The Favelas of Sao Paulo, Act 1: One Thousand Words


A thousand words will never suffice to tell the story told by this photograph[1].  Thousands of stories could be written that never will.  Stories of lives on either side of that abrupt line.  I try to tell all their stories in two questions: Can an economic miracle be the same time a socio-political disaster?  Does that photograph portray a successful disaster?

I have spent several hours mentally writing the first paragraph of an answer to that question and its accompanying oxymoron.  I could write in hot furious anger, a stream of consciousness, of conscience.  I did not.  That story is for someone else for it is directed into the future, calling for change using anger as the driving force.  I need to do something else.  I want to tell my version, my vision of the backstory of “The Favelas of Brazil: The boundary between wealth and poverty.”  I need a cooler head to write my story.  A photograph, a thousand words, will not suffice to tell it.

I study that photograph.  It hammers into the recesses of my mind and gradually a story emerges forged by those blows upon the anvil of my thought.  On right side is the economic miracle of today’s winner-take-all globalized free market.  On the left side is the social catastrophe of today’s winner-take-all globalized free market: the losers get the left-overs.  The two are tightly linked, faces of a single coin: wealth and poverty.  An economic success may be a socio-political disaster.  A simplistic analysis?  Yes, but a place to start.

Then I focus on that fence between right and left, between privilege and privation.  What is the story of the fence?  How did a social species divide a common geographical space into such a starkly contrasting social distance with a physical barrier?  That fence is a singularity marking a binary – there is no gradation, no grey.  It is black and white, light and dark.  How and why was that socio-economic distance – socio-economic class – generated, how is it maintained, what is its function, what are the consequences?

“Fences make good neighbors.”  Are the right and the left in this photograph good neighbors?  Or forced enemies?  I need to understand that fence that defines a binary socio-economic space in a social species.

Long before I saw this photograph, I wrote two phrases.  They adumbrate my story, the story I wish to figure out and then tell:

Worth Less Than a Mule In a Mine

The Origin of Labor at the Dawn of Civilization

These phrases are the temporal bookends of my story.  I started with the question “Why is our labor, our lives, so often worth less than that of the mule in the mine.”  To the owner of the mine, we just showed up hungry looking for work, more of us than he needed.  We were almost free, freely fungible, of little value.  He had to buy the mule – it was more valuable and more cared for.  We had to feed the mule better than we could feed ourselves and our families.  His investment must be protected.[2]

I thought backwards in time seeking the origin of labor, looking for the logic of the iniquity of inequality.  Inequality works.  Labor and the inequality of labor and wealth is the basis of our lives, our nation, and of nations, empires, city states, and civilizations.  Those condominiums, the favelas of Brazil are a neartime end point of my story.  The beginning is a long ways backtime.  The origin of labor and poverty, of this wretched inequality, is at the dawn of civilization.  Labor and poverty appear at the same time as wealth.

What does it mean to say “You will work for me?”  What social relationships are implied in this statement?  How did these relationships develop?  What is the function of these relationships?

I organize.  You work.    I am greater, you are lesser.  I own.  You may purchase from me by work. I am worth more; you are worth less.

My survival supersedes yours.  I will force a transfer of fitness from you to me.  I sequester resources by requiring you to deliver the bounteous harvest.  You will glean the grain that falls to the ground.  I and my children eat well and grow sleek on the harvest.  You and your children will eat only enough to work for me.  If I do not need you, if you do not please me, you and your children will starve.  This is beyond dominance.  This is raw power, an intra-mural predator/prey relationship, not an extra-mural eating of another species – it is eating one’s own.  “Man is a wolf to man.”[3]  Why and how did we get  here, construct upon the base of a social species a social structure that built that fence and its inequality?  What are the consequences of that social structure, that fence?

I now write the statements which will inform my story as:

The Origin of Poverty at the Dawn of Civilization

 The Origin of Socio-Economic Class at the Dawn of Civilization

 The question that furrows my brow is ‘how did we get from gatherer/hunter to luxury condominiums and favelas?  That narrative arc has forced socio-economic inequalities in every known civilization.  So far as the anthropologists have been able to figure out, that level of inequality is not found in today’s gatherer/ hunter/forager societies and not in those of pre-history.  What are the consequences of that narrative arc – of getting from gatherer/hunter to luxury condominiums?  How and why?

That picture and my four phrases encapsulate my thoughts over many years.  If the economic miracle on the right side had not been accomplished, the favelas on the left would not exist.  But then the condominiums would not exist either.  H. sapiens would be constrained to wandering bands of gatherer/hunters.[4]  The economic miracle is a success story, or is it?

If I could reify and personify nature, give it a mind and a voice, and then ask nature to look around at the works of man both sociological and environmental, what would it say?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?  We are that mind, that voice of nature.  But that mind and voice are as sharply dissociated as the photograph.  Economic miracle or socio-economic disaster?


The photo came in over the transom, to use a metaphor that I introduced earlier, in a collection of photos circulated on the Internet.  It has been variously attributed to Johnny Miller of South Africa and Fernando Alan.  The correct attribution however appears to be Tuca Vieira:

The photograph was used with this attribution in an article on the favelas of Paraisopolis, Sao Paulo, Brazil:

The legend in the photo I used appears to be added later.  Paraisopolis translates to Paradise City in English.  It is a section of Sao Paulo, Brazil:

I recommend at least a quick read of this article to get a more balanced view of Sao Paulo.  The irony of a favela in Paradise City is inescapable and jamming that into eyes and minds is the intent of the photograph.

At one time I had a book about the photographs taken by Jacob Riis in the slums of New York City.  The author’s thesis was that a photograph selects elements of a much larger scene.  While appearing to be an image of verity, the selection of particular visual elements has the potential to distort the viewer’s perception, thinking, and conclusions.  Photographs may be editorial – intending to drive an emotion or a conclusion.  That photograph drove mine.

I have set out some of my emotion and thought in this essay.  In a sense I wrote more sociological and less psychological, that is, the major question was “what and why are we doing?” and the lesser question was “what and why am I doing?”  In my next essay I will take this one apart to find out what I was doing.  Archaeology of the mind.  Curiosity, play and exploration.  See you then.

[1] One photograph is worth a thousand words.

[2] I have read of this in the English and American coal mines and the hard rock mineral mines of the western United States.  It was one source of labor activism in the late 1800’s et seq.

[3] For an excellent discussion of this maxim see  Taken at face value it slanders the wolves, for a wolf is not a wolf to a wolf, they are not self-predatory – they share.  At the same time, it expresses a known truth for H. sapiens in civilization.

[4] The expression should be written in this order because throughout prehistory women probably gathered more calories more reliably.  We were more gatherer than hunter.  This is summarized in the maxim “The women go where the food is and the men go where the women are.”