, the community spirit, and most of the former residents.
“Vila Autódromo has become the symbol of the price paid by some Cariocas for the celebration of the Olympic Games in the city” wrote Maria Martin in 2016, about the same time as backhoes were demolishing the last of the remaining houses from the original community of over 3000 residents. Adam Talbot, writing for The Conversation asks, "Anyone who wants to see a fair Olympic Games – one which lives up to the promises of peace and respect made in the Olympic Charter – can add their voice to those already asking, “Olimpíadas para quem?” (“who are the Olympics for?”).” 
For the Brazilians I’ve talked to, four years later, the hope of an equitable city free from corruption and anti-poor politics is still far, far off. 
There is a great timeline of the events of Vila Autódromo's resistance movement and removal here.
It’s noteworthy to remark that the City and the community had competing plans for the rebuilding of Vila Autódromo - the city’s plan is here and the “People’s Plan” is here.
Inequality in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Apartment buildings constructed for the 2016 Olympics sit colorfully alongside the Lagoa de Tijuca, opposite a sprawling favela.

Inequality in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Accusations of corruption and nepotism have dogged Rio developers for years, and the 2014 World Cup 2016 Olympics were at the top of the list for land grab and power plays. Multiple prominent politicians have been jailed or accused of corruption in the past few years, including the Mayor in December 2020. 

Arpoador, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Copacabana beach at sunset is stunningly beautiful. 

Inequality in Salvador, Brazil.

Vast differences in the housing stock exist in Salvador, Brazil.

Recylcler in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

An informal recycler carrying aluminum cans on Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro.

A quilomobo next to a mountain, Rio de Janeiro Brazil.

A quilombo, or autonomous community of free slaves, still exists amongst the opulence of the Lagoa neighborhood in Rio's south zone.

Do you know what a Quilombo is?

The word means “an autonomous community of fugitive slaves” in the Brazilian context, and is an important part of Afro-Brazilian history.

The first quilombos emerged in the context of expansion of the colonial economic activity of sugar cane in Northeast Brazil, with resistance as a basic characteristic. Most can be found today in Bahia and Maranhão states, although the most famous was called Quilombo dos Palmares, and was located in present-day Alagoas. It was here that capoeira was said to have been first arisen, and the iconography of this powerful and large “Free-slave community” became a symbol of African resistance.

In Rio there are very few quilombos, however this one (the three buildings in the center of the image) is called Quilombo Sacopã and is located right in the middle of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Rio (Lagoa). Surrounded by mansions and luxury high-rise buildings, several families continue to live here and resist efforts to buy them out (there is a great interview with José Luiz Pinto, who can trace his lineage back 6 generations, here.

Thanks to the Brazilian Constitution, families living in quilombos are guaranteed the title to that land, meaning that for now, the 32 residents of Quilombo Sacopã and others are secure. There is a growing sense that Brazil is beginning to deal with its history as part of the Atlantic slave trade, examples being a new slave trade museum under construction in Rio and a Black Awareness Day holiday signed into law in 2011. Many feel, however, that it is well past the time for the country to fully account for being the number one destination for African slaves in the Americas, numbering well over 5 million (2 million were sent to the port of Rio alone) Moreover, Brazil’s ethnic geography is vast and while progress is happening in some areas of racial justice, others are notably sliding backwards (treatment of indigenous people in the Amazon, for example).

A quilomobo next to a mountain, Rio de Janeiro Brazil.

The Sacopá and Peixoto neighborhoods, near Copacabana Beach.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Sacopá Quilombo is to the right in the photo (blue tarps).

The favela do moinho, the last favela in downtown Sao Paulo Brazil.

The Moinho favela is the last favela inside the central district in São Paulo. It sits sandwiched between two train tracks. 

Golf course and favela, Rio de Janeiro Brazil.

Itanhangá Golf Estate, Rio de Janeiro.

Downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Lapa, Rio de Janeiro. 

Inequality in Salvador, Brazil.

Salvador, Bahia.

Car dealership next to a favela, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

A Porsche dealership next to a favela, Belo Horizonte.

The Port of Santos, the largest in Latin America. 

Inequality in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The famous Santa Marta favela, Rio de Janeiro. 

You may also like

Back to Top