Marc Erwin Babej: Rio de Janeiro, a City of Great Contrasts

Marc Erwin Babej describes himself as “a marketing strategist by profession, a journalist by training” and as an art photographer by passion. What began as a natural outgrowth of his writing has become a full-on creative track. Marc’s work is published regularly online and in print – and this October, his Amsterdam gallery, Amstel, will premiere a major new series of his work at (e)merge art fair in Washington, D.C. Previously, Marc has shared with us his images from shoots in Africa and Burma/Myanmar. Recently, Marc spent five days shooting in Rio de Janeiro, where he captured the essence and contrast of the city’s beaches and favelas with the Leica M Monochrom. Here, he shares his compelling images and experiences from his time in Rio.

Q: The portfolio you’ve shared with us is titled “Rio: City of Contrasts.” What camera and lenses did you use to shoot these images?

A: These were all shot with the Leica Monochrom. Most of the images taken in the favelas were shot with a 50 mm and a 35 mm Summicron.

The beach pictures were taken with my 90 mm Summicron because you are dealing with a wide-open space. You still want to get relatively close to people, but they end up being less natural if they feel they are being photographed. So it is nice to have a long focal length on them.

Q: What were you trying to accomplish with this portfolio and do you think you succeeded in that accomplishment?

A: As in all of my photography, I want to share with the viewer my psychological reaction to, and my relationship with, the subject – be it a dog, or a staircase, or a person. It is about sharing with the viewer what goes through my mind and at the same time leaving the images open enough for the viewer to be inspired. My goal is not to so much to have the viewer share my point of view; rather, I want my images to be a launch pad or a reflection. I don’t portray people as archetypes, but rather as individuals. And because this thread runs consistently through a range of very different settings, you get a broader statement about the city.

To me, the images of beautiful tanned people on the beach go hand in hand with images taken in the darkest corners of a favela. Rio is a city of great contrasts – literally, in the sense of light and darkness, but also in terms of the types of people and lives that you encounter. The geographic proximity of these contrasts is striking: a favela can be literally across the street from a wealthy district. To have these contrasts so close together often is something that defines Rio in my mind.

Q: As you mentioned, you are obviously dealing in a very high contrast situation with the light. You seem to get very good tonal gradation. How did you manage to capture this, and did the Monochrom help you in achieving it?

A: Many of the beach images were shot in blazing, harsh mid-day light, when the rule book says you “shouldn’t” be shooting. But I think the mid-day beach images came out great. You just have to manage the light as best as you can. To me it’s also about portraying a truth. The truth is that beaches are often most lively when the light is at its worst. I don’t believe that you should let bad light hold you from portraying a key aspect of a location.

I swear by the Monochrom. It has an amazing versatility, which really came to play in a lot of the images in this series. It preserves tonal gradation in shots that were taken in the middle of the day and, of course, in being able to take pictures in low light – in parts of the favelas that are dark even in daytime.

Q: This is a remarkable picture with the soccer balls in the air, what appear to be mountains in the background and all the figures in silhouette. You obviously shot it at a fast shutter speed. It’s a great composition and a beautiful moment.

A: This image was created around sunset on Ipanema beach, with the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) mountains rising at the Western end. Brazilians are pretty nuts about “soccer volleyball” – imagine beach volleyball played with all body parts except for arms, and of course a soccer ball instead of a volleyball. To practice for soccer volleyball, groups are playing hacky sack with a soccer ball: you try to pass the ball without letting it touch the ground. By having all these balls up in the air you can see how many different groups of people there are. It is shot against the sun because the sun set behind those hills and that is how you get everyone silhouetted. I shot this at ISO 320 because it was still relatively bright.

Q: You also spent time visiting and photographing in the favelas in Rio. Can you tell us a bit about them?

A: Favelas are shanty towns that originated as squatter communities. In the ‘60s and ‘70s you had a lot of poor people moving into the city from the countryside. They initially built very simple adobe type houses in unused property the hills. The buildings and squatters became more and more permanent over time, and the communities became more and more crowded. Because so many favelas started off the grid, they became havens for drug traffickers and criminal gangs.

Q: This is a very sweet picture. It is like the eternal mama and this beautiful little boy with his short-cropped hair. Where was this picture taken?

