Andrew Johnson

Documentary photographer/videographer
Beautiful and Broken
Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Nationality: Canadian
Biography: Andrew Christian Johnson (b.1987) is an independent documentary photographer based between Canada and Brazil. After studying political science and print journalism he found his passion for visual storytelling. His work focusses on narratives of... read on
Public Story
Beautiful and Broken
Copyright Andrew Johnson 2022
Date of Work Aug 2016 - Ongoing
Updated Aug 2021
Location Rio de Janeiro
Archived as ,

My first visit to Rio de Janeiro was in 2016, just ahead of the Olympics. I started taking pictures of the usual things a tourist does: mountains falling into the ocean, beaches, parties, street scenes. As I began to learn more about the city and its two sides – the light and the dark, rich and poor – I became increasingly fascinated with the stark contrasts and contradictions it's famous for. I started following politics and cultural events and soon began documenting people and their personal lives.

I originally wanted to explore Rio amidst the hype and activity of the games, but more importantly, I wanted to hear from people who had little to no voice and who lived far from the limelight. The city's notorious favelas have been examined extensively, but so much of the media focus tends to be on the photogenic hillside communities that form a backdrop to the wealthy south zone, with its world-famous beaches, throngs of tourists and Norway-level standard-of-living.

The peripheries and suburban areas like the Zona Norte and Baixada Fluminense are home to millions of working-class people. Plagued by poverty, government neglect, and gangs, these communities are largely invisible to the outside world and ignored by the rest of the city. I continued visiting throughout 2016 as media attention evaporated and the games left Rio with a hangover of debt, broken promises and the worst recession in the country's history.

In the beginning of 2018 I moved to the North Zone of Rio to see firsthand how this period of crisis would unfold. The favela pacification program has failed. Infrastructure crumbles and much needed development projects lie abandoned in the wake of corruption scandals and political upheaval. In March, a rising progressive star in city hall, councilwoman Marielle Franco, was brutally murdered on her way home from a discussion on empowering black women in local politics. Many suspect the militia – a paramilitary mafia supported by right-wing politicians and composed of police, soldiers and firefighters – of carrying out the assassination.

In 2019 the country inaugurated a neo-fascist president from Rio, where a wave of conservative sentiment has taken hold. His family has connections to militia members. Many fear the return of heavy-handed law-and-order policies and few expect any sympathy for the poor and marginalized, who already suffer immensely. The new governor wants snipers to shoot "thugs" in the middle of the favelas. The mayor is an evangelical bishop of a powerful church who seems to only care about those in his flock. Rio is under the most conservative government since the days of the military dictatorship.

The project title comes from a chapter in Juliana Barbassa's 2016 account of a seductive and chaotic city on the eve of the Olympic games. Even in those heady days of optimism, Barbassa saw the cracks starting to form. In that same spirit, this project aims to shine a personal light on this period of Rio's history, with a focus on the suburbs and periphery of Metro Rio, where the majority of the population lives and where the most profound changes are taking place. A lot has already changed since Barbassa wrote her book, and things will likely get worse before they get better. One of the world's most incredible cities has embarked on a new era in its 500-year history. What will become of the 'cidade maravilhosa', beautiful and broken?

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