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These photos put a face to Rio’s infamous favelas

Photographer Stefanie Moshammer distances the city from its role as a fetishised, pre-conceived pop-culture fantasy with a mesmerising series

Stefanie Moshammer set off for Rio de Janerio during the run-up to the 2016 Olympic games. At a time of great, well-publicised tumult for the country, the Vienna-based photographer was drawn to Brazil’s contemporary social tensions and how many of these derived from its difficult past. Arriving in the city, she wanted to capture what it was like to really exist in a place that the world already seemed to have a concrete perception of.

What followed was Land of Black Milk, a vibrant, visceral photo essay that captures Moshammer’s navigations around Rio and its infamous favelas. Distancing the city from its role as a fetishised, pre-conceived pop-culture fantasy, Land of Black Milk approaches Rio de Janerio as a multifaceted landscape, far more complex than binaries of black or white, good or bad, beaches or guns.

Following her selection as one of 24 photographers included on Foam’s 2016 Talent Call, photos from Moshammer’s series are set to appear in the Foam Talent group exhibition. Ahead of its launch on May 18 at the Beaconsfield Gallery Vauxhall, Moshammer spoke with Dazed about her time in Rio, and why Land of Black Milk provides more questions than answers when it comes to the city’s identity.

What was it that first drew you to visiting Rio and documenting its story?

Stefanie Moshammer: For me, the city seemed a pretty fractured and tensioned place. It has a certain imperfection I really like. Often, my work is an exploration of myths and stereotypes, as well as the surrealism of the places I go. There is this rawness in real life that I admire – and Rio de Janeiro definitely involves this. As well as that, I decided to go there before the Olympics. It seemed to be interesting timing – both politically and economically – and there was a lot of attention on Rio then.

What were your first perceptions of the city upon arriving?

Stefanie Moshammer: What definitely changed – and what I didn’t realise before – was the strong segregation along lines of class and race in Rio. To understand the present culture in Brazil, I needed to understand the history of Brazil. Brazil has such a heavy past, being the last nation in the western hemisphere to have abolished slavery. Somehow, it seems the ‘slave class’ still exists. It’s like the ghost of slavery still lingers everywhere in the city.

The photos occupy a middle ground between depictions of conflict and vibrant celebration — was this part of you trying to disassociate your work from one single, pre-existing narrative?

Stefanie Moshammer: For me, Rio exists in many different colours and shapes – it isn’t so much one city as it is different worlds, with multiple realities and the space in between. My aim wasn’t to say, “This is Rio de Janeiro,” rather, “it’s my kind of Rio de Janeiro, and I’m sure everybody sees it differently.” Land of Black Milk springs from my experiences and is a conglomerate of my observation and personal impressions. I always try to embrace a series with different typologies to create an interplay and different gradations of story lines.

“Rio exists in many different colours and shapes — it isn’t so much one city as it is different worlds, with multiple realities” – Stefanie Moshammer

Is the ambiguity part of allowing the viewer to create their own story, rather than one that may already exist in popular culture and the mass media?

Stefanie Moshammer: I want viewers to have doubts and questions. My images have a personal vision, but they aren’t an explanation. Rather, it is about the questions they raise. I like to use the base of documentary photography, and therein the attachment to reality and the idea of truth. I guess if this is missing, the ambiguity becomes too fictional and too staged – at least for me.

Colour is an important part of the series — what role did it play for you in telling Rio’s story?

Stefanie Moshammer: Colour plays an inherent role because it helps to navigate and narrate the story, as well as help feel the dynamic and atmosphere of a place. I believe every place has its own colour and sentiment, which of course is always a subjective perception. It’s a mix of my subject and myself, and through that colour is a helping factor in it.

How did the locals react to your presence as a photographer?

Stefanie Moshammer: It's important to come with someone who lives there. The longer I stayed in Rio, the more people I met who wanted to help. I went there with friends and through them, I was able to contact other people living there. If people realise you aren’t just a stranger walking in there without any context, they are fine with you. Also, I'm not a photojournalist – I’m not trying to prove anything bad. I communicated this to people there. 

Are there any particular moments that stand out from during your time there in the favelas?

Stefanie Moshammer: In general, I had to understand that one day it was alright to be there, and another day it wasn’t. Within the favelas the common law doesn’t count; their own rules exist. Particularly some stories I was told — it makes you realise that it’s definitely not a game. At some point, I was probably quite naïve, I guess. Another thing that always stood out in the favelas were the rainy days. The hills turn into waterfalls. It can be super dangerous, but sometimes also very funny because the kids use the lanes as waterslides — they really enjoy the full mass of rain.

Foam Talent London opens at Beaconsfield Gallery Vauxhall on May 18