A: This picture is taken in the main shopping area of the favela. The favelas in Rio are built on the hillsides and are often right next to “regular” neighborhoods. Something to note about Rio’s favelas, which plays into some of those pictures, is that the higher up you go the poorer the inhabitants are. So the location where this image was taken in the main shopping street of the Rocinha favela at the bottom of the hill is actually not like a shantytown. It’s more like a lower middle class part of Rio.

Q: This picture with a person sitting on steps has something spacious and yet oppressive about it.

A: It is and that is what I wanted to show in the image. It is a young woman sitting on a staircase of a newly built, actually quite nice, government project. The government in Brazil is looking to replace some of these run-down temporary structures with housing projects. The young woman lives in this project. But what you really see in this picture is the contrast between the old and the new.

Q: This is a nice picture of a guy working on a bicycle. The intensity of his concentration and his form is quite interesting. What is going on there?

A: He is welding a tricycle. You have to consider that many parts of favelas don’t have roads that are passable by cars. So you can see why a tricycle would play a role here, and why it’s built with a cage to transport things. In the poorest parts of a favela high up in the hills, there are really only footpaths. Everything has to be carried by hand there.

Q: How did you feel when you were walking around and shooting in the favela? Did you feel any danger at any point? What were people’s reactions to being photographed?

A: Being a freckled white guy with two camera bodies slung around him, you stick out like a sore thumb. People register you as an outsider right away. Some call you “gringo” – in Brazilian, this term is applied to any foreigner, and is not necessarily pejorative. As for danger: shooting in environments where most people would fear to tread is a matter of what you bring to the place. When I shoot people I try to connect with them. They get a sense that I’m interested in them as people. Not as a collective, or as archetypes of poverty, or that they’re just a means to getting a great shot. If you walk around exuding fear, condescension, pity or anything negative you are not going to get the same images as if you come in as a fun and friendly person who is walking through their neighborhood. When they trained us in neighborhood reporting in Columbia Journalism School, I felt it was pretty irrelevant to my aspired path as a business writer. After all these years, those times when I was pounding the pavement in Belmont in the Bronx (my assigned beat) proved great training,

Generally, I found Cariocas (as inhabitants of Rio are called) to be very open about being photographed. The favelas were no exception. We spent about half a day, each day in the favelas – and there were only a handful of people who minded having their picture taken. People understand that you are an outsider; how they react to you depends in large part on you. We talk and chat. I often photograph them before they even realize they are being photographed. When they do, they are often willing to pose, and when they don’t want to be photographed I smile and make it clear that I respect their wish.

It definitely helped having Marcio Guedes, an amazing guide with us. He spoke Portuguese and could communicate in ways that I might not have been able to. He also had the courage to go deep into the favelas. Many guides are afraid to venture off certain well-worn paths. There are established favela tours in Rio, but they give only a routinized, sanitized impression. With Marcio, we walked into favelas without a pre-set script. Even he had not been to some parts of the favelas we visited.

Did we have a sense of danger? Surprisingly no. Again, it’s in large part what you bring to a situation. If you go in afraid someone’s going to steal your camera and worse, then you might as well not go – and most don’t.

There was only one situation when our friend Marcio told us not to photograph someone because he sensed they were probably drug dealers. Other times throughout the day there were young men who seemed not to have much to do besides working out, hanging out and getting tattoos, and they were totally fine and happy to be photographed. Before we left for Rio, even well-traveled friends gave us advice that pretty much amounted to cowering in our hotel room and to only take a cab after dark. I think that was nonsense. I didn’t feel any more unsafe in Rio than I would feel at home in NYC.

Q: So what’s next for you? Are you working on any other projects at the moment or do you have any planned for the future?

A: Amstel Gallery will be carrying this work. And it further builds my body of documentary of work that I shoot. The next big shoot is going to be Ukraine and Belarus. I view it as an archeological expedition with a heavy emphasis on the shadow that has been left by seven decades of communism. A highlight will be a shoot in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Like Pompeii, it’s a place that came to a sudden end, and was frozen in a specific moment in time. Aside from documentary photography, I’m also taking my work in a different direction: I’m working on a studio photography project with Maria M. LoTempio, MD, a prominent NYC plastic surgeon. There is strong element of social commentary in that one. I can’t talk about it yet, but it will be completed soon. It’s literally something that has never been done before.

Thank you for your time Marc!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Marc’s work, visit his Facebook page and his page at Amstel Gallery.