Gordon Parks, Untitled (Flávio da Silva), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1961), gelatin silver print
14 × 11 inches, The Gordon Parks Foundation © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks’s photographs of Flávio da Silva originated in the Kennedy’s administration’s effort to develop closer sociopolitical and financial relationships in Central and South America. Life magazine, then one of the United States’ most popular publications, hired Parks, former staff member, their first African-American photographer, to travel to Brazil as their representative, documenting poverty in Rio de Janeiro as part of a special issue on Latin America.

Through a friend in Brazil, Parks gained access to the Catacumba Favela, then a notorious slum which was demolished after Parks documented it.

Parks, basically ignoring instructions to center his photographic essay on the father of a poverty-stricken family, instead focused on the asthmatic 12-year old son of the large da Silva family. Although Parks took numerous photographs of other family members and of the Catacumba Favela itself, it is his lovingly framed gelatin silver prints of the boy, Flávio that stand out. While all of the children—including Isabel, Abia, Zacarias and Mário, having just been bitten by a dog—were endearing, it was the scrawny Flávio, dressed in dirty clothes, staring at the photographer with large yearning eyes that captured the attention of the American readers of Life. In several of the photographs he seemed to be the one caring for his siblings.

Paulo Muniz, Untitled (Gordon Parks and Flávio da Silva at Airport, Soon to Fly to
United States), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Negative July 5, 1961, printed
later, gelatin silver print, 28 11/16 × 22 11/16 inches, The Gordon Parks Foundation (courtesy of the artist’s estate/IMS)

In June 1961, when that issue of Life, with Parks’s photo-essay “Poverty: Freedom’s Fearful Foe,” first appeared I was just two years older than Flávio, yet I still recall those images as might most Americans who subscribed to the magazine. For a child at that time, it was like looking into a mirror that revealed something completely unexpected and different from what I had hoped for. Why were these children forced to live like this? Amanda Maddox, who co-curated Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story at the Getty Museum (along with Paul Roth) notes that Parks saw poverty as “the most savage of human afflictions.” After all, he, himself, had grown up in destitution in Fort Scott, Kansas. The impact of Parks’s Life documentary, taking up 12 pages of the large-format glossy publication, was enormous. It seared the consciousness of any U.S. citizen with an empathetic heart. In those days, one must recall, Life’s influence was equivalent to that of today’s television networks.

The Time/Life company received thousands of letters from readers in response to the Flávio story, many of whom also donated money to the da Silva family. The president of Denver’s Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital offered to the treat the young Brazilian boy free of charge. Parks was asked to return to Brazil to accompany Flávio to the U.S. A photograph of the two arriving at the Denver airport was the most memorable to Flávio, as he noted after a curator-led walkthrough of the exhibition. (Now 70, he also noted that the Catacumba Favela has been replaced my numerous other favelas: “Nothing has truly changed.”)

American authorities placed Flávio with a Portuguese-speaking family, the Gonçalves, while he received his treatment. They, apparently, introduced him to American culture and helped him learn English. The ever-attendant Life magazine assigned a Denver-based photographer, Hikaru “Carl” Iwaski, to document not only his arrival in Denver with Parks, but also other major events in the convalescing child’s life. And Iwaski’s images, along with snapshots by José Gonçalves—including the beautiful “Christmas at the Gonçalves Home” (1963)—reveal a healthy, happy Flávio. These photographs are almost as touching as some of Parks’s original images.

Although the boy wished to remain in the U.S., in 1963 the American government returned him to Brazil as promised, cured of his asthma. He had not returned until this exhibition. Seeing him was something like encountering Charles Dickens’s charming Pip, reflecting after so many years who his true beneficiary was: Parks, the Gonçalves, the American public, or, now, the Getty Museum?

Gordon Parks, Untitled (Flávio da Silva), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, (1999), gelatin silver print, 10 × 8 inches, The Gordon Parks Foundation © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Yet there is a paternalistic subtext to sending a photographer to another country to reveal cultural cracks. If nothing else, it evidences a voyeuristic element, no matter how well-intended Parks may have been. Brazilians were understandably stung by the Life revelation. Accordingly, the Brazilian journal O Cruzeiro sent staff photographer Henri Ballot to New York City, where he found a poor immigrant family from Puerto Rico—Felix and Esther Gonzalez and children—and documented their terrible living conditions in Manhattan.

After all the acclaim and criticism for his photographs, Parks never abandoned his subject, returning to Brazil many times to photograph again and again. To me, this spoke most poignantly to Parks’s dedication to his subject. One of my favorite images in this vast show were of Flávio as an adolescent, and, later, a young man standing in a sea of weeds, studying his own youthful images, or leaning against a tree in a lovely, forlorn portrait. Nature—both the natural world and the nature of human beings—seems to be at the heart of Flávio’s existence.

Growing up in a world that was clotted with both, he now appears at home in a landscape where they come together: Talking to him briefly, I was moved by his wide-eyed openness. No wonder Parks kept returning to Brazil and ultimately assembled his images in a book titled Flávio. His face, body, and disposition in the wonderful photograph, wherein he is at home and both entrapped in a world still dominated by the outsider visions of Rio de Janeiro—at the very top of Parks’s photograph we still catch a glimpse of the memorable statue, Christ the Redeemer monument (Cristo Redentor) which suggests the image Rio presents to the world—hiding the reality of many of its citizen’s lives.

Gordon Parks: The Flavio Story continues at The Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles) until November 10th.

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press, and later...