Review: Occupy São Paulo by Carlos Cazalis

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Carlos Cazalis‘ book Occupy São Paulo is a claustrophobic affair. It is crammed with pictures. As if there were not enough pages, they flow over from one page to the next, and they even come on top of each other. If you like your photobooks quaint and/or conservative, this one’s not for you. Presenting this photographs this way seems to be an appropriate choice dealing with a city like São Paulo, a so-called megacity, with its more than twenty million inhabitants.

The challenges faced by megacities are daunting, as are the prospects of somehow having to make a living, of somehow finding a place to sleep for many of their inhabitants. These megacities attract a large variety of people, the very rich as much as the very poor, which results in a frankly obscene disparity in the quality of life, depending on whether you’re very rich or very poor.

We needn’t travel very far to see this effect: New York City has many of them on display. Given we are so used to seeing it, it’s hard to realize what we’re dealing with. Looking at a place like São Paulo might thus make it easier to understand the problem. The resulting problem, however, is that the problems might appear to be different – whereas the underlying root causes are very similar.

That said, there are clear differences between cities like New York City and São Paulo. A recent article by Suketu Mehta in the New York Review of Books presents a rather sobering view of the situation of Brazilian cities and the many, many problems posed by their favelas. To get ready for next year’s soccer world cup (the huge costs of which have led to very massive protests), the government has essentially been invading the favelas with its military, to flush out what other powers tend to operate there (violent gangs and/or corrupt militias). Mehta’s article contains a lot more details than I can possibly outline here.

Photography is bad at depicting abstract concepts, in particular in contexts that require illustration more than illumination (think of the news, for example – just look at the battle over who is framing the situation in Detroit “properly” with pictures that is currently going on). The problem here in part is that abstract concepts are not necessarily very clear by themselves. We all know what the term “love” means, for example, but we’d have a very hard time explaining it succinctly, without missing various aspects. The same is true for “bankruptcy,” for example. Add to that the fact that we all want to see particular things (whatever we think is important), and photography finds itself in a tough spot when it comes to abstract concepts.

Needless to say, you can use photography for what it does well, namely for showing things that are visible and alluding to, hinting at things that are not. Occupy São Paulo does just that, and it does it well. It’s not an impartial book, but why would it be? How could it be? Instead, it offers an impassioned view of a huge city and some of its inhabitants. Looking at the book makes for an intense experience. I want to assume for many people living in São Paulo is just as intense.

Occupy São Paulo; photographs and text by Carlos Cazalis; 112 pages; Kehrer; 2013

Ratings explained here.