Photographer Profile - Peter Bauza: "My photography is about defending people who need help"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 19, 2016

After great hope of victory came the greater pain of defeat.

On July 8, 2014, soccer-loving Brazil was plunged into despair when its national team was crushed in a 7 - 1 loss to the German team in a semi-final game of the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.

Peter Bauza, a German-born photojournalist who has been based in Brazil for the past two years, viewed the event from a unique perspective. “As a German living in Brazil, it wasn’t easy for me, in reference to my feelings and my divided heart,” he says.

Shooting for ZUMA Press, Bauza had been covering the World Cup by focusing on the avid fans who came to Rio to celebrate and pray for their teams.

“Football in Latin American must be understood differently than it is in Europe,” he says. “It is more than a passion; it is about fanaticism, feelings, pains, fantasies, dreams, emotions, religion, recognition, believing, blood in veins. It involves whole families, churches, politics, work. Some of people would give their lives for their clubs.”

At the semi-final between Brazil and Germany, the anguish of the Brazilians in attendance was palpable, he says. “I observed a group of young people and decided to stay with them for a long time. This gave me the opportunity to photograph their expressions as their dream came to an end,” says Bauza. With Germany scoring goal after goal and the hopes of Brazilians fading, Bauza photographed the faces of the young fans and captured the dismay felt by an entire nation. “It was heartbreaking to see the tears, the missing words,” he says.

One of Bauza’s photos of the young soccer fans, part of a larger project he calls “Until The End,” were later named a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 4 competition. The image is typical of Bauza’s work in a number of ways — it establishes an intimacy between viewer and subject, it is emotionally engaging, and it identifies with those who have lost. He is less interested in life’s winners.

Bauza, whose photographs have been published in Paris Match, Die Zeit and other publications around the world, often focuses on stories about political and social issues. His projects include a look at the indigenous Batwa pygmies of Uganda, uprooted from land they had lived on for millennia, as well as the rise of nationalism in Europe. Another long-term series shot in Uganda documents the aftermath of atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. One of the images from that story was selected for the American Photography 31 annual.

“World context changes daily, as do the elements of those stories themselves, and in recent years I have focused on deepening and refining my practice of visual storytelling,” Bauza says. In a broader context, all the stories he tells spring from the same instinct:

“I think my photography is about defending people who need help, showing unfairness or injustice,” he says.

Inside the Copacabana Palace

Bauza is now making plans to cover Rio’s next big sporting event — the 2016 Olympics — for a number of publications. At the same time, he is working on a personal project that he began eight months ago, called “Copacabana Palace.” It is not about a luxury hotel on Rio’s most famous beach.

“It’s an ironical title,” says Bauza.

The project focuses on Brazil’s vast homeless population, and in particular those living as squatters in abandoned buildings. “They are representative of millions of Brazilians,” Bauza says.

He has been living with the squatters on and off since last July. He describes the buildings they occupy as a kind of dystopian vision of the future. “There are no windows. There is no electricity or light. You can’t move around at night. It’s apocalyptic,” he says. “I describe it as a place where the cats are afraid of the rats, because the rats are bigger.”

Recently he began working with Echo Photojournalism, a boutique agency, to distribute the work. “It’s a very long-term project — the idea is exhibitions and a book. I’m applying for grants now,” he says. “You need grants for work like this. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. It costs too much money to produce.”

Bauza, who is fluent in five languages, including Portuguese, moved to Brazil after living in a number of countries around the globe: For much of his adult life, his primary career was in business — he was a high-ranking manager in an international company that he describes as “being listed on the stock market.” At the same time he indulged a lifelong interest in photography. “But gradually I became more and more interested in the photography,” he says.

He traces his interest in stories about social issues to his childhood. “I don’t know what happened to me then — I feel I have always been this way. Since I was young I’ve tried to defend everything,” he says.

The Copacabana Palace series comes as Brazil once again prepares to welcome athletes and television crews from around the world, while reeling from massive protests over government corruption and the recent impeachment of its president. “Billions are being spent for the Olympics, but the poor people don’t really have a future,” says Bauza..

He hopes his photographs of the homeless gain some traction from attention that will be paid to Brazil this summer. “It’s the deepest work I’ve done yet,” he says.

Never-Ending Trauma

In 2013, Bauza was in Uganda, working with an NGO on a agricultural-aid program established through his company. “I was there for a year and a half,” he says. “The focus of the work was on agriculture development in rural and underdeveloped areas.”

He also began working on a photography story called “Keepers of the Forest,” about the indigenous Batwa pygmies, which later was featured in Paris Match. It was during his travels into northern Uganda that Bauza encountered victims of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which had spread a reign of terror  across the region.

In his potraits of these people, Bauza captured a sense of never-ending trauma. “The photographs show victims who were hacked with machetes and knives,” Bauza notes. “They hide, they feel pain, they don’t want to remember and speak about it anymore.”

Most victims feel that the Uganda government failed to protect them and offered no real compensation afterward, he notes at his website. But what most amazed him, he says, is how many of the victims of Kony wanted to forgive those who tormented them.

“For me, I became so involved as well,” he says. “I became a foster parent to three children I met. This experience has not ended. After I am done with my project on homeless people in Brazil, I will go back to Uganda and work on it more. I have all the contacts. I want to dig into the story.”

Bauza says that his experience in business is applicable to his work as a photographer. “In business I consistently demonstrated an ability to commit to goals — I knew the importance of being personally accountable and how to deliver results across many countries,” he notes. In the past few years he has also taken part in a number of workshops and taken classes at the Open College of the Arts in the UK.

“The studies have pushed me to go even further in my socially-conscious documentary projects,” he says.