Gary Mark Smith Critical Review II

The ExtremeOphiles, by James R. Hugunin

Extremeophiles construe life as possessed of an as-yet-unmapped elasticity    They have a tendency to come in threes    They are drawn to danger sites and adrenaline aesthetics     They prefer gaps and unequal margins    Sometimes their names are Gary (55) Sarah (19) Carlos (25) and can be found in South America Brazil with cameras digital still and motion aimed within a favela called Rocinha within Rio de Janeiro under a hot sun     The mutual energy sparking between these three individuals radiating outward is palpable    A proof of mirror neurons   I am going to put words into Gary Smith’s mouth an alumnus of the University of Kansas     or it could be Sarah Stern’s a student at KU      or Carlos the Filmmaker’s a recent graduate of KU from Venezuela     words that encompass the complexity of their collaborative three week documentary project Favela da Rocinha Brazil     The poetry of everyday life in the largest un-pacified favela in Rio de Janeiro on the cusp of Brazil’s emergence as a world economic giant     carried out in May and June of 2011 during a Rio winter in what media hype damns as a global cesspool

What determined our judgment our concepts and reactions was not what one of us was doing at any particular now     an individual action     but the whole hurly-burly of our actions      the community’s reactions to our presence and the interventions of local gang members     (including having camera equipment confiscated/returned)     all this background against which we lived     argued     photographed     and were being filmed while photographing therein    an adrenalized activity to be described within the background of human actions and connections going back more than a few years      Extremeophiles Gary    Sarah    Carlos share common roots     mingle traits     express their commonalities and divergences

Gary Mark Smith

I first meet Gary when he is completing his MA in street photography at Purdue University in Indiana      participating in graduate critiques      His energy and passion for photography is shocking      Here is a person working out personal and physical demons from behind a lens      Following his career since has been like reading about the daring-do of some larger-than-life figure      two encounters with lightning strikes      dodging an erupting volcano     outwitting sadistic police      doing the hard-scrapple in disguise along the conflict-ridden Afghan-Pakistan border in 2001     It soon becomes obvious to me that when the newspapers are just starting to get coverage of a natural or man-made disaster Gary is probably already there in place     psyched     working up his subjects      recording events via his keen eye     fast-trigger finger     The guy is the most prolific photographer since Garry Winogrand     Doubts     So go ahead     Google him      You’ll find that while Stern and Carlos the Filmmaker jogged on the beach    Smith took 99 photos in 10 minutes

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

For years and years he’s been optically sweeping the streets     often shooting street-sweepers as an oft-repeated subject     No kidding      His photographs swept me off my feet      No kidding     The man with the slippery name Smith got the gift of gab     He can talk you into or out of anything anywhere anytime     It is one of many survival adoptions developed over time by the species extremeophile     No surprise then that Gary manages to attract two other fellow adrenaline-adventurers into his web of photographic intrigue     No surprise that they find him irresistible     Just speak the words Brazil and favela or samba-dancing and danger around Gary    Sarah    Carlos in the same sentence and watch what happens     It is of course precisely this which Carlos the Filmmaker’s’s film about their photographic and outreach activities in a long-standing Brazilian danger-community sets out to capture     A visual document that informs even as it parodies Reality TV’s extreme survival shows      A documentary not unlike Walker Evans and James Agee’s uneasy insertion into the lives of Alabama sharecroppers during The Great Depression that becomes the object of another level of documentation not unlike Russian Constructivist film-maker Dziga Vertov’s famous film-within-a-film The Man with the Movie Camera (1929)      What could be more appropriate in our media saturated milieu     What could be a better vehicle to engage the remarkable endeavors of Gary Mark Smith whose danger-activities and persona are nearly as interesting and thought-provoking as his right-on-the-mark photographs   photographs from the streets of global poverty     because says Gary addressing his increasingly impoverished fellow Americans:    Man it’s coming to a street near you and it’ll be too soon for comfort and in a place as easy as America’s had it it’s not going to be a pretty sight     Gary sees forces of globalization as tending to equalize disparities between what were once First World and Third World economies     shifting those economic contrasts between nations to those between classes within global states     Brazil’s economy will jump into global prominence he thinks due to the 2014 Fütbol World Cup and 2016 Olympics      Moreover Brazil will ultimately benefit by the test of poverty it’s endured    resulting in a populace more resilient than us soft Americans used to our luxuries      In other words these Rocinha photographs may prove a prophetic preview of our own American pauperization even as it provides insight into the government’s initial gradual and peaceful intervention into the community     Several months after our Extremeophiles left Brazil on November 13 2011 people in Rocinha awoke to a less pacific intervention as armored vehicles blocked streets and Huey helicopters buzzed overhead spearheading an armed sweep by BOPE (Rio’s elite police) who eventually snagged drug lords “Nem” and “Peixe” in their pervasive dragnet      Such military-like invasion was received with ambivalence by many favela’s residents who feared police abuse of average citizens

