Flavio da Silva | Gordon Parks

Iconic Photos looks back at one of the most powerful photoessays of the last century. 

On June 16th 1961 appeared in Life magazine an eight-page spread entitled, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” The piece was hastily put together after the Secretary of State Dean Rusk denounced Latin American poverty as radicalizing influence towards Communism in a New York Times article the weekend before.

That summer, Life had sent its first African American photographer, Gordon Parks, to South America to cover one part of a five-part series on “Crisis in Latin America.” There Parks met a 12-year-old boy named Flavio da Silva who, with his poverty-stricken parents and their eight other children, lived in Catacumba favela (slum) in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Parks had put together a powerful essay featuring Flavio’s severe asthma attacks, his large family sleeping in one bed, and other horrendous conditions in the favelas. The story was to be severely truncated (with Parks threatening to resign if the editors do so) when Rusk’s article rescued it.

The photoessay elicited a huge emotional response from the readers; letters poured into the magazine’s offices. Many contained money; others included offers to adopt the boy. The Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver arranged for Flavio to be brought to its facilities — where he would be treated for free — with President Kennedy himself intervening to expedite the visa process.

So it was an uplifting story of photographs affecting change. Maybe. Iconic Photos is more skeptical. Using its readers’ donations, Life set up a $300,000 fund for Catacumba, but the local resident association only built cement stairs. The rest of the donations simply disappeared. In 1961, there were 205 favelas in Rio, housing a population of at least 700,000 people. Today there are twice as many favelas, and estimates of their population range from 700,000 to 2 million. While many Brazilian magazines took up the cause of poverty after Life, their efforts were short-lived. One, O Cruziero, however, was so outraged by Parks’ coverage that it sent reporters to New York City’s slums; unfamiliar with the city, the reporters ended up in the Wall Street and staged a few shots with a random Puerto Rican family.

(Read here a pdf excerpt from Park’s autobiography about meeting Flavio).

13 thoughts on “Flavio da Silva | Gordon Parks

  1. I appreciate your behind the iconic images information. I would like to know the origin of some data, for example the excerpt and how ended the money and the reaction of O Cruzeiro, not O Cruziero (a type mistake). By the way, there are more info in the book about Life photographers wrote by John Loengard, What they saw. Regards

  2. Iconic photos taken half a century ago. Thought important to Americans at the end of the Eisenhower age, I wonder how different those places are today, if at all. Even after the billions of dollars Americans, and others, have given to this place, and many others. Old photos are fine, but how has the money WE have thrown at these poor places changed anything?

    I have seen pictures of Afghanistan and Iran from the 1960’s that show them as “modern” places with freedom and equality for women and jews (!) before “islam” took over their governments. Why are these icons missing from this site? You often ridicule what the Germans did in the 1930’s, yet you let similar current events in the middle east to go unnoticed (tens of thousands dead in Syria?).

  3. What’s the use of a comment function when nobody doesn answer any questions? I am still interested in the sources for this (and without it’s nothing more than a) story, thank you.

  4. […] Soon, the photo came to be known as American Gothic, after the iconic 1930 painting by Grant Wood. Parks had the painting in mind when he carefully posed Watson in front of a flag-draped office, with mop and broom in hand. It was one of the first photos he took on his way to becoming the Jackie Robinson of photography. […]

  5. Flavio da Silva’s photo essay is powerful and heartbreaking and I was glad to see it as I was not familiar with his work.
    However, do miss seeing Gordon Parks mind blowing image of Ella Watson which was called American Gothic and included in the email. It seems that Watson’s story is worthy of a separate post.

    • oops. My apologies. I should have read the article before posting. Flavio was the child Parks photographed. I still maintain that Ella Watson’s photo was so powerful, it should have been either included, or made into a separate post

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