Monday, November 01, 2004

M12 Sin Camara


Another Report From Rio

One of the goals I set for myself a few years ago was to do more writing and photography. I’ve been prodigious beyond what I set out to do. My Powerbook’s hard drive is stuffed and I now have to delete old photos just to make way for new ones.

On a typical extended weekend, I may take as many 300 photographs. Only a fraction make it to my website and fewer still get the attention they deserve in Photo Shop with my limited time (and more limited photo-doctoring skills).

I draw inspiration from contrasting settings, but the enthusiasm is the same regardless of the setting. The grittiness and urbanity of Mexico City inspire me as much as the sharp colors and archeological wonder of Tulum.

Photography is my way of connecting to place.

My third day in Rio, I took my camera, carefully hidden in my messenger bag out on my daily excursion. I shot the beach. I shot the hot honeys, the fat dudes, the foot-volley ball games and the Christ statue. I shot the unique and stylish pattern of the promenade that looks like a record cover put out by 18th Street Lounge Records.

I had just come from eating lunch in Impanema with a girl (not the girl) and was taking a stroll on a posh side street when inspiration hit. A wrought iron mailbox engraved with a humming bird. I checked the street, took out my camera and snapped two shots.

I enjoy finding beauty in small objects and was caught up in a moment with my back toward the street and my concentration stolen by my subject.

Suddenly, I am on ground, fingertips are pressing my eyeballs back into the recesses of my skull. I am being hit on the back and there is one human being on my back and another one in front of me. I didn’t know what was happening until I found myself in a tug-of-war with one of these guys with my camera as one end and the strap as the other end of the rope. I don’t know how I got up, but I did.

For a moment, I continue to hold on to the camera. My thoughts shift to my cash, ATM card (which I almost never carry) and more importantly, my safety.

I realized the camera is my sole bargaining chip. I set my mind, release it and bolt the other way. Then I turn, while running, to see if they are in pursuit. One of them was standing protecting the other two in a rear-guard action while the pair nonchalantly walked down the street in the opposite direction. I walk the other way with my head turned backwards. I think about going after them, but I am helpless.

My camera is gone.

The girl going into the house in front of me with her bike, watched the whole thing. She said and did nothing, even though she was safely behind her locked fence from where she could have yelled or called the police (or both).

I learn that the Rio of the film “City of God” and the Rio of today are quite similar. When crime occurs, bystanders are silent and after it happens, the police are useless.

“City of God”, set in the ‘60’s, is an incredible film based on the true story of a boy growing up in the Rio favellas (slums) who makes his escape from a world a violence and official corruption by becoming, of all things, a photographer. His friends grow up get into drugs and violence and mostly ended up getting killed. His ticket out is his camera and love of photography. Eventually he defies the odds to become a famous photographer.



Twenty minutes later the girl with the bike found me on the next street corner, one lined with cafes and restaurants where the “Girl From Impanema” was written. She helped me find the police and we communicated in a mixture of English and Spanish.

There were three, all plain clothes, but we end up driving around in regular, marked police car, sirens blaring, as if to tip off the perpetrators. The trigger-happy trio, drew their nickel-plated pistols with glee while toying with the safeties as we drive around Impanema looking for my assailants.

Any black person was instantly suspect even though I barely emphasized the fact the three guys were black. “Is that him?” “How about him?” No, no, no. I was shocked as they stopped the car and then suddenly made a black guy empty out his backpack on the sidewalk.

How many times did I have to describe these were shirtless 20-somethings without bags? This seemed to be a show for the tourist. But instead of impressing me, it offended me. I made them take me to the station to fill out a police report so I can eventually file an insurance claim. I knew it was an exercise in futility as they typed it up on an old typewriter using carbon duplicate paper. The only other crime victim at the station was another tourist who had also forgone his camera to this “tourist tax”.

I will get a new camera and at the rate at which digital photography is advancing, I will even get a better one for less than I paid for the original.

I would like to think the thieves are putting the camera to use as their ticket out of the slum like the protagonist in “City of God”. I would feel slightly better. Unfortunately, both for them and for me, my money is they’ve pawned it.

Good luck finding a power cord for it, boys.

I leave the police station and I walk around the beach with fondling the lens cap which was still in my pocket. I toss it in the trash. They took my camera and my pictures, but I still have the memories and I still had a good time.

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