Through the Lens of the Favela: Human Rights and Sustainable Development

Matheus Affonso is a 20-year-old photographer and graphic designer who lives in Nova Holanda neighborhood, a part of the Maré favela (slum) complex, in the north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His work focuses on the LGBT community which continues to struggle for recognition.

Jacqueline Fernandes is a 33-year-old journalist who maintains a community website in the Riachuelo neighborhood, which is also located on the outskirts of the city. Both are young photographers that portray, with a new view, the daily life of these carioca communities despite the inherent socioeconomic inequalities within.

Matheus Affonso, designer gráfico – Foto: Naiara Azevedo/UNIC Rio

“I consider myself an LGBT photographer, because being LGBT is a determining factor for who I am and what I want to focus on”, said Matheus, who believes it is important to portray a population that is often invisible inside of the favela – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The favelas are most commonly portrayed in the media as violent territories, yet they are also fertile ground for projects, networks and spaces that promote human rights through cultural activities, activism and participation.

Jacqueline Fernandes, jornalista – Foto: Naiara Azevedo/UNIC Rio

Both Matheus and Jacqueline have their own projects to help achieve this objective, such as Matheus’s Project Eeer, an Instagram profile with LGBTQI+ activism in the favela. Jacqueline publishes the portal Hordas, a website that presents a more realistic view of her community with stories on culture, fashion, diversity, and sports, among other topics.

For Jacqueline, these initiatives help to create a more human impression of the favelas and the city outskirts, in a different way than the media portrays. “If you don’t have memory, you don’t exist. If you don’t exist, you’re not respected, nor are you recognized as a human being”, she explained.

“It’s really hard to find a person that doesn’t appreciate photography. It is an art that reaches a large number of people; sometimes people don’t want to read texts. But when a picture is there in front of you, there’s no way to ignore it”, said Jacqueline, who also teaches novice photographers.

Both participated in photography workshops held by the project Imagens do Povo (Images of the People), an initiative of the non-governmental organization Observatório de Favelas (Observatory of the Favelas), that aims to create new representations of outlying communities and deconstruct stigmas.

In addition to the designer and the journalist, the workshop was attended by the photographers Thais Povoleri, Rodrigo Patrício Carvalho, Hector Santos, ONTEM*, Dipreta*, Carolina Olgador e Antonio Dourado, whose photos highlighted themes including education, mental health, gender equality, and poverty eradication, among others. Each of their photos were linked to one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global commitment made by the 193 UN member-states, including Brazil, to eradicate hunger, reduce inequalities, fight climate change, among others.

The artists were excited to have their work selected for an exhibition titled “Se Essa Rua Fosse Nossa – Nossa voz, nossos direitos, nosso futuro” (If These Streets Were Ours – Our voice, our rights, our future), displayed on Human Rights Day, on 10 December 2019 at The Museum of Tomorrow and at the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC Rio) through January 2020.

The exhibition was featured during the Non-Formal Education Forum, organized by the World Organization of the Scout Movement, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. Through the expression of their identities and aspirations, the young photographers were inspired to recognize themselves as human rights advocates, changemakers and part of the global push towards achieving the 17 SDGs.

When touring the exhibition, Jayathma Wickramanayake said that she was impressed to see how the photographers connected the issues of human rights with the SDGs. “I believe that photography is a really powerful way to say that the sustainable development agenda is not just a development agenda, but also an human rights one”, she added.

The exhibition is a result of collaboration between the United Nations Information Center for Brazil (UNIC Rio), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the NGO Observatório de Favelas.

Round table

Kimberly Mann, the Director of UNIC Rio de Janeiro, opened a roundtable discussion to examine the impact that the photo workshop on human rights and the SDGs had on the young artists. The photographers expressed their frustrations with the lack of support they receive in their communities, while they concurred that the favelas were powerful places for social transformation. They also shared a connection between their work, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the SDGs.

“We live in the middle of a world that does not have power over life and death: people will be beaten up, tortured and killed in the favelas (…) Our challenge is how to intervene in places where brutality is the only force working—this is where communication and art can play a role,” said David Marcos, a 40-year-old photographer of the project Imagens do Povo.

For Saulo Nicolai, a 26-year-old member of the project Favelagrafia, it is through the dissemination of the creative music, dance and visual arts from the favelas that the fight for change can succeed. “Such dissemination can be made through social networks — both virtual and territorial”, he said.

Diane Carvalho, 31 years old, underscored the importance of taking care of people’s mental health in places marked by violence. She is the coordinator of the Maktub Experience, that helps people who develop psychological disorders when they experience inequality or a violation of their rights.

“We don’t talk enough about mental health in the favelas. There’s a lack of discussion, attention and empathy”, she said. “We are losing young people, but the ones who are fighting to survive also exist”.

Maria Eduarda Dantas, one of the project organizers, believes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is more important on its 71th anniversary than ever. “The Declaration is a concrete work that deals with real issues and it is the result of our everyday fights”, she concluded.