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Forced Perspective

Attila Clemann (09/11/02)

A large white business man sits half slouched at a small table on the terrace of a local coffee shop. He has nearly no chin from the roundness of his full face. His cell phone and wallet sit beside his cappuccino that cost him two Real. This street and the one adjacent, are home to a dozen or so classically European cafes that cater to the wealthy Brazilians that work in the nearby financial district. The cars on the street range from the luxury style to verging on scrap metal. The man’s foot sits comfortably on a shoe shine’s box and a thin dark man scrubs and shines the patent leather. Not far away, a boy, dressed in clothes so deeply sodden they blend in with the city’s grit, stands with a plastic bottle hanging from his mouth. It is full of gas or glue, I can’t quite tell, which he inhales. His eyelids are heavy with intoxication. He is one of the invisibles, shooed away from cafe tables but continues to hang around for the possibility of something to eat or some money. His bare feet, calloused from the city pavement, will never see a shoe shine’s step. The large white man will never know the kind of hunger the boy feels. And somewhere in between the two is the shoe shine man.

And here, while there are neighbourhoods that are obviously wealthier than others, daily life sees much overlapping. The wealthy step over the languishing feet of the homeless as they prop their thin scarred bodies against the wall and reach up for the odd offering. Incredible turn of the century buildings stand in abysmal disrepair in this part of the city known as Recife Antigo. There are some that are mere facades; windows open to the sky on the other side because the building is gutted. And yet, this is the new chic area. Somehow, so as to follow the history of mixing races and cultures, Brazil has also taken on the mixing of the classes whereby lines are clear but the stark differences butt up against each other. A sort of tango de economico, close but with actually little contact and very well defined roles.

It was with some trepidation that I came to Brazil. What do I have to offer these people? I know nothing of their lives so how can I help? How will they affect me? How will these young people, who face so many challenges that I cannot even imagine, accept me as a teacher, an artist, or a friend? These rather philosophic questions have more or less been put aside as I settle into the reality of simply doing this work in Brazil. Never have I felt like a nosey foreigner. Never have I been treated rudely or with contempt. I have only been greeted with smiles and open arms and while I suspect that most of that has to do with the fact that I stand out here as a curiousity, it is also largely to do with a genuine generousity on the part of most of the people here. Like so many that have travelled to impoverished countries there seems to be a common theme of gracious hospitality, particularly amongst the poor. I wanted my own change in perspective coming here and am receiving exactly that. I wanted to see past the wealth that I am normally surrounded with, living in Switzerland, born and raised a Canadian. My spoon may not be silver but it is certainly full and that is obviously not always the case here.

A photography student at Pro-Criança explained to me that he makes about 150 Real a month, a third of which goes towards rent. He has been studying photography at Pro-Criança with professional photographers for several years and now works two part time jobs and is preparing for entry exams into university. He uses a camera from Pro-Criança and is provided with one meal a day there sparing the rest of his salary to use on other necessities. He desperately wants to be a professional photo journalist but a course in photography at a private school would cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300 Real, a full two months earnings. I spend about as much for a lift ticket in the Alps, something I make in about six hours work at minimum wage in Switzerland. As he told me about what he earns, and how much things cost, I began to understand more clearly the image of the white man, the shoeshine, and the intoxicated boy. The distance between the wealthy and the poor is stark but their proximity creates this unique image whereby all things seem visibly distorted. The white man’s two Real cappuccino is nothing for him but a sizable portion of the shoe shine’s earnings and the difference between eating or not for the boy with the bottle. And all of them wander the same street where I sit, both a witness and a player, watching my vision of the world be challenged and forced to changed.