Note from BW of Brazil: Nowadays, because of social networking, one can always tell when a story or photograph is gonna blow up. Today’s piece is yet another example of this. On the New Year’s Day just a few days ago, I started seeing this image of a young black boy in a body of water popping up in my networks and, without even looking at the comments, I wondered to myself, “who is this kid?” I must have received this photo with various people making comments at least 15 times, with some people sharing their opinions, while others shared their opinions on the comments that others made. One guy simply wrote, “This photo touched me deeply.” As the photo went viral, the news also broke that the photographer who captured the moment was trying to locate the young boy. By January 2nd, the photo had earned 21,000 reactions and more than 6,000 shares.
So, what was it about this picture that captured the thoughts of so many people? It’s a topic that is frequently discussed on this blog: the place of black people, in this case, a black child, in the imagination of the average Brazilian. Over the years on this blog, we’ve seen numerous examples of how black children are seen and treated in Brazilian society. We’ve seen parents stop their children from dancing with a “hideous” black child. We’ve seen people assume that any black child in a particular area, particularly of a middle class background, must be a petty thief or asking for spare change. Black children, victims of bullying and on and on it goes. As such, the reason for why this photo went viral was for this very reason: stereotypes provoked simply because a child was black.
The photo of the black boy speaks of how we see a black boy
Image of child watching fireworks in the New Year’s Eve at Copacabana raises debate
By Maria Martín
A black boy, on the edge of the sea, admires with big eyes and open mouth the fireworks of the virada do ano (turn of the year) on the beach of Copacabana. He is apparently alone, wearing wet shorts, with wrists interlaced at the navel, while on another plane, in the sand, the mass dressed in white celebrates the entry of 2018. Some turn their backs on the boy, the sea and the fires to take their selfies, and others celebrate absorbing the spectacle. The black and white image, taken by photographer Lucas Landau for Reuters, is taking over social networks of thousands of Brazilians with countless different captions. The photograph speaks of a black boy of nine years on a beach during a party, but, given the repercussion, it also speaks of how we interpret it.
The first shares of the photo, which was originally sent in color to the agency, saw in it the “invisibility of our daily life” to the “image of social exclusion”. Many saw a lost boy, poor, scared, being ignored by the white mass. One even saw the image of the “consequences of the coup” and was a “punch in the stomach” of so many others. “This is our hypocritical humanity”, “may this image serve as a reflection for what we can be in 2018: more sensitive, more tolerant, more inclusive”, “on the one hand the enchantment. On the other, the indifference,” captioned the netizens. There were also those who, escaping from the racial interpretation, saw the authenticity of a child enjoying the show while the adults turned their backs on pyrotechnics to get their best self-portrait. And also those who took advantage of the image and created memes exalting agendas from the left.
As the photo went viral, black movement activists raised another question: would we see this picture in the same way if the protagonist were a menino branco e loiro (white, blond boy?
“The problem is not the photo, it’s the interpretation of it, its context. People who look at that picture are preconditioned to understand that the image of a black person is associated with poverty and neglect, when in fact it’s just a black child on the beach. This precondition is structural racism, which comes from the bad education of the Brazilian people about itself,” laments writer Anderson França.
França sees in this picture the “fetishism of the black, just as there is fetishism for Nazism, fetishism by the oppressed just as there is a fetish for the oppressor.” “We use the incoherent discourse that we are concerned about his pain, but we actually feel pleasure. That’s why we wrote underneath the photo enormous reflective texts about the abandonment of that minor, who possibly would be the father or the mother, why he fled, why he goes hungry … We fetishized the guy. And still there are those who want a souvenir: buy the photo. But they are not buying the photo, they are buying what they think about the photo.”
Under the appeal “Parem com os estereótipos de crianças Negras” (Stop Stereotyping Black Children), Mayara Assunção of the Kianda Collective, a group of black women who discusses maternity, art, education and culture, wrote: “I see a child who stopped to watch the fireworks in the middle of a party. We honestly have to stop thinking that every black and shirtless boy is abandoned, sad, lonely, unhappy and in contrast to the happiness of others. We have to stop thinking that every child alone is a child who lives in a street situation. We have to stop thinking a lot of things. Including, that it is legal to expose our children to branquitude (whiteness) to begin the year with pity and compassion from us. Ah, please, right, we have this horrible craze to reinforce the stereotypes of our children: ‘What a pity!’, ‘It’s the portrait of Brazil!’, ‘A very striking image, reinforcing the country’s inequalities’. Stop! You don’t even know who that boy is. And you do not want to know either. For 2018, less stereotyping for black children please.”
Suzane Jardim, educator and historian whose reflection on the repercussion of the image was shared more than a thousand times, maintains that “the question is to perceive how the black body ceases to be endowed with individuality to become a symbol that dialogues with the guilt of people who perceive him as inferior at first glance.” And she alerts: “There is no indication of social status, precariousness or abandonment in the image. There is a shirtless child in the sea watching fireworks marveling at an image that is in fact beautiful, but says nothing about socio-political issues.”
For Jardim “to give this image this character of ‘portrait of inequality’ is to presume by the corporality of the subject (in the case of a child, black, shirtless) that there is precariousness and suffering there, which can only happen in a society that connects blackness to these elements.”
The photographer, who chose not to expand the debate with the story until he found the child’s family, does not know the boy’s name. Not even if he was alone. Not even if he was from Rio. Nor if he lives in a luxury condominium or a favela. “I was at work photographing people watching the fireworks in Copacabana. He was there, like other people, enchanted. I asked his age (9) and name, but I didn’t hear because of the noise. As he was in the sea (which was freezing), he ended up distant from people. I don’t know if he was alone or with his family,” Photography, as Landau said, opens margins for various interpretations. “All of them are legitimate, as I see it. There is a truth, but I don’t even know what it is.” The photographer was criticized for exposing the child without parental consent and offering his e-mail to anyone who was interested in buying the photograph. Landau denied this: “Nothing was marketed by me, nor will it be, without the authorization of the child and those responsible.”
People turning their backs on poverty or just a child?
The complexity of the debate that a single photo fed is explained by the current situation of the country, according to the psychoanalyst Tales Ab’Saber, author of the book Lulismo, Carisma Pop e Cultura Anticrítica (Lulism, Pop Charisma Pop and Anti-critical Culture). “The photo has a life of its own. The black movement is worried about the cliché and the reduction of the role of the black and the white left – and black – sees in this image the risk of the Brazilian social divide, at a time when this is back on the political agenda. It sees people celebrating life and turning their backs on poverty, for our reality,” explains Ab’Saber. “There are two different progressive currents looking at different levels, and the image speaks of the two. The two issues matter, they are not mutually exclusive.”
Photographer and journalist Fernando Costa Netto, owner of Doc Galeria of photojournalism and documentary photography, sees the power of the image, “photography with the capacity to change a person’s life.” “It’s photography overthrowing presidents, denouncing overcrowding in hospitals, documenting the barbarities of wars or showing what we already know, the abyss between those (dressed) in white and the small shirtless one in this photo of Lucas. Even if the photo points to something else when they find the boy, Brazil is very well mirrored by the photo in Copacabana,” says Netto. “We are here discussing the strength and role of photography, prejudice, Réveillon (New Year’s Eve) in Rio, aesthetics, emotion, document, questioning … The photograph is fulfilling the role.”