And Sarah Stern

Sarah meets Gary some five years ago     Gary is a mentor to high school students      It was photography and adventure at first sight     Impresses Gary with her smarts     dedication to     mastery of     photography      Her potential seems unlimited      Wowed by Gary’s passion and commitment to his art      by his taking the bull of life by the horns and bending it to his will     Sarah sees the guy she wants to learn from     emulate     surpass even      Learns Spanish in high school     later Portuguese     becomes interested in Hispanic culture      Majors in Strategic Communications at KU Becomes a Global Scholar with trips to Paraguay and Bolivia and Ecuador and Peru and Argentina all before Brazil Concerned about the poor     Finds that she fits in     The street energy there matches her energy     Simpático    And Samba dancing     Three steps to every bar     In Brazil     In Rio     Three weeks in Rocinha     Three steps to the dance     three steps to any bar     Sarah and Gary and Carlos and some local guy or gal     At a bar     Three steps     One     Two    Three    Rhythmic like doing street photography     Get into the rhythm     Like street sweeping     The rhythm     Like negotiating dance     doing a human-machine Samba around the people of     and gang members in the favela      learning to keep in step     One false step and your camera can get confiscated     stolen     returned     if you got the right rhythm and the help of Sarah    Former vice-president of the Hispanic American Leadership Organization of Lawrence Kansas     Latin America in the Heartland      Latin America in her heart lands her as number two of three on this documentary project     Three companions to the bar     Three companions to Brazil     to Rocinha     to danger and friendship     toward photography and film     fun too     people dancing their way into her frame     she dancing her way into their hearts     Three Musketeers     kinda like the movie     You remember     honor and precision     wielding cameras like swords about the mean streets of Rocinha      taking careful aim staring down any threat and fighting for justice through photographs     Her way of returning to a trip years later is through her photographs      I can feel the emotions and remember the situations she reports of past excursions     and then of her recent immersion in what media slur as a slum     in what she calls a community of some 150,000 vibrant people      but gang-run by Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends or ADA) who’s consolidated two former rival drug-trafficking organizations were under threat of forced government pacification     to suppress them during the global attention Rio will be getting with the upcoming world class games to be held there

With Carlos the Filmmaker

Serious about his still photographs for some three years     but always interested in music and film     Eventually does a body of still images on Caracas’s barrios     but deeper into the editing process as videographer     a noted young commercial film director from oil rich Venezuela      From being a high school exchange student in Atwood Kansas on to major in Journalism at KU     His award-winning short documentary Pasión (2010) celebrated the passion and mental focus of a young Venezuelan Carlos Guevara as he overcame a congenital limb-stiffening disease arthrogryposis multiplex to become a successful drummer with two major musical groups     Seeing a similar resiliency in barrios inhabitants Carlos the Filmmaker started to document the harsh life in Caracas’s shanty towns   Born into the middle-class but driven by curiosity about the other 60 percent of his fellow citizens who despite oil revenues enriching its upper classes live in what he was told as a kid were places you never go into     Result Carlos the Filmmaker’s film The Slum Culture: Hope for the Barrios (2011)     Hope through social policy education self-sufficiency will and stamina      Carlos meets Gary at KU      Wanting to compare Caracas’s poor communities with Brazil’s he joins the Extremeophiles     Three Musketeers walking through the streets of Rocinha full of energy curiosity at its peak    like a sensitive electronic instrument     sometimes a welcome guest      sometimes met with suspicion but always inspecting and admiring the networks fields territories of that complex community     Slowing down the chaos temporarily and provisionally enough to extract intensifications    performances    refrains    with their cameras    creating organizations of monochromes    colors    movements     One for all    all for one    as they take a bit of chaos in-frame to form a composed chaos that becomes sensory from which they extract a chaoid sensation     capturing the favela’s energy      Shooting 35 mm black and white analogue stills and filming with the remarkable Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera     Carlos captured roundtable discussions among our adventurers     their reflections on the people and interactions with the locals     giving conflicting perspectives on the favela Redacted into an energetic 15-minute short film     the result synopsizes the Musketeer’s activities over their three week immersion in the heart of Rocinha

