Photos Reveal Harsh Detail Of Brazil's History With Slavery

Nov 12, 2013
Originally published on November 13, 2013 9:25 am

Brazil was the last place in the Americas to abolish slavery — it didn't happen until 1888 — and that meant that the final years of the practice were photographed.

This has given Brazil what may be the world's largest archive of photography of slavery, and a new exhibition in Sao Paulo is offering some new insights into the country's brutal past.

One image at the exhibition, for example, has been blown up to the size of a wall. "Things that you could never see, suddenly you see," says anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz, one of the curators of the new exhibition called Emancipation Inclusion and Exclusion.

In its original size and composition, the image from photographer Marc Ferrez, one of the most impressive photographers from 19th century Brazil, shows a wide shot of a group of slaves drying coffee in a field. Their faces are indistinct but the overall impression is one of order and calm. But once the picture is blown up, the expressions become distinct and details emerge. A female slave is breastfeeding a child in the field; clothes that look neat are seen to be tattered.

"Expanding the photos, we can see a lot of things we couldn't see and the state didn't want to see," Schwarcz says. "We do not want to show slaves only like victims."

Brazil's History With Slavery

Slavery in Brazil lasted for 300 years, and it imported some 4 million Africans to the country. These images were taken during the waning days of slavery and Brazil's monarchy. Many were commissioned by the state in an attempt to show slavery in a better light.

Sergio Burgi with the Moreira Salles Institute, which donated the photographs to the show, says blowing up the images shows the underlying brutality of the system. In another image, slaves are lined up waiting to be taken into the field. All are barefoot. In between them, once the image is enlarged, we can see many young children.

"Its incredible what you see," Burgi says. "The amount of children who very early go out ... how would they manage to take care of these children out in the fields?"

Lilia Schwarcz says the slave system was based on violence, and the photos, when when viewed closely, show just how violent that system could be. Whats astounding about the exhibition is the variety of situations that slaves were photographed in: not only in the fields but in their owners' homes, in the city and taking care of the white children of their masters.

One of the most striking images is of a white woman sitting in a litter. The two slaves that would carry her through the streets of the city are standing next to her. One looks down, in deference. The other man is leaning against the litter, his hat tipped at a jaunty angle, staring straight at the camera.

"He's showing himself, and saying 'I'm not just like this, I'm another thing. I'm something different. I'm something else," Schwarcz says.

Opening New Discussions

The images in the exhibition were taken from 1860 to 1885. Slavery ended in Brazil in 1888, and the photos also reveal a tricky and difficult moment for slave owners in Brazil, says Maria Helena Machado, a historian who also contributed to the exhibition.

"It was almost the end of the slave system in Brazil, but those owners ... they wanted very much to keep the slave system," Machado says.

Machado says the late 19th century was even more brutal than before because, with slavery about to end, owners wanted to get as much as they could in terms of slave work. "They are not concerned anymore about surviving, so who cares? 'I need to get my money back,'" she says.

Machado says many slaves were running away, while others had formed armed bands and were revolting. The enlarged images show the look in the eyes of the slaves. The battle, says Lilia Schwarcz, is very evident.

"They were fighting for their freedom," she says. "So you have here a discussion about freedom."

A discussion that curator Sergio Burgi says continues today, with the people who have come to see the exhibition. "People here in Brazil have reacted in very interesting ways saying 'Oh that reminds me of my time as a kid, and I used to live in a rural area and everything looked similar,'" he says.

Burgi says even decades after slavery, blacks lived in the same conditions, and that legacy continues to resonate today.

The exhibition runs through the end of December at the University of Sao Paulo.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A new exhibition in Brazil is showing rare, late 19th century photographs of slavery. The South American country was the last place in the Americas to abolish slavery, and that period coincided with a photography boom - still a fairly new invention What resulted is arguably the largest archive of photographs of slavery in the world. And as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paulo, that is giving new insights to academics and ordinary Brazilians, into their country's past.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The image has been blown up to the size of a wall. What was hidden in the original photograph is suddenly revealed.

LILIA SCHWARCZ: Things that you would never see, suddenly you can see. So let's go there, for example. Here, you have a photograph of Fejez. That - it was one of the most impressive photographers from the 19th century Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz, one of the curators of the new exhibition called "Emancipation Inclusion and Exclusion." In its original size and composition, the image she points to shows a wide shot of a group of slaves drying coffee in a field. Their faces are indistinct, but the overall impression is one of order and calm. But once the picture is blown up, the expressions are clearly seen. Details emerge. A female slave is breastfeeding a child in the field; clothes that look neat are seen to be in tatters.

SCHWARCZ: Expanding the photos, we can see a lot of things that we couldn't see, and the state didn't want to see. We do not want to show slaves just like victims. But also, to show how they could use agency, how they could negotiate the place, how they can try to show themselves using the body, using expressions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Slavery in Brazil lasted for 300 years, and it imported some 4 million Africans to the country. These images were taken during the waning days of slavery and Brazil's monarchy. Many were commissioned by the state, in an attempt to show slavery in a better light.

Sergio Burgi is with the Moreira Salles Institute, which donated the photographs to the show. He says blowing up the images shows the underlying brutality of the system. In another picture, slaves are lined up waiting to be taken into the fields. All are barefoot. In between them, once the image is enlarged, we can see many young children.

SERGIO BURGI: It's incredible what you see, you know? The amount of children, very early, that go out; you have to think: This early, how would they manage to take care of these children out into the field?

SCHWARCZ: The slave system is a system based on violence. If you look here in the original format, what do you see? You see a lot of workers very well-dressed. And then when you look here, you can see like a sea of expressions, a sea of reactions. And you can see how violent can be the system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's astounding about the exhibition is the variety of situations that slaves were photographed in, not only in the fields but in their owners' homes, in the city, taking care of their masters' white children.

One of the most striking images is of a white woman sitting in a litter. The two slaves that would carry her through the streets of the city are standing next to her. One looks down in deference. The other man, though, is leaning against the litter, his hat tipped at a jaunty angle, staring straight at the camera.

Lilia Schwarcz.

SCHWARCZ: He's showing himself and saying: I'm not just like this. I'm another thing, I'm something different, I'm something else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The images in the exhibition were taken from 1860 to 1885. Slavery ended in Brazil in 1888.

SCHWARCZ: What we are seeing here, it was a very tricky moment because it was almost the end of the slave system in Brazil. But those owners, probably the clients, they wanted very much to keep the slave system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Helena Machado is a historian who also contributed to the exhibition.

MARIA HELENA MACHADO: Late 19th century, even more brutal than before because slavery was ending - was about to end - and slave owners wanted to get as much as they can, in terms of slave work. They are not concerned anymore about surviving. So who cares, you know? I need to get my money back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Machado says many slaves were running away; others had formed armed bands and were revolting. And once these images are magnified and you can see the look in the slaves' eyes, their bearing, the battle, says Lilia Schwarcz, is very evident.

SCHWARCZ: They don't want to show themselves like slaves. They were fighting for their freedom. So you have here a discussion about freedom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A discussion that, says curator Sergio Burgi, continues today with the people who have come to see the exhibition.

BURGI: People here in Brazil reacting in ways that are very interesting, saying, oh, that reminds me of my time as a kid, where I used to live in a rural area; that everything looks similar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says even decades after slavery, blacks lived in the same conditions. And that legacy continues to resonate today. The exhibition runs through the end of December at the University of Sao Paulo.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.