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Ze Barretta Captures Housing Occupations In Brazil

By David Schonauer   Thursday June 1, 2017


Zé Barretta’s photos capture an upheaval in Brazil.

In recent years, Barretta notes, social movements demanding decent housing have gained strength in the country. The issue came to the fore again with the downfall of Brazilian president Dilma Roussef — a development, Barretta notes, that has put at risk social programs that gave hope to the poor in Brazil.

In 2014, Barretta began documenting large housing occupations in Brazil for the journal Folha de Sao Paulo. "First I started photographing in a very big occupation in the outskirts of Sao Paulo that is called 'Vila Nova Palestina.' It's the biggest urban land occupation in Brazil and has more than 4,000 registered families. It's really huge,” she says.

Later, Barretta began to focus her work on housing-occupation movements in downtown Sao Paulo. In part, she wanted to differentiate between agrarian reform movements in the countryside and urban housing movements. Shooting in downtown Sao Paulo was also convenient, since that is where Barretta lives.

“There are many many occupied buildings in this area,” she notes, “From 2015 until now I think I have visited about 10 different occupied buildings downtown, some of them small buildings some of them big ones with hundreds of families living in them.”

Her series, titled “Territories of Resistance," was later named a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 5  competition.

“Photojournalists cover news very quickly and most of time superficially, in my opinion. I decided to return to those places by myself to develop a deeper insight into this subject,” Barretta says. “I felt that it's an important social movement that is going on here — a very strong political mobilization which comes from the basis of the society, the poorest layer of the urban population. The point is that while there are millions of people living precariously in favelas, small rooms, and in the homes of relatives — taking many hours to get to work in crowded transportation — there are dozens of buildings completely abandoned in the center of the city. Those buildings were hotels, public offices, factories and even residential places that were waiting for some juridical process or merely serving for real-estate speculation. The mainstream media used to cover the subject only when there was some newsworthy event, but I was more interested in showing everyday life in the occupations.”


Barretta shot with a Canon 5D Mark II with a 16-35mm lens, most of the time. “I try to give a sort of dark look at the images which I think is how I see the issue. Despite being an oppressive subject, people try to do their best to maintain self-esteem, and this appears in my photographs as a colorful room or a colorful dress,” she says.


Barretta began photographing professionally in 2008, working for small journals. “In 2011 I started to work for Folha de Sao Paulo, a big newspaper her in Brazil. I still work for Folha, but not as much as I did in 2014,” she says. “As everybody says, to work for a big newspaper is a great school of photography.”

In 2014 Barretta also began studying geography at the University of Sao Paulo. “I think it's been a very interesting experience to see through my academic studies many of the subjects that I saw in real life as a photographer, including the social movements in Sao Paulo,” she says.

She continues to work on her “Territories of Resistance” project as well as a project about archeological sites in northeast Brazil.

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Dispatches from Latin America