“Gordon Parks’ photographs chronicling social justice, civil rights, and the African-American experience in the United States are both a vital historical document and a compelling body of artistic work,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “And, of all his varied projects, Parks considered the photographs of Flávio among his most important achievements. The great impact that it had, and still has today, can only be appreciated by presenting these photographs in their full socio-political context, which is what this exhibition does for the first time.”
An accomplished filmmaker, composer, writer and poet, Parks is best remembered for his prolific career as a photographer. He became the first African-American photographer on staff at Life magazine, where he covered subjects ranging from fashion to social injustice. In 1961 the magazine sent him to Brazil with a specific assignment: to document poverty in Rio de Janeiro for a special series on Latin America. Told to photograph the hardworking father of a large, impoverished household, Parks all but disregarded these instructions and turned his attention instead to one resident in particular—an industrious, severely asthmatic twelve-year-old boy named Flávio da Silva who lived in Catacumba, one of Rio’s working class neighborhoods known as favelas.
Over the course of several weeks Parks photographed Flávio as he performed household chores and entertained his seven brothers and sisters—daily activities that were often interrupted by debilitating asthma attacks. Having himself grown up in abject poverty in Kansas, Parks felt deep sympathy for his subject and forged an emotional bond with him. Ultimately Parks advocated for a comprehensive photo essay dedicated to Flávio’s story in the pages of Life; editors responded by publishing a twelve-page piece, titled “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” in June 1961. The exhibition includes images from this spread, as well as outtakes from the assignment.
Within days of its publication in the magazine, Flávio’s story emerged as a blockbuster. Moved by Parks’ heartbreaking coverage, Life’s readers wrote thousands of letters and spontaneously donated money to support the da Silva family and the revitalization of the favela. Upon seeing the images, the president of the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital (CARIH) in Denver, Colorado offered to treat Flávio as a patient, free of charge. In July 1961, Life sent Parks back to Rio as part of the magazine’s follow-up efforts. After helping to move the da Silva family from Catacumba, Parks accompanied Flávio from Rio to the United States. For the next two years Flávio lived and received treatment at CARIH but spent most weekends with a Portugeuse-speaking host family who introduced him to various aspects of American culture.