Poverty in North America by O Cruzeiro, 1961

We look back at the photoessay that sparked a geopolitical rivalry between the United States and Brazil during the Cold War

On June 16th 1961 appeared in LIFE an eight-page spread titled, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” LIFE had sent its first African American photographer, Gordon Parks, to Brazil to document the conditions in the favelas of Rio. In the United States, the essay was well-received with letters and donations pouring in, and LIFE ran two further stories to help the family featured in Park’s essay.

In Brazil, however, outrage followed. The country’s economy was in crisis but its new president Jânio Quadros had earlier in the year rejected $300m (£234m) in foreign aid from the United States. Quadros reckoned that in return, he would have to oppose Castro’s Cuba and surrender Brazil’s autonomy. Now with LIFE magazine spread, many Brazilians thought it was a national insult.

O Cruzeiro was the Brazilian equivalent to LIFE magazine, but its editors had strong nationalist leanings. (They already clashed in Paris Match in 1951 over a reportage of Afro-Brazilian religious culture in Salvador, Bahia). They objected to LIFE coming to Brazil to point out problems that also existed in the United States. The magazine sent its own photographer, Henri Ballot, to New York City.

He photographed the impoverished communities in Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, and heeding Stanley Ross, editor of El Diario de Nueva York (a New York-published magazine in Spanish read by ‘almost one million Puerto Ricans’), he followed Puerto Rican immigrants Felix and Esther Gonzalez. The Gonzalezes who lived with their six children in a dilapidated, vermin-infested tenement block on Rivington Street.

His photos were published in the 7 October 1961 issue of O Cruzeiro. “Story of the Misery in the Favelas of New York” ran for 14 pages. O Cruzeiro’s editors put the essay together in a layout that directly corresponded to LIFE’s layout, and underscored its point by publishing Ballot’s photos next to insets showing Park’s original favela photos. The central image was the Empire State building, a counterpoint to Park’s photo of the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking the favelas. This deliberate layout invited accusations that Ballot was specifically ordered to get certain type of images. Especially controversial were the photos showing one child sleeping with three enormous cockroaches on his bare skin and another with a bandage covering a rat bite on his forehead.

O Cruzeiro had on its cover the bold words: “Reporter Henri Ballot discovers a new North American record in New York: MISERY.”

Inside, it wrote:

We cannot deny the existence of Rio’s favelas here. … In his report for Life, Gordon Parks chose one of the most acute cases of poverty found in our favelas: a family of northeasterners coming to Rio, with eight minor children, whose father was in a state of disability, as a result of an accident at work. Parks, on top of everything else, took one of the members of this family and took him to the United States for exhibition. As if the misery were exclusively ours. It is not. In New York , Chicago, and other cities in the USA and other countries, there are cases equal to – or worse – than those reported by Gordon Parks. See how, in North America, poverty is also breaking records.

On October 20, 1961, Time magazine (a sister publication to LIFE) hit back:

“O Cruzeiro’s account of slum life “in the shadow of the Chase Manhattan and First National City Bank” was every bit as graphic as the LIFE study of Rio. Ballot’s picture of eight Gonzaleses crowded into a single slum-house bedroom had much the same impact as Parks’s shot of the Rio favelados crowded into theirs. Fact was that Ballot’s most moving picture—Gonzales’ frail nine-year-old son Ely-Samuel asleep on a dirty mattress and apparently crawling with cockroaches—was posed. The photographer caught and distributed the roaches for his purpose. Still, the picture was no distortion of fact: in the Gonzaleses one-room apartment Cameraman Ballot found an inexhaustible supply of his crawling photographic prop.”

Time also interviewed the Gonzalez family later, who noted that Ballot had indeed staged the photo. 

But O Cruzeiro would not back down. It was in dire financial condition, due to its attempts to create a Spanish edition: the previous president Juscelino Kubitschek wanted to make Brazilian media prominent in South America, but the promised federal fundings never materialized for O Cruzeiro. O Cruzeiro wanted to use the controversy as a platform to raise its profile as the defender of Latin American pride and in its November 18, 1961 edition, the magazine responded by accusing Parks too of staging his reportage — that one of his photos was taken at noon, instead of in early morning as noted (below).

Henri Ballot received a congratulatory telegram from the Soviet press for his report, but would have his stay in the USA monitored. Harlem authorities refused to cooperate with him for further work and he was eventually banned from entering the country again. 

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14 thoughts on “Poverty in North America by O Cruzeiro, 1961

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