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

Rocinha

Named the little farm Rocinha is Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela barrio with approximately 150,000 inhabitants squeezed into only 0.86 square kilometers     It is located in Rio’s South Zone between the wealthy districts of Sčo Conrado and Gávea     Built on a steep hillside overlooking Rio and near a beach it contrasts markedly with its nearest neighbors      Brazilians contrast the favela with the asphalt their term for the city proper      Nothing happens in Rocinha without Amigos dos Amigos knowing about it     This gang is akin to a watch dog bark    Hark hark    Bow wow    Don’t anybody touch me      I growl if anyone enters my territory      At times things got hairy      Negotiations were necessary to roam there with a camera      A camera was taken      but returned after community intervention      a personal meeting with the gang lord making it clear the Musketeers were teaching photography at a local NGO to locals    producing a book and movie about Rocinha    and donating the proceeds to the favela      Great freedom to photograph was eventually granted after a face-to-face with the local gang lord Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes    Rocinha developed within a racist and elitist society from a shanty town in the 1920s to an impoverished urbanized community with a well-developed infrastructure with hundreds of businesses banks medicine stores bus lines cable television its own channel TV ROC and one failed McDonald’s franchise     Most houses many three and four stories tall and even one eleven story structure with 58 apartments for let are made of concrete and brick    Rocinha’s population soared in the 1960s through the 1970s when two tunnels were constructed giving residents easier access to the Southern Zone for jobs     As the population grew sub-zones of differing income levels and quality of housing developed within the larger community    Now a small middle-class exists     Opinions differ as to whether this contributes to the community or not

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography    Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

Some people choose to reside there to save money on utilities    Most residents have basic sanitation plumbing and often free electricity and are service workers in the South Zone (Zona Sul) of Rio de Janeiro     These residents are served by numerous non-governmental civil organizations (NGOs) and non-profit educational organizations staffed with both Brazilian and foreign teachers and volunteers and workers fighting the poverty and statistics that put formal education at only 4.1 years average with less than one percent of the population going beyond a high school education     The density of population and its diversity    many are descendants of slaves who were only freed in 1888 then systemically excluded from mainstream Brazilian society make it a unique environment for social movements to arise within     Replacing the violent pacification programs of the recent past the Brazilian government has tried less drastic measures to assist the community while forcing gangs into becoming less visible to the increasing media attention from outside Brazil      Although an Eco-limits program ringing the favela with irons bars linked with cables to discourage destructive expansion into the surrounding Atlantic Forest was futile more welcome and successful has been the ongoing government funded Growth Acceleration Program     Under its auspices a community center has been constructed     In addition cable cars and bicycle paths a walkway designed by Oscar Neimeyer and a sports complex with facilities for training potential athletes for the 2014 Olympics     spaces for arts and crafts collectives    one of which to Sarah’s delight is a Samba school encouraging local involvement a source of much pride for the locals    Rocinha although only one of 550 other favelas in Rio has achieved global recognition for both its negative and positive aspects     Mikhail Gorbachev visited in 1992     Some episodes of the Brazilian television series Cidade dos    Homens (City of Men) were filmed in there    The Hollywood blockbuster The Incredible Hulk gives us an aerial view of Rocinha in impressive helicopter footage from which one can gauge the enormity of this favela and its complex assortment of seemingly endless chaotic construction    American journalist Robert Neuwirth discusses Rocinha in Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (2004) a text which touts the will and creative spirit of people in difficult situations     Noting that according to United Nations data by 2030 over half the world’s population will be experiencing these dense urban forces and becomings      he puts the idea of sustainability into an altogether different context     sustainability as it relates to self-organizing communities     Neuwirth breaks with the predisposed notions of “slums” “ghettoes” and “shanty towns” to unveil as do Gary  Sarah   and Carlos’ photographs and film a tremendous spirit and unyielding determination at work within unsanctioned communities    Kay Fochtman a German graduate student from Leipzig researching his Geography thesis on favela tourism observes in an online interview about his recent month stay in Rocinha that:    There were so many things I liked and it’s all about the people     The way they treat each other the way they help one another     Of course these social interactions are born out of necessity but they do work People share things     the owner of one apartment has a TV everybody comes in to watch TV     one of the guests has a washing machine so he can offer the people to wash their clothes      others have a computer and internet access     people share    people help each other     People know each other     I was out of water for several days and I wanted to buy some water down at the little market and one of the workers just offered me to use his shower and I barely knew him     I was overwhelmed     I liked that there is a big sense of community     that you are respected     And I too respect the people living under the conditions they live in and knowing how to survive with dignity and pride     I liked learning about all the things that matter     all the knots that are holding this community together     That is just something you can read about but never really understand unless you didn’t experience it at first hand      Living in Rocinha felt like two things     living in a state-within-a-state     and on the other hand living in a small village where everybody knows his neighbor

