In a Window of Prestes Maia 911 Building
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. In a Window In Prestes Maia 911, a project by young Brazilian photographer Julio Bittencourt, has proven this adage, by already winning several awards: the Leica Oskar Barnack 2007 (Germany), Aperture Portfolio Prize 2007 (USA), and Fundacio Conrado Wessel de Arte 2006 (Brazil), the first of these resulting in its publication as a book by Dewi Lewis.
In this group portrait of the residents of one of São Paolo’s biggest squats, Bittencourt uses apartment windows as compositional boundaries within which to frame and emphasise the diversity of this unique community.
In March 2006 the residents of Prestes Maia 911, a 22-storey tower block, were told that they were to be evicted within 28 days. The building had been left to fall into disrepair by its landlord, and despite appearing to stand empty for over a decade, was inhabited by some 1,630 people. Previously homeless, these included 468 families and 315 children, who had moved into the tower block in 2002 with the support of a local action group. A derelict building that had once been riddled with drug users was subsequently turned into a vibrant community which although still impoverished included educational facilities and workshops.
Bittencourt gives his project its structure by photographing some of the individuals and families that make up this improvised community using a compositional device, which repeated as it is throughout the book, helps highlight the differences between his sitters. Framing his subjects in the windows of their apartments looking out at the photographer, he has intervened to recreate a common experience of the city – that of catching glimpses into the private lives of our close neighbours between blinds and curtains. But we are invited in: the camera lens does not intrude, rather the photographer chooses to collaborate with his subjects.
Bittencourt’s project coincides with a time when the density of the world’s urban population has officially outstripped that of the rural. Pressure on facilities and accommodation from economic migration have long been an issue in the world’s capital cities, and in São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the favelas are spread across large areas of public land, often butting up against the most wealthy areas. By picturing the residents of this high-rise slum, separately composed into their living units, Bittencourt breaks up the homogeneity of their socio-economic circumstances. Rather than representing them as poor or dispossessed, these scenes are intended on distilling their humanity. And through the rigour of photographing within the strict limitation he has imposed, Bittencourt builds up the texture of this community.
The exterior walls of Prestes Maia 911 – dark, grainy and graffiti’d concrete – are reproduced in black and white, emphasising their drabness. Most of the windows are also in a state of disrepair – many having lost their glass are boarded over with scrap metal or wood. However, within these window frames glow little tableaux of domesticity, which the photographer has chosen to pick out in colour. Through an opening behind a board a young girl, flanked by her parents, emerges from a darkened interior. In another, a woman stands behind washing, combing her hair with a bright pink plastic comb. Improvised curtains of various kinds provide their inhabitants with warmth and privacy. The urge to decorate and improve is signified by the plants and flowers sitting in cans on some windowsills.
The strength of this work is cumulative in its nature. Within his images Bittencourt has recorded not just a community but most of the stages of human development – from single men and women, to couples, young and old, to the pregnant woman and her partner, and the mothers and fathers with their children. The simplicity and repetition of the composition serves to emphasise the individuality of the people living within this tower block and in so doing, the richness of this threatened community.