Photographer Pedro Lobo believes the walls of a home say more about its inhabitants than a family portrait. “Walls can tell a lot about the history of a place,” he says. “Walls speak loudly.” But if the walls of your home are made of corrugated zinc, and your neighbors can look into the room where your children sleep, and your kitchen is lit from wires that criss-cross in front of your window, what does that say about you?
A native of Brazil, Lobo studied architecture and painting before turning his attention to photography. Favelas: Architecture of Survival is a collection of 40 large-format prints that chronicle the lives of the very poor in Rio de Janeiro. “What I saw really intrigued me,” he says of his years photographing the favelas. “I saw the strength of the struggle to survive in adverse conditions.”
With the Olympics on the horizon, Lobo’s exhibition is timely. The nation is watching Brazil to see how officials will handle security concerns. A recent New York Times article talked about the push for Rio officials to increase security and address drug issues in the favelas. Lobo says most middle-class Brazilians never go into the favelas and are ignorant of the racial and economic segregation that exists.
Lobo began working in the poverty-stricken and drug-riddled communities in 2000, and he sees himself as both a photojournalist and artist. “I can draw resources from both methods and be more effective,” Lobo says. His aesthetically pleasing photographs draw people in while encouraging them to think, but Lobo insists that he doesn’t want to talk about the misery, crime, and violence within the favelas. “I’m looking at the relationship between men and space and what keeps us human,” he says. His images seek to reflect a sense of honor and respect for the people who live in these excluded communities and continue to struggle for a dignified life. Lobo refers to the way a homeless person will arrange their sleeping space with order and dignity and says a home can be in our head.
The favelas are dilapidated structures built by the migrant workers who move from the farmlands to the city to work on the construction of hotels, and they have their origins in slavery. In one image, a large middle-class apartment building is seen behind a clustering of favelas. Built on top of landfilled lagoons, the structures are reflected in the sewage-filled water. Made of a collection of different materials — wood, aluminum, improvised plumbing, concrete, and zinc — a sense of organized chaos reigns within these buildings. People are caught in blurs, moving through the crowded landscape and the snarls of telephone wires, while laundry hangs out to dry under a hopeful blue sky.
Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, met Lobo at the Houston FotoFest in 2005. Sloan was on the review committee, and, after meeting and talking with Lobo, knew that he wanted to bring him to the Lowcountry. As part of the Bluesphere project, the Halsey invited Lobo to Charleston, where he is working as an artist-in-residence at the College of Charleston as well as at the Art Institute. Lobo will be a guest lecturer in a series of photography and political science classes at both campuses.
Howard Katz, Ai photography department chair, says Lobo will be the school’s first international visiting artist-in-residence. “The students will benefit by being exposed to someone who is from a different culture and has, naturally, different experiences to share with them,” Katz says. “I see it as a win-win situation for both the students and Pedro Lobo. Their common bond of photography is something that transcends any cultural boundaries between the artist and our students.”
Lobo insists that he is not a teacher but more of a student. “I take photographs in order to learn,” he says, “and I still have a lot to learn.”