FestFoto: Celebrating the Brazilian Soul

2011: Participants in a workshop for teachers run by Miguel Chikaoka, which explored the nature of light [photo: © Eduardo Seidl]

We wanted to make access to photography more democratic …

to help the people of the favelas feel comfortable visiting the museums and arts centres; to show them that they have the right to go there, to see the exhibitions, to ask questions.


In Brazil, the slum areas where the very poor live are called favelas. The first favelas were built in the late nineteenth century by soldiers with nowhere to live. But many were so called ‘African neighbourhoods’ where former slaves who owned no land and had few prospects of work came to make their home. Most of the modern favelas appeared in the 1970s as people moved from rural agricultural areas to the growing cities in search of employment. Today, about six per cent of the Brazilian population (over eleven million people) live in favelas, without public services such as drinking water and sewerage. The favelas have their own colourful culture with strong traditions drawn from African roots. These include the distinctive samba style of popular music and much that is characteristic of the Brazilian carnival.

For the photographer Carlos Carvalho, the favelas are what give Brazilian cities, especially Rio de Janeiro, their idiosyncratic energy – what he calls “their soul”. So, when he came to start FestFoto, a festival of photography in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, he quickly became interested in how a festival of photography could meaningfully engage the people of the favelas. More than that, he wanted to explore ways in which such an event could open up the possibilities of photography as a tool for the people themselves: a way to express their view of the world; a way to discuss their situation and a way to become better integrated within the life of the wider city.

In a world where art institutions and cultural events all too often focus their attentions on the rich, the educated and the powerful, this is refreshing. What is perhaps even more surprising is that it has been the relatively new technologies of digital imaging and projection that have made much of this pioneering work possible.

Today [2016], FestFoto is preparing for its tenth anniversary edition in 2017. As they make their plans for the future, I spoke with Carlos Carvalho about his journey over the past decade, the things he has learned and some of the inspirational people with whom he has had the opportunity to work.

Alasdair Foster

Alexandre Sequeira’s exhibition ‘Mocajuba of Nazareth’ presented at the 2010 edition of FestFoto [photo © Carlos Carvalho]


Alasdair: How did the festival begin?

Carlos: The festival was born in a very different way from the other two festivals in Brazil – Paraty en Foco and FotoRio. FotoRio has a close relation to the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and so it has strong links with France. Paraty em Foco was close to Spain. Here at FestFoto we dedicated ourselves, initially at least, to South America.

Our festival was part of an important cultural moment for our country. The past ten years have been very important for Brazil. Our president at that time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, worked hard to make Brazilian people proud of themselves and he changed completely our international relations, within South America and outside. He wanted us to be part of the global play, a destination on the major cultural circuits.

Fernando Schmitt’s exhibition ‘Dinheiros’ [money] presented at the Santander Cultural Centre 2010 [photo © Anderson Astor]

What was the initial impetus?

We realised there was a real demand from the community for cultural events. However, while we have an arts biennial in Porto Alegre, it does not give much attention to photography. We had no money and people felt insecure about starting an event without first securing a lot of funding. But I realised that unless someone got things going this would simply never happen.

We decided to start small and take it step by step. Our initial idea was simple: ask a number of photographers each to send a selection of work in digital format so that we could present them in a projection. We started with three venues in the centre of the city: the Centro Cultural Santander, Stúdio Clio and an art cinema in the Usina do Gasômetro Cultural Center.

We were lucky because we had previously met the president of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Martine Frank. She was also a famous Magnum photographer. We decided to invite her and, to our surprise, she accepted. The only thing she asked was to fly with Air France so she could get the air miles! We did not have any money, but Centro Cultural Santander helped by paying for her hotel and the flight was paid by the representative of Leica Cameras in Brazil.

The program of the first festival included the work of forty Brazilian photographers, six videos from Magnum and a lecture by Martine Frank. It was a huge success and we got the attention of the Brazilian media and the wider South American region.

What is the aim and ethos of the festival?

I don’t think that this was clear when we made the first edition. It was a kind of ‘project among friends’. But, when we realised that we had made a festival successfully and we would be having a second edition, we had to consider seriously the question: ‘what is this festival for?’ The answer was that we wanted to make access to photography more democratic, and we now knew that projection was a tool that could enable us to do that.

