It's New Year’s Eve at one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. While 2.4 million people gather at Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach to watch the fireworks, the lens of freelance photographer Lucas Landau turns to a young black boy. He is wet and shirtless, standing in the sea with the water reaching his knees. His hands crossed at his waist, he looks like he's shivering, but stays there, mesmerized by what he sees in the sky above. Behind him, out of focus of the camera, a crowd of people dressed in white cheer, take selfies and celebrate.
Landau published the shot on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and the photo was soon spread to WhatsApp with a fake story about the boy being homeless and abandoned. The narrative fit with what some saw in the image: a black boy who embodied the inequality of Brazilian society.
But those assumptions of poverty and sadness soon encountered pushback.
Stephanie Ribeiro, a vocal black activist in Brazil with 46,000 followers on Facebook, challenged the perspective:
Para mim não tem diferença quem vê um menino negro e já associa com ele a um “menor”, com a polícia que vê negros e já aborda para revistar e/ou agredir. Homens negros sempre contam essas histórias, suas vidas são marcadas pelos olhos racistas que procuram o esteriótipo reafirmando diariamente pelas mídias, e não a inúmeras verdades sobre eles. Fortalecemos isso ao incentivar olhares cheios de esteriótipos racistas sobre nossas múltiplas formas de existir/ser mesmo diante de crianças… o PERIGO DA HISTÓRIA ÚNICA também está no nosso olhar.
To me, there is no difference between those who see a young black boy and quickly associate him as being a “juvenile”, and police officers who see black people and jump to search and beat them. Black men are always telling these stories, their lives are marked by racist eyes searching for the stereotype that the media reaffirms every day instead of the numerous truths about them. We reinforce this when we encourage our multiple forms of existing/being to be viewed through racist stereotypes, even before children [sic]…the DANGER OF THE ONE STORY is also in our perspective.
Interviewed by the Brazilian version of the Spain-based newspaper El País, black writer Anderson França said:
O problema não é a foto, é a interpretação dela, do seu contexto. As pessoas que olham aquela foto estão pré-condicionadas a entender que a imagem de uma pessoa negra é associada a pobreza e abandono, quando na verdade é só uma criança negra na praia. Essa precondição é racismo estrutural, que vem da má educação do povo brasileiro sobre ele mesmo.
The problem is not the photo, it’s the interpretation of it, of its context. The people looking at the picture are pre-conditioned to understand that the image of a black person is associated with poverty and abandonment, while it is actually just a black child at the beach. This pre-condition is structural racism, which originates from the poor education of the Brazilian people about themselves.
The true story, however, remains unknown — not even the photographer knows who the boy is. After the image went viral, Landau added a caption explaining the context in which the photo was shot:
eu estava a trabalho fotografando as pessoas assistindo aos fogos em copacabana. ele estava lá, como outras pessoas, encantado. perguntei a idade (9) e o nome, mas não ouvi por causa do barulho. como ele estava dentro mar (que estava gelado), acabou ficando distante das pessoas. não sei se estava sozinho ou com família. essa fotografia abre margem para várias interpretações; todas legítimas, ao meu ver. existe uma verdade, mas nem eu sei qual é. me avisem se descobrirem quem é o menino, por favor.
I was working, photographing people watching the fireworks in Copacabana. He was there, as were other people, marveling. I asked him about his age (9) and his name, but I didn’t hear it because of the noise. Since he was in the water (which was cold), he ended up being apart from the rest of the people. I don’t know if he was by himself or with his family. This photograph opens space for several interpretations; all of them legit, from where I stand. There is a truth, but I don’t know which one it is. Let me know if you find out who the boy is, please.
Another white savior story?
A screenshot of someone in the comments section of Landau's post looking to buy a print copy of the photo — to which he replied with his contact details — began to circulate. In response, people started digging into Landau's work.
As a result of this dynamic, an expression made the rounds in the debate: “white savior complex”. According to Wikipedia, it “refers to a white person who acts to help non-white people, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving”.
Regarding the photographer and people's general response to the picture, blogger Marcelo Rocha, himself a black man, reminded of a character from the US TV show “Everybody Hates Chris”, which is popular in Brazil:
A personagem Srta. Morello (Jacqueline Mazzarela) retrata uma pessoa branca que reconhece seus privilégios, mas de forma tão soberba que realmente se acha superior em tudo e acredita que todos os negros dependem de sua ajuda e assistência. Vê se em vários episódios a professora do protagonista da série Chris Rock (Tyler James Williams) com suas “melhores intenções” tentando ajudar o personagem em sua história trágica que criou em sua mente. O fotógrafo humanitário de alma negra ainda é lucro pro mercado. (…) Só criaram ele pois existe um povo sedento por ser a Srta. Morello.
The character of Ms. Morello depicts a white person that acknowledges her privilege, but in such a presumptous way that she actually believes herself superior and that all black people depend on her aid and assistance. In several episodes, we see [her] with the “best intentions” as she tries to help the main character cope with some tragic story that only exists in her mind. The humanitarian photographer with a black soul still generates profit in the market. […] It only exists because there are people thirsty to be Miss Morello.
A reflection of the country itself
Meanwhile, some have argued that people couldn't help but see the image through a lens of inequality and sadness given the larger Brazilian context.
Copacabana, an affluent neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, is surrounded by favelas and low-income communities, whose majority of residents are brown or black-skinned. In Landau’s original post, one commenter remembered how bus lines coming from the suburbs stopped running that night, supposedly to prevent young black people from coming to the fireworks spectacle.
In Brazil, the last country in the Americas to formally abolish slavery (in 1889), only a small fraction (17 percent) of the country's richest 1 percent are black, even though black people make up 54 percent of the entire population. At the current rate, the wage gap that currently exists between black and white will only equalize in 2089.
There is also a representation issue. A study by the University of Brasilia revealed that among all the books published in Brazil between 1965 and 2014, only 10 percent were written by black authors. It also showed that around 80 percent of the main characters in fiction books were white. In films, only 4 percent of the productions employ black screenwriters and only 31 percent cast black actors — who almost always play characters associated with poverty and criminality.
Brazil is undeniably a country with a racism problem, even though it never had an official segregation law. As Brazilian photographer Fernando Costa Netto also pointed out, in an El Pais‘ quote:
Mesmo que a foto aponte outra coisa quando encontrarem o menino, o Brasil está muito bem espelhado pela foto em Copacabana”, avalia Netto. “Nós estamos aqui discutindo a força e o papel da fotografia, preconceito, o réveillon no Rio, a estética, a emoção, o documento, questionando… A fotografia está cumprindo o papel.
Even if the photo points to another direction once we see the boy, Brazil is mirrored pretty well in the Copacabana photograph(…) We are here debating the role and the power of photography, we are debating prejudice, Rio’s New Year’s eve, aesthetics, emotion, documentation, questioning ourselves…Photography is fulfilling its role.