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OcupaSão - a project by Luciano Spinelli-12
"Pink in the Dark"Photography project by Luciano Spinelli

Squatting and making art in São Paulo

A photographer spent three months in Brazil providing photography workshops and a platform for creativity for children

Luciano Spinelli, a Paris photographer splitting his time between the French capital and São Paulo moved into the engine room on the 16th floor of a Brazilian squat in the centre of the city for three months. His objective was to give children and teens living in the building photography lessons, and by doing so, he hoped to give them a medium where they could express themselves. The images subsequently produced by the kids are a first person account of their lives in the São Paulo squat.

Seeing that the children already enjoyed taking their own photos on their mobiles phones and posting them online, Spinelli wanted to see if he could build on their enthusiasm with other forms of photography. The magic of Polaroid allowed this – combining analogue with new forms of the visual craft. The capacity of the medium to translate artistic expression into a tangible form in a matter of seconds was exhilarating and acted as a turning point for the kids. When they started making the Polaroid images, their feelings changed; they were almost fighting to hold the few cameras we had. Sometimes, when they met me in the entrance of the building, they jumped all around me asking if we would make photos today!”

In addition to any artistic accomplishments, this new environment forced him to rethink his own priorities: “Listening to their life stories was both emotional and inspiring. I wasn’t focused on an artistic experience living there, but rather more in examining the squat lifestyle in a deep and sensitive way.” A symptom of this was that he found himself interrogating any prejudices that he himself may have harboured about squats, knowingly or not. Squatters in a city like São Paulo are often forced to the streets where they are cruelly left to stare at empty abandoned buildings. Recounting these early fears, he says: “I was somewhat afraid of the possibility of violence or robbery when I first went to live there, but the result of my stay showed me the respect these inhabitants have for one another and the communal and friendly way they have of living together.”

The apex of the project came when the kids’ images were hung up in the Caixa Econômica Federal art gallery. “I’m sure they felt empowered,” he says, “they were also very proud to show their Polaroid images to their families and friends.” Though passionate about the empowering nature of artistic expression for the kids, Spinelli is under no illusions of the true extent of poverty present in these squats: "The residents have more urgent things to do than creating art, like finding a way to make a living”. Out of everything, Spinelli emphasises what he believes to be the true importance of this project: “The images created by these kids and teens during the workshop present a first person perspective about who they are and what life is really like inside some squatted buildings."