The work of João Urban projected at the Santander Cultural Centre 2010 [photo © Anderson Astor]

Where do you make the projections?

We use a number of cultural venues in centre of the city, but we also go out to the periphery, to the places where the poor people live, to the favelas. We learned something important. When we took workshops, projections and discussions into the favelas, the local people were eager to be involved. But when we wanted to bring people from these communities in to visit the city-centre venues, they did not want to come. They felt excluded from this world of fancy cultural institutions… So, we decide to work on that; to help the people of the favelas feel comfortable visiting the museums and arts centres; to show them that they have the right to go there, to see the exhibitions, to ask questions.

A guided visit by primary school students to the exhibition ‘Mocajuba of Nazareth’ by Alexandre Sequeira; part of the FestFoto educational program [photo © Eduardo Seidl]

Does the festival focus on a particular genre of photography?

Unlike the other festivals, we do not have ‘one language’ – we felt we should show both photojournalism and fine art photography in the same place and at the same time.  

Technologies are changing fast. How has this affected your programming?

We experimented in various ways. In the beginning the relatively low resolution of the projectors was an issue and for the second and third editions of the festival we put especial emphasis on getting high quality projection equipment.

Since 2012, we have been using LCD screens. These allow us to exhibit work on a continuous daily basis and to present different sequences in different parts of the same building.

Is it the artist or the festival that creates the video of the work for projection?

In the beginning, we created all the sequences except the videos provided by Magnum. However, we encouraged the photographers to become the author of their own visual sequence, selecting their own choice of music and style of presentation.

I think FestFoto has made an important contribution here. It asked photographers to think about how visual narratives are made using new technologies. Nowadays, every photographer has to have a video editor in their address book. But back then… we were at the beginning of this; pushing photographers to understand projection as an artwork in itself.

And now we have some really good work. You see that the photographer was really thinking how to tell the story – the visual narrative, the music and how they put them together. We currently have almost nine hundred videos in our archive.

Is that archive available online?

We did begin putting them on the festival website and we realise that we have to do work on this. We want to raise the funds to reformat the sequences and put the whole archive online so that it can be available anywhere in the world. It’s an important archive. It’s not complete, of course, but it gives a good sense of the progression of Brazilian photography over the past decade.

How did you go about setting up workshops in the favelas?

When we started the festival, the first person we invited for a workshop was João Ripper. He had created the Escola de Fotógrafos Populares [school of community photographers] in the Favela da Maré in Rio de Janeiro. The local NGOs had asked him to start a school for the favela children so they could learn how to express themselves. He said: “Yes, but I don’t want them to express, I want them to be able to discuss their situation through images.”

João and I had travelled together for many years documenting various social issues and we talked a lot about this. What is the purpose of our work? What is the relationship of the photographer and the subject? Is it more important that the image represents the photographer’s own vision or should the subject be portrayed the way they want? That is a difficult and complex question. It challenges the ego of the photographer. We felt that even when we sense a strong solidarity with the community, we will still be a photographer with our own background, our own culture, making our work about those people. Photographers don’t ask the subject how they wish to be portrayed. As photographers, they want to show their point of view about the world. So, why not teach people photography and let them take the tool, learn what it can do, and make their own representation of themselves.

When we started doing workshops in the favelas, that was our goal.

João Ripper stands in an exhibition made by students of the Escola de Fotógrafos Populares [the school of community photographers] [photo © Escola de Fotógrafos Populares]

Have you since shown their work?

In 2012, we invited the children from João Ripper’s first cohort at the Escola de Fotógrafos Populares to exhibit at the festvial. They came here very confident in themselves as photographers. They made a lot of prints. They brought a book of their work. We were showing inside of an art festival work that was made inside a favela. Given this visibility at the festival, they were later invited by the respected French curator Agnès de Gouvion-Saint Cyr to go to France; to speak for themselves on the international stage.

That was a very great moment for the festival

Have you run other kinds of workshop?

In 2011 we invited Miguel Chikaoka. While João Ripper was strong about giving the people photography as tool to use themselves, Miguel took them deep inside the experience of photography through an incredible workshop about light.

He shows ordinary people how to make experiments with paper and glue that reveal the secrets of how light works. It’s amazing! We asked him to come to Porto Alegre to run a workshop for schoolteachers; to show them how they could talk about photography and help to make it a part of the student’s life. The teachers loved it and asked for him to come again.

