Interview: Photographer Mario Tama on Capturing the Spectacular and the Unseen in Rio de Janeiro
"Nothing is quite as beautiful or as terrible as it first appears."Photos courtesy Mario Tama/Getty Images Olympics Features photography
If you’ve been paying attention to Brazil over the past few years—and certainly the past few months—chances are you’re familiar with Mario Tama’s work.
Tama, an Emmy Award-nominated staff photographer for Getty Images, has been based in Rio de Janeiro since 2013. In that time he’s covered everything from deforestation in the Amazon to the political upheaval caused by the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
Since joining Getty Images in 2001, Tama has covered the terror attacks of September 11th, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He was one of the first photographers on the ground in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
He spent five years documenting the renewal and rebirth of New Orleans, a project which culminated in his first monograph, “Coming Back: New Orleans Resurgent.” The book features a foreword by Anderson Cooper; all royalties from the book are donated to the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans.
Paste sat down with Mario to understand what it’s like to portray a city preparing for its moment in the spotlight at a time of intense social upheaval. Tama spoke with humility and gratitude for the people and communities that have welcomed him into their lives. He retells stories with the emotion and empathy of someone who connects deeply to what he photographs and who believes in the power of photojournalism to create meaningful change.
Hello, Mario. Thanks for speaking with Paste. Let’s start by talking about your background. How did you become interested in photojournalism?
When I was growing up, my father always had cameras lying around the house, and my grandfather was very into photography. I remember visiting my grandfather’s house and going through these incredible old black and white photos that he had taken throughout Europe. Seeing him and my grandmother at this loving young age, I became struck by the power of photography. I was so fortunate that they allowed me to experiment with these different cameras and that my father really encouraged me to shoot pictures.
My family went to the National Parks and all these crazy places out West. I was shooting the whole time and I remember coming back and developing the film and being amazed at the power of the memories from these images. I was also lucky that my high school had a photography program with a full darkroom and photography classes, so I started working for the high school newspaper and yearbook. And that was it—I became completely hooked.
You once said in an interview that working as a photojournalist allows you to experience “the kaleidoscope of human existence.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
I think what I meant was—what we see as photojournalists is often quite surprising: even in the midst of the worst tragedy or the worst living conditions, throughout the world we still see that people have hope, joy, music, and laughter. We see that humans have this incredible resilience and spirit, in spite of and especially when there are steep challenges facing us.
That’s one of those things that photojournalists see that perhaps most humans don’t ever get to see. I remember this over and over again—in the days after Hurricane Katrina, when people barely had food or water, New Orleanians were still making jokes, laughing, trying to sing songs with each other. It’s like a communal way of getting through hardship.
I remember in Haiti right after the 2010 earthquake, trying to sleep at 4 A.M. and there were faithful parading through the streets singing the most beautiful hymns I’d ever heard in my life. It’s this kind of thing that we witness that I describe as a “kaleidoscope”—that nothing is quite as beautiful or as terrible as it first appears. There are many different shades in the midst of human existence.
You see this a lot in the favela communities of Rio. Even in some favelas where it appears that the poverty should be so overwhelming that folks should be in a miserable state of mind, Brazilians find a way of always celebrating. If it’s a Sunday afternoon, someone’s going to be playing music or grilling churrasco or dancing and singing. It doesn’t matter where you are or how, on the surface, their lives may appear desperate. That’s something I see almost everywhere.
Do you have a mission as a photojournalist? What purpose does your work serve?
I got into photojournalism by being exposed to the work of some photographers who managed to achieve incredible things through their photographs. The war photographers of the Vietnam war are one example. Their photographs changed the perception of that war to the point where it became unpopular in the U.S., and they were a significant contributor to ending the war.
That’s obviously not going to happen every day in your work. On a more daily basis, my goal is to give a voice to the voiceless wherever I am, to tell their story in a real, human way. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I would be driving around deserted neighborhoods and there would be a random family trying to rebuild their home amidst the rubble and I was probably the first person to come and speak to them outside of their own community. No one from the government had come. I would walk up without my camera, and start saying hello, explaining who I am, and they would want to get their story out to the world. For a lot of folks, getting their own story out is important.
I think as a form of communication, photojournalism is important whether you stop a war or you simply allow someone who has no voice to have a voice.
Let’s talk about Rio de Janeiro, where you currently live and work. What drew you to Brazil? How did you make the decision to come here?
When the New Orleans project was over, I realized that I wanted to do more longform journalism in one specific place, rather than parachute in and out of all these different places. I realized there was this kind of absence in my life, an absence of a focus on something that I deeply believed in.
I came down here on a holiday and I felt an immediate connection. There are a lot of parallels between New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro—the mixture of cultures of descendants of African slavery, indigenous communities and European colonizers. It felt like a completely natural next step from that project.
And aside from all of that, I simply fell in love with Brazil and with Brazilians and their love of life, and that was what was first so obvious and infectious to me.
In recent weeks, I have been struck by the juxtapositions in your photos of Rio: one collection shows the sunny construction of a beach volleyball arena or the Olympic souvenir shop, and another captures images of crumbling urban infrastructure in the midst of a financial crisis, while yet another shows the military patrolling the streets in Ipanema. What is it like to photograph a country in crisis that is also about to headline this massive global sporting event?
