Gordon Parks on Poverty, the ‘Most Savage of Human Afflictions’

Mr. Parks realized the power of empathy to help people understand poverty. In this 1961 photo essay, he took readers inside the lives of a Brazilian boy, Flavio da Silva, and his family, who lived in a favela in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro.

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Rio de Janeiro, 1961.Credit Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

By Maurice Berger

  • Empathy for the poor may not come easily to people who never experienced it. They may blame the victims and insist their predicament can be overcome through determination and hard work. But they may not realize that extreme poverty can be psychologically and physically incapacitating — a perpetual cycle of bad diets, health care and education exacerbated by the shaming and self-fulfilling prophecies that define it in the public imagination.

Gordon Parks — perhaps more than any artist — saw poverty as “the most savage of all human afflictions” and realized the power of empathy to help us understand it. It was neither an abstract problem nor political symbol, but something he endured growing up destitute in rural Kansas and having spent years documenting poverty throughout the world, including the United States.

That sensitivity informed “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” his celebrated photo essay published in Life magazine in June 1961. He took readers into the lives of a Brazilian boy, Flavio da Silva, and his family, who lived in the ramshackle Catacumba favela in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro. These stark photographs are the subject of a new book, “Gordon Parks: The Flavio Story” (Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation), which accompanies a traveling exhibition co-organized by the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, where it opens this week, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Edited with texts by the exhibition’s co-curators, Paul Roth and Amanda Maddox, the book also includes a recent interview with Mr. da Silva and essays by Beatriz Jaguaribe, Maria Alice Rezende de Carvalho and Sérgio Burgi.

Flavio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961Credit Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

“Freedom’s Fearful Foe” was the second article in “Crisis in Latin America,” a five-part series intended to promote President John F. Kennedy’s proposed Alliance for Progress, which fostered cooperation between the United States and Latin America, while discouraging the spread of communism by raising the standard of living in region.

The magazine initially asked Mr. Parks to find one emblematic image about poverty in each of seven Latin American countries. Finding this approach too abstract and detached, he argued for a more in-depth story. Working in Brazil with a Portuguese-speaking reporter, José Gallo, he soon found his subject: 12-year old Flavio, the eldest child of José and Nair da Silva. Mr. Parks spent nearly three weeks documenting the boy’s desolate life, a daily grind of cleaning, cooking, scavenging for supplies and taking care of his seven siblings.

While Mr. Parks portrayed the da Silva family with dignity, he did not sidestep the brutal details of their lives: their ragged and filthy clothes; the rickety shed in which they lived; the despair and anger of children struggling to survive; and the desolate landscape strewn with garbage and raw sewage, and teeming with insects.

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