Such comments echo Gary    Sarah      and Carlos’ experience     It is this dignity pride and mutual support     rhythm vibration and resonance that is probed in the imagery of our Three Musketeers and that is contributed to by Gary’s guiding of his compadres     and his photographic workshop instructing local youth Sarah’s befriending of inhabitants through her love of Samba dancing     and all captured in Carlos’ short film The Making of Rocinha Brasil (2012)

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

Working the Project

Three taxis pass until one agrees to take our Three Musketeers into Rocinha     Color spills down the hillside     five types of music blast away     Erratic double bass blast percussive beats     the thick overdrive bass coating the cadence to cultivate an aurally anomalous canvas for dueling overly distorted guitars to flail away to a distanced but direct method of mayhem     Welcome to our favela the music seems to say as motorcycles scurry hither ‘n thither (well seen in one of Gary’s photos where a figure-in-motion on a billboard sign in the background seems to literally help propel a speeding motorcyclist down the street) as our documentarians set out to find their respective quarters prearranged through the Two Brothers Foundation     2Bros is an educational support group co-founded by KU Professor Paul Sneed who has launched a Latin website Projecto Rocinha Real     It was he who taught Sarah Portuguese and gave logistical support for Gary to launch the GMS Projecto Rocinha Real Photography Workshop     Thanks to Professor Sneed’s organization Gary and Carlos take up residence on top on their sponsor’s roof      Sarah is placed with two women but must share a bed with them in the cramped quarters     Thus begins their adventure    to make new friends through their passion to photograph    and teach photographic visualization to residents at the 2Bros school in Rocinha     The workshop involved themes like visually bold and intellectually stimulating basics and entertainingly utilized colorful props in the classroom     colored bandanas which Gary brought from the States and eventually gave to the students      comical round Brazilian Globo snack crackers to teach shape and form      fruits and vegetables and a watermelon to carve up and shoot in relation to the usual objects found in the classroom    and so forth    Sarah    she having taught high school students in Kansas    assisted Gary in providing the young students with not only an entertaining experience but got them to feel the empowerment of having creative control and self-expression

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

Besides teaching our Extremeophiles pursue their own photographic tasks outside the classroom     After several days of working alongside a local guide Gary disregards warnings     sets off alone: There I was by myself in the 5-foot-wide alleyway next to the house where I was living on the roof     closing the door to the street     waving my artistic license and getting to work with an empty filmcard      Immediately I encountered a small neighborhood boy whom I’d gotten to know a bit through smiles   thumbs up   and fist bumps   as I passed back and forth in the preceding days     He did a dance for me as I photographed him in the low alley light     then fired me a thumbs up and took off running down the pathway toward his house     Gary presses his shutter at the decisive moment fitting this child’s enthusiastic gait arms and legs pummeling the air into a superb formal interaction with surrounding space     a compositional tour de force which also speaks of self determination and hope     It recalls W. Eugene Smith’s famous image Walk to Paradise Garden (1946) where two small children walk toward the light and the challenge of an unknown future

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

Soldiering on     sweeping the street with its street vendors     catering to impulse     making rich pickings for his camera     befriending and photographing Carlos a street sweeper along Rua Valao (which locals call Open Sewer Street as such enmeshment of raw sewage runs seven feet below this wide thoroughfare)     Gary was pleasantly surprised and his presence in Rocinha seemed fated to be when he was told by his subject that Brazilian Portuguese for streetsweep is garri (pronounced Gary)     Sweeping the street at the intersection of exclamation and decisive moment through his viewfinder     Gary manages to put 99 images on his memorycard by the time three (out of 358) frantic and angered gang members suddenly appear and menace and push him around trying to define dominant from submissive

