The child peers out a narrow slit of window, his face illuminated in an otherwise dark room. The concrete walls are stained and pockmarked–it looks like a war zone. Hanging in the background are two objects: a curling paper calendar and a framed black-and-white photograph. The latter, a family portrait, was taken by Sebastian Liste. The same photographer who captured this very scene (slide #3) as part of a long-term documentary of one community in Brazil.
Today, Liste will be awarded the City Of Perpignan Rémi Ochlik Award, named for the young French photojournalist who was killed on assignment earlier this year in Syria. Liste’s project, Urban Quilombo, is a gritty and intimate look into the lives of dozens of families that occupied an abandoned chocolate factory in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Fed up with the violence that plagued the beleaguered city, the families bonded together at the factory and formed a community—a community that the Spanish-born photographer immersed him within, beginning in 2009. The resulting photographs tell a chilling story of both courage and despair. In one of the most intense images of the series (slide #5), two men square off, splashing in a pool of water—one brands a huge stick, the other two knives.
The day he took the picture, Liste was inside the factory when two men began to argue. They had been playing Bingo for three straight days, trying to make money to rent a van to pick up their belongings as police were evicting families, when they began fighting viciously. “At the beginning I tried to stop them,” Liste said. “they finished the fight by throwing big stones.” Neither man was seriously wounded in the fight, but Liste’s friends pulled him away, fearing he would be hurt.
Over the years, Liste said, he has given hundreds of prints back to the people of the chocolate factory. The fact that one of these, the family portrait, appears within another photograph in the project is a visual reminder of the time he has put in.
“On my second trip to Salvador de Bahia, I gave a photo album to everyone there,” he said. “It’s quite an interesting process because they started to build a kind of memory of their lives through the pictures I took there.”
Liste said that he’s even found pictures of himself on the walls as if he was a surrogate family member. In documenting this community, he has become part of it. That kind of dedication is the only way pictures like these can be made.
One of Liste’s favorite images from the project was captured was when a 13-year-old girl named Vanessa was reunited with her mother after seven years apart (slide #4). Liste met Vanessa, who had been abandoned at age 6 and had been living at the factory with an uncle. Feeling for the young girl, Liste asked around, hoping to find Vanessa’s mother in the labyrinthine streets of Salvador de Bahia. After months of searching, Vanessa’s mom turned up in the outskirts of the city and Liste was there with his camera to photograph the reunion. “The hug picture is probably the best image I took there,” Liste said. “Both of them were very happy to be together again.”
In March 2011, the Brazilian government evicted the families from the factory, in an attempt to cleanse the city for upcoming international events, including the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.
The families have since moved to a new neighborhood called the “Jardim das Margaridas,” where Liste continues documenting their lives.
Receiving the Rémi Ochlik Award means a lot to Liste, who, despite not knowing Ochlik personally, believed they shared similar experiences and ideas about the role of photography.
“We are almost the same age and we are both fighting to bring light to hard and hidden stories,” said Liste. “It’s a big honor to get this award.”
Sebastian Liste is a Brazil-based photographer. In September 2012, he received the Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography and the City of Perpignan Rémi Ochlik Award. See more of his work here.