Flavio da Silva by Gordon Parks, 1961

Iconic Photos looks back at one of the most powerful photoessays of the last century. 

On June 16th 1961 appeared in Life magazine an eight-page spread entitled, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” The piece was hastily put together after the Secretary of State Dean Rusk denounced Latin American poverty as radicalizing influence towards Communism in a New York Times article the weekend before.

That summer, Life had sent its first African American photographer, Gordon Parks, to South America to cover one part of a five-part series on “Crisis in Latin America.” There Parks met a 12-year-old boy named Flavio da Silva who, with his poverty-stricken parents and their eight other children, lived in Catacumba favela (slum) in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Parks had put together a powerful essay featuring Flavio’s severe asthma attacks, his large family sleeping in one bed, and other horrendous conditions in the favelas. The story was to be severely truncated (with Parks threatening to resign if the editors do so) when Rusk’s article rescued it.

The photoessay elicited a huge emotional response from the readers; letters poured into the magazine’s offices. Many contained money; others included offers to adopt the boy. The Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver arranged for Flavio to be brought to its facilities — where he would be treated for free — with President Kennedy himself intervening to expedite the visa process.

So it was an uplifting story of photographs affecting change. Maybe. Iconic Photos is more skeptical. Using its readers’ donations, Life set up a $300,000 fund for Catacumba, but the local resident association only built cement stairs. The rest of the donations simply disappeared. In 1961, there were 205 favelas in Rio, housing a population of at least 700,000 people. Today there are twice as many favelas, and estimates of their population range from 700,000 to 2 million. While many Brazilian magazines took up the cause of poverty after Life, their efforts were short-lived. One, O Cruziero, however, was so outraged by Parks’ coverage that it sent reporters to New York City and reproduced Park’s photoessay shot for shot.

(Read here a pdf excerpt from Park’s autobiography about meeting Flavio).

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