So, now we are reaching the favelas, the schools and the teachers at the schools.

A participant in a pinhole photography workshop held in the community of Quilombo do Sopapo (Porto Alegre) 2010 [photo © Eduardo Seidl]

You clearly take a broad view of how photography might be useful in society.

Yes, and it goes further than this. In 2009, we invited André François to work in hospitals for the long-term sick. He uses photography as a way to encourage communication between doctors and patients. In his projects both the patients and the doctors use photography to explore their feelings and perceptions. In many cases this allows patients to explore things they felt too embarrassed to tell the doctor directly. They use film cameras and it works because, when the doctors and patients are in the dark room, they are equal – they are no longer doctors and sick people, they are all students of photography. He gave only one workshop, but it allowed people in Porto Alegre to realise that photography could be used in a hospital in such an effective way.

© Nair Benedicto ‘Sisal Production’ 1985

Tell me about some of the Brazilian photographers whose work you have exhibited.

In 2012, we had paid homage to Brazilian photographer Nair Benedito. During the military dictatorship [which lasted from 1964 to 1985] she was very engaged in the leftist groups. She was captured, put in jail and tortured. When she was released, she shifted her attention to social justice issues and particularly the plight of women and children. We had a lot of street children in Brazil at that time. She focused on that but, at the same time, the union movement was growing in São Paulo and she also documented this. However, Nair was concerned that the unions, while they did important things for the workers, did little to address the issues facing wider society, including the threat to the Indians in the Amazon region.

Hers is an amazing life. We wanted to show people that here was a person who, despite her personal history and despite being a woman in a male-dominated world, could draw together all of these personal narratives that connect Brazilians with their recent history.

Recently you show the work of Sebastiao Salgado. How was that?

Yes, in 2014… Sebastiao Salgado is, of course, very famous and he has a very spectacular way of showing his work, but what I think is really important about him is that he also brings a very precise attention to the details of the structure and installation of the show, the educational program and so on. He thinks of everything.

When he speaks publicly, he does not talk about his work – partly I think because he believes he is the best! [laughs] He talks about why he is taking the pictures; the issues he is addressing. He brought news about the environment from all around the world. To be involved in his project was like several years at a university! And it showed the community that all this was brought by a photographer.

What are you planning for the next festival – your 10th anniversary?

We want to pay homage to the four Brazilian photographers featured in each of the early editions: Martine Frank, Claudia Andujar, Luis Humberto and Thomaz Farkas. I would love to have their work projected outdoors.

Claudia Andujar, for example, made some important work about the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon region. Her work was critical of the way in which the military dictatorship was treating the Yanomami and consequently it could not be published in Brazil at that time, though it was given considerable international coverage in magazines such as ‘Time’ and ‘Life’.

How would you sum up FestFoto?

It is about creating access to photography. About showing the people in the city and in the favelas why the image is so important in their life. It’s about how to understand an image. How images are used by society, in the press…

Visual education.

On Saturday morning during each festival, the photographers go to the banks of Guaiba River to celebrate. In 2010 they made and flew photographic kites. [photo © André Feltes]

Biographical Notes

Carlos Carvalho is the director of FestFoto in Porto Alegre, one of the three most important festivals of photography in Brazil. With a mission to provide career development and opportunities for emerging, under-served, and under-recognized voices in the photographic arts, the festival offers solo and group exhibitions, workshops, and portfolio reviews.

From 2010–2014, Carlos Carvalho served as Vice President of the Rede de Produtores Culturais da Fotografia, which brings together curators, researchers, festival directors, and professionals related to cultural events across all photographic media. He is a regular reviewer at festivals around the world including Encuentros Abiertos (Argentina), Forum Latino Americano de Fotografia (Brazil), Houston FotoFest (USA), Jornadas (Uruguay), Kaunas Photo Festival (Lithuania), Paris Photo (France), PhotoLucida (USA), and PhotoVisa (Russia). He contributes articles to LensCulture, and is the Editor of OF Magazine, an online publication committed to expanding the visibility of Brazilian and Latin American photography.

Established in 2007, FestFoto is held annually in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. Website here: www.festfoto.art.br

Coronavirus Update

With the uncertainty and challenges brought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 edition has been delayed. For updates check out the festival website.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the October 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.