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An Alternative ‘Copacabana Palace’ in Rio: An Interview with Peter Bauza

German photographer, Peter Bauza, captures the life in an abandoned block of buildings in Rio. Here he talks to Berlin Global

November 11th, 2016
Aikaterini Kagiali, News from Berlin

Peter Bauza, a German-born photographer and photojournalist, tries to capture not only beautiful images, but also ones which make the viewer think deeply about the subject of matter. In his time in Rio de Janeiro, he visited the ‘Copacabana Palace’, an ironic title of course, about an abandoned block of buildings in Campo Grande area, which hosts nearly 300 families. Here, he speaks to Berlin Global about his experiences.

Almost 30 years ago, 6 huge buildings made of concrete were under construction in Campo Grande, the largest neighborhood in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro, but their construction stopped, leaving the buildings unfinished, full of mud and garbage. Now, the families that live there do not have electricity or a water supply. The name ‘Copacabana Palace’ comes from the homonym 5-star hotel, giving a humorous and ironic dimension to the way these families live. It is often known as Jambalaya, the name of a TV-Show in Brazil, or ‘Carandiru’, after the famous state prison in Sao Paulo.

'Let’s say it’s like an ugly duckling, inside a wonderful neighborhood.'

In the past, Peter Bauza was also a manager in an international company. Besides that, he has also been a photographer since he was very young, but has started to take it more seriously the last years. In the beginning of the interview, he explained that he completely changed as a person after living in his project 'Copacabana Palace'.

'Photography changed my vision, my comprehension to the people in social related topics. And, I totally changed.'

But the first thing that made him follow this kind of photojournalism was his 1.5 years in Uganda. There, he was confronted with the aftermath of the 20 years war in Northern Uganda. He got in touch with the victims who had survived the vicious attacks of the Lord's Resistance Army and started a long-term project, a work in progress. A very big part of his work is research. He does not just take pictures. But he does significant research.

“First thing: I think society should stop complaining. We are really in the best position in our lives, compared to many other millions and billions of other people. And I think that I use my visual language of photography to defend people that need help, without being an activist or militant”.

Bauza was very interested from the very beginning in the way these people in 'Copacabana Palace' live, so he stayed there with them for several months from last June, trying to earn their trust and get to know them better in order to capture their lives in the best possible way. Most of the residents – squatters - are honest, hard-working people. Others were unemployed and living off a care allowance; others had no other place to stay; and some were illegal.

Despite all the difficulties of living in ‘Copacabana Palace’, the people there managed to create a small community inside those buildings. There are micro-businesses such as informal hair-salons, mini-shops with food supplies and convenience stores. The police are seen less often. Drug gangs have been evicted as the militia controls the area: a well-organized paramilitary organization consisting of former police officers, army axiomatic and firemen who provide security to the neighborhood and community. According to the photographer, not all of the people are happy there. They all have a big dream, the dream of their own home and an adequate roof.

“Nobody, nobody in this world is born this way, as a squatter”.

But many of them are afraid to leave this place. There are over 300 families there, and more than 1000 people. There are people that have been living inside the building for 18 years. Everybody knows each other and they are afraid they will lose their community. During his stay there, the community of 'Copacabana Palace' accepted him as a part of them.

“Yes, I was part of them, even to this day I am still in contact with them, they write to me. They tell me they miss me. And I miss them too. I spent such a long period there. But from time to time you have to step back, because otherwise you may transform what you think, because you are sometimes one of them, and it affects your point of view, and you are no longer correct”.

He even had his own room there, with no windows and no toilets. But as this is the kind of photojournalism he loves to do, he was able to adjust easily to the way of living there. His former job as a manager and his devotion in photography also helped. Mr Bauza explained the difficulties of staying there, because you often do not know what you are going to meet in the dark hallways of the building. But this is mostly at the beginning, and despite all the odds, some these people have managed to build an acceptable place inside there. He didn't want to show misery. Because despite that fact, some people are indeed happy there.

“Most of the editors from magazines that published my work, such as the New York Times, they highlighted this, that I showed the happiness and joy, because you know it’s easier to make like, little kids crying for an NGO, with dirty eyes and dirty mouth and nose, it’s a typical photo to make money. So, many photos show also happiness”.

Peter Bauza is a documentary photographer who decided through his visual language to focus on social and geo-political topics involving people. As the artist told us, he doesn't have a political agenda in his work. His work simply defends people who need help. He like to have a social political character.

“Stories that must be seen in the world, stories must be told and change the world a little bit. Because if we don’t change as a society, the gap will be so big very soon that the cost to repair it will be unpayable”.

The artist has a big list of people that have influenced him but if he had to choose one, it would be Henri Cartier-Bresson. At the end of the interview, we asked Mr. Bauza to give a piece of advice to all young people who are interested in pursuing a career in his field.

“First of all, I would tell them immediately, they should do it out of devotion, and they should follow their instinct, and they shouldn’t think about doing it for money, because this job isn’t giving them the money they think. Just don’t do things because of money. If you pursue such a project, you have a responsibility. It is about the truth to be told. It must be taken seriously: we cannot play and gamble with this. So it is a very important job. We create evidence, and in the future, this evidence might be very important documents. It’s not about doing money”.

Mr. Bauza's projects represent the work he has done in cultural diplomacy very well. He has traveled and worked in many different cultures and countries, and he met and spoke with people who gave him a better perspective about their way of life.

“I know these people are not unique, but the only reason that makes them unique is what they represent. There are millions in the same situation. They needed to trust me to open their doors. It took them time. It doesn’t work as if you just come in, take your camera, and you shoot. They must trust you. You don’t start to shoot immediately, even if you are a photographer, if it’s in your heart and you have to shoot. You have to listen, you have to write down, you have to ask, to understand. It’s not about explaining the project to them or the idea you have behind it. The idea is to get the society and government to know”.

Peter Bauza’s pictures were published internationally in Stern, Vanity Fair, Aftenposten, Courriere International, Vrij, New York Times Lens and PDN among others. His book ‘Copacabana’, which contains the pictures he shot while he was staying in Rio, was recently published by Edition Lammerhuber and is available in major libraries, on online-platforms and at Peter Bauza was exhibited and awarded with the renowned Days Japan Photojournalism Special Jury Award, Visa d’or Prize for features in Perpignan during the Photo Festival Visa pour L’image 2016 and the Pangea Award for Stories in Siena, Italy.

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