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

The tone of these engagers’ voices the degree of desire and anger indicated by their glaring eyes    Gary’s firm stance     signal offense versus defense     those who need and one that owns     Under protest his camera is confiscated     Twelve days of diplomacy is initiated when Sarah introduces the Extremeophiles and their educational mission over the local Rocinha radio station     Her plea gains support from locals for their project’s goals and community pressure leads Nem the gang-boss to Google and confirm the credentials of our intrepid adventurers    Much to their surprise the Musketeers are invited to meet Nem to make peace at a gang festival     We will not be separated goes through each of their minds as they fight fear and jockey for a position at the raucous party so as to remain within a coverlet of security      Gary explains their goal is to carry out a long-term observation of the favela and government intervention there before during and after the 2016 Olympic Games     When the gang understands the Musketeer’s profound commitment to the community     (neither police spies nor tourists)     they return Gary’s equipment and give permission for uncontested photography within the favela     The Musketeers roam Rocinha for three weeks recording colorful formal possibilities of the environment     An overview of the favela and a resident therefrom is given formal astuteness in Gary’s monochromatic shot of a young man leaning against a rock formation     Rocinha far below

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

Contrasting with the stasis in Gary’s shot Carlos captures two kids one on a skateboard one pacing him with a bicycle an innocent motion never-ending innocent motion a spiritual richness of which Carlos comments: The youth of Rocinha do justice to the inherent beauty of the place     Not corrupted by whatever lurks at night between hidden faces and lost bullets some kids enjoy their weekends unaware (or perhaps accustomed) to the consequences of living under precarious “material” conditions     The streets seem to move too     Everything around me becomes alive even the rocks the cement the naked bricks holding up the structures of thousands of pathways alleys and window-frames remarks Carlos     As soon as the camera lens comes off the world becomes a wet canvas waiting to be dried out onto my 35mm frames Movement that’s the most potent action I experience as I aim my viewfinder E-motion Rocinha is evolving always changing but always remaining the quintessential definition of a favela Sarah’s image of a typical four-story block constructed building is tightly framed to create a cubist-like flatness with layering of bands of color and textures two levels of which are connected by a red ladder The pile of building blocks arrayed below and its hodgepodge assembly imply the protean expansion of the favela Shifting to an intimate portrait of residents within such a housing complex     Sarah turns her sympathetic eye toward a young mother in joyous love of her child (captured in black and white) a life-affirming oblique shot of the two hanging out a window Sarah recalls the inspiration leading up to this shot:    We had just finished climbing up the wet slippery rocks arranged in a make-shift path up to the poorest area of the favela     Gary went ahead cane in hand camera in the other surprising us as usual     Carlos followed balancing his video camera in one hand the other grasping the camera hanging around his neck     Arriving to rest at the top of the hill we spied a small girl curiously eyeing us     Smiling generously she walked around in front of her home and her mom and baby sister appeared in the doorway to see the visitors rare in an area where tours never come    I got several photographs of just the girl     but the three of them together put a twist on the commercial family portraits I shoot back in the USA     I loved the sass in the girl’s stance     the same sass seen in any young girl in any part of the world     the same curiosity     and the same lightheartedness     here in the heart of Rocinha    While Sarah engages the residents    Gary serially tracks the maze of electric and television cables spanning the narrow streets

Gary Mark Smith Rocinha Street Photography

the photographs both document the creative efforts of the residents in circumventing paying for power and entertainment as well as stand as metaphors for the many levels of complex social interconnection (from the network of streets and alleys to the drug trafficking to shared experiences and globalism to extended familial ties)     all which combine to create the energy pulsing within this vital community

All the while this activity is being sucked into Carlos’s digital camera to emerge later as a high-definition video record of such fugitive encounters

In Summation

Gary    Sarah     and Carlos’ intense and passionate photographic sojourn brought them together as comrades and guardians in arms during the endeavor itself     but that same extreme also contributed to tearing them apart as production collaborators thereafter     Tension not only with gang members but also among the three very individualistic Extremeophiles was palpable     Three creative idiosyncratic minds can be a volatile mixture when sentenced to the same blank canvas without the comfort of danger at their door      But the artwork was worth the effort: 1) three distinctive bodies of documentary photographs made at the end of an era in Brazil when a famous (media would say “infamous”) favela was at the height of its Hole-in-the-Wall gang-held reign 2) a successful photographic workshop with local residents 3) new friends made and a fruitful cross-cultural exchange begun and 4)       a cinematic overview of the entire project directing attention to both the negative and positive aspects of this exotic teeming Brazilian community as it evolves into an uncertain future

– James R. Hugunin | Oak Park, Illinois | April, 2012