It’s a bizarre juxtaposition to travel from an area where they are removing people’s homes, which was probably a direct or indirect consequence of these Games—some of these communities had been there for decades—and then to stroll into an ad-hoc store for tourists on the beach, which will be gone in a month.
But I think it’s important to document all sides of what is happening. While you may not agree with the politics of what the Rio government has done, or the politics behind mega-events, there are also other people—the athletes for instance—who dedicate their entire lives to this event. Or the workers who have dedicated years constructing these venues: they’re proud of what they’re doing.
As a wire photographer, it’s important to show the transformation of the city ahead of the Olympics. In spite of all the negativity, the reality is that the city is getting ready.
Your work requires you to cross borders within the city that many tourists and residents of Rio never do. What’s that experience like?
I feel incredibly blessed that folks from some of these (favela) communities—where I’m entering more or less as an alien—have continuously opened their hearts, lives and homes to me. There’s a beautiful Carioca sense of warmth and hospitality generally and I feel blessed to be able to have this opportunity.
Recently, there was a funeral for this kid Jhonata who was killed by police in [a favela called] Borel. He was 16, and the family says he was carrying a bag of popcorn. I remember learning about it and planning to go—it seemed like the family wanted to talk and wanted the press coverage—but on the day of, I kept trying to walk out the door and I kept finding an excuse not to. I was picturing what the family would be experiencing in those moments.
There are times when it’s not easy. But I always remind myself: I’m going back to my normal life at the end of the day, but there’s no going back for the folks that I’m photographing. I feel like it’s far more important to be there than anything else.
How do you handle something intense like that?
At the funeral, I was focused on just photographing and trying not to disrupt anything. It’s one of those things where you get behind the camera and you’re not registering anything else except the photograph.
They brought the casket through the cemetery. The mother was there—she was obviously emotional. Mourners would come and drape themselves on the casket, and become emotional too, and I would try to register photographs without… It’s one of the hardest things we have to do as photojournalists.
In these situations, on the one hand, if you’re really far away, you are not going to capture the intensity, importance and magnitude of that moment. On the other hand, of course, it’s far more important to respect the moment and respect the family. You have to be able to read faces and emotions and what’s happening around you and decide whether you should step away or leave entirely. It’s a very delicate balance.
What are your Olympics plans?
In the beginning I will generally be out in the streets. We will have many talented sports photographers in the stadiums, and I will be trying to gauge and register the mood and feel and reaction of the Brazilians outside, the ones who aren’t going into the stadiums. Are they receptive to the Games? Are they gathering at these free events? Are people watching on TV in the favelas? What’s the mood on the beach? Are the tourists able to get around?
I hope it will be a safe and festive time, and that in the end it will be an excuse for Brazilians to take a breather from all this heavy psychological state of mind that they have been dealing with recently. Maybe this will be a nice festival or maybe they won’t care at all. To me, that is the most interesting question right now.
I noticed that in your photos, you simultaneously capture big scenes with lots going on while also focusing on a specific person or unique detail. What are you looking for when you arrive at a scene?
I think pre-visualizing a photograph before you arrive at an event is generally a bad idea, because you’ve already put some blinders on. Of course, we can’t help it as visual people, dreaming of what we may see that day. Having those vague thoughts in the back of your head is fine, but entering a situation with a specific photograph in mind just goes against the way the universe works, so I really try not to do that.
I try to show up and gauge as much of the scene as I can, usually without shooting right away, taking a walk around the perimeter and seeing. Where are things happening? Where is the light falling? Where is the emotion? How can I visually express what the mood is?
People all over the world have seen your powerful photos from the northeast of Brazil, where the Zika virus has caused an outbreak of microcephaly and other birth defects. What has photographing that epidemic been like?
I’m so glad you asked that, because those mothers to me are the most powerful group of mothers, bonded together and fighting together, that I have ever witnessed or photographed. I know that there are all types of groups of mothers all over the world that are fighting for so many things, and it’s really made me want to explore this idea of the incredible humanness of mothers bonding together to fight a common fight.
They’ve made this big WhatsApp group and that’s how they’re battling. The government is obviously incredibly strained right now and each mother has to fight for all the rights that she possibly can.
Photographing that—especially when they are hanging out together at the end of the day or the end of a session in a clinic—it’s amazing to see the bond that’s developing between them. I think it’s fascinating: they’re like frontier mothers, on the leading edge of something that’s still beginning to be understood. And I’ve been so inspired by that. The fact that they let some random American photographer into their homes and their lives to photograph their children…this kind of openness is always amazing. I can’t wait to get back up there to follow the progress and see how they are doing. To see how bravely they face these challenges has been an incredible thing to witness.
It must be frustrating for you to see the gap between the suffering you are witnessing and the pace of change.
There is almost always no way for us to quantify what we have done, what has been accomplished. You wish you could get a spreadsheet every month: the government changed this policy, this mother received this benefit. But it doesn’t work like that and you have to have faith in a longer-term objective. But things do eventually happen. In the example of New Orleans, the media attention especially in those poorer neighborhoods brought a lot of change and helped bring that city back. I’m proud to have played a small part in that.
I am still very optimistic in the power of photography, in the power of photojournalism. A photograph has a way of searing itself into the subconscious of the viewer in a way that a written story probably may not have.
There’s something about photography, about a very well-put together photograph, that I believe has a way to open someone’s mind, if not change someone’s mind. And I continue to believe in that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.