Turner captures Brazil’s urban street kids, rural quilombos

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
National Geographic photographer Tyrone Turner shows his work with homeless and glue-addicted youth in Brazil, along with rural villages, during his Monday lecture in the Amphitheater.

Standing under a photograph that he took of a shirtless, 15-year-old street kid high on industrial glue, National Geographic photographer Tyrone Turner recalled the destitution that he encountered while photographing the lives of “glue kids” in northeastern Brazil in the late 1990s. Behind the boy was a favela, or slum, where his cohorts slept outside, and behind the camera, Turner said, was a children’s hospital. The photo was taken on Mother’s Day.

“They’re drugging themselves right out in front of the children’s hospital,” he said. “It was this kind of cycle of life, where they would beg for money, get some glue, drug themselves and then they would just kind of pass out.”

Turner, who initiated Week Six’s morning lecture series, “Brazil: Rising Superpower,” spoke at 10:45 a.m. on Monday in the Amphitheater. The photographer accessed some of the hundreds of street kids who roamed Recife, Brazil, and through social work organizations such as Grupo Ruas e Praças, gained the kids’ trust and documented their lives, which he found to be characterized by homelessness, a dependence on intoxicating inhalants and only intermittent contact with their families.

“The glue bottles were ever-present. It was like a scuba diver with their oxygen tanks,” he said, showing a photograph of the kids wading in the sea, a glue bottle in each mouth. “It was kind of like a life support system.”

According to Turner, most of these children — some as young as 10 years old — found glue after running away from alcoholic parents.

“Alcohol is the most dangerous drug in Brazil, really,” he said.

In his research before traveling to Recife, Turner read that between 7 and 8 million abandoned children live in Brazil, a statistic of which he is dubious. Many of the poor kids in the streets of Brazil were working and bringing money home to their families, he said; despite their poverty, many maintained a vínculo, or link, to one or both parents. But these glue kids had little contact with their families, who often ostracized them after learning of their drug use.

Without stable homes, school or work, these kids knew “a really Hobbesian existence in the street,” said Turner, flipping to a photograph of two boys fighting — a frequent occurrence even between friends.

Social workers tried to help the kids leave the streets, employing a variety of tactics that included bringing them to a recovery home outside of Recife, where they ate three meals per day, went to school, played soccer and did light work in the fields. But, used to a life of drug use, the kids would often escape, Turner said, noting that without a fence around the recovery camp, many of the kids would walk out and catch a bus back to Recife.

“It’s yeoman’s work,” he said. “I mean, one at a time, trying to get these kids off the glue and off of the streets.”

In the late ’90s, inhaling glue was vaguely understood to be detrimental to the brain and other body systems, Turner said. But when he interviewed a doctor, she could not give him a satisfying explanation of the drug’s long-term effects.

“ ‘Nobody’s studied it,’ ” he recalled her saying. “ ‘Who’s going to pay money to study glue kids, you know? You’re going to have money for cancer research, you’re going to have money for heart research, but, you know, nobody has money for this.’ ”

That observation, Turner said, was representative of the neglect and desolation that glue kids endured. And while he has not worked with them since 2000, he said that their situation has likely worsened since crack cocaine became widely available in Brazil.

“To know their story is to know the story of the bottom that’s cracking in this society. The bottom of this social net really didn’t have a bottom,” he said.

After photographing the street kids in urban Recife, Turner turned his lens to rural Brazil, photographing quilombos, or communities of the descendants of escaped slaves. While the U.S. imported between 400,000 and 450,000 African slaves, Turner said, Brazil imported 4 million, and did not emancipate its enormous slave population until 1888. Brazilian slavery “leaked like a sieve,” Turner said, which meant that quilombos sprung up as early as the 17th century. Palmares, a quilombo dating to 1605 that existed for 100 years, housed 10 to 20 thousand escaped slaves, he said. In 1988, the new Brazilian Constitution included a clause allowing descendants of quilombos the right to the quilombos’ land. Five thousand quilombos are now recognized, he said, inhabiting land the size of Italy.

Flipping through color photographs of rural life in quilombos, Turner noted the direct relationship that these communities maintain to their agriculture, from slaughtering cattle and pigs and fishing for catfish by hand to cutting sugar cane — just as their ancestors did.

“This is what the slaves were brought over to do. Cut cane. Cut sugar cane. It was gold in Brazil,” he said.

But the quilombos are notable for their maintenance of their West African heritage, from the Kimbundu etymology of “quilombo,” which means “village,” to the fusion of West African religious traditions with the Catholicism that slaves adopted in Brazil. Showing photographs of quilombolas in trances and in folkloric dress as they partook in the region’s many elaborate multi-day ceremonies, Turner connected the quilombos to greater realities in the country outside of the urban areas.

Turner said that the street kids’ lives were especially destitute, and not representative of all poor children in urban Brazil. But considering the nation’s deep cultural ties to Africa and legacy of slavery, he said, “A look into quilombos is really a look into rural Brazil.”


Q: I want to start with a question about journalist and photographer ethics — about intervening, especially. The pictures with the Glue Kids were hard to see and I suspect they were even harder to take.

A: So what do you do when someone is doing something bad to themselves and someone else and you’re there to document that life — to document what’s going on — and what do you do? Do you take care of the kids? Do you not? My job was to be with these kids, to accompany them and to photograph. And so I made a decision to allow things to happen, but I wouldn’t allow them to happen, like, if someone was going to get really beaten up, or really hurt very badly — I would probably intervene. That didn’t happen in front of me, but I don’t know if I would be able to really be good with myself if I didn’t try to do something. And really, one of the things that I do feel is that you really feel a lot of what’s going on, the pain of what’s going on. And so I feel like if I did not make a really powerful picture of what’s going on, then it did not exist. And so my witness of it needs to take that form, and so I need to be as good as I can in that moment and be focused on my work in order to allow it to speak. And if I didn’t, then what am I doing? Am I just kind of being a voyeur without having any effect? I feel a tremendous responsibility in those situations to do a good job.

Q: Are drugs involved in achieving the tranced states in the ceremonies?

A: Not that I saw at all. Drugs are not involved. In fact, they don’t drink at all for a certain amount of period beforehand. So drugs are not involved at all in terms of achieving the tranced state in what I saw, no.

Q: Is there hope for the glue sniffers? Do any recover from their addiction? Do they become social workers and help others? What happens to them?

A: Yeah, some do recover and get off the glue and kind of come back into their homes. The problem is that if you get a glue kid off the glue, now where are they going to live? Are they going to live back in the same situation? So it’s kind of a situation where you really are trying to get them off of their own survival mechanism. The glue is a survival mechanism, and then you’re going to put them back into another painful situation in which the glue was the solution. So that organization was trying to work with the families and the glue. It’s a hard process to tease out because of the problems in the families and that kind of stuff. There is hope, but I saw it as a real yeoman’s task to go one at a time and really try to not give up hope. Even when they return to the street to keep working with them and try to get them off again. Sometimes, it looks like they’re kind of using the social organization, because they return to the street and then they’ll get meals and stuff, but I really thought that there was a real need for these organizations to do what they did. And there was a real need to support them.

Q: How did you take care of your own emotions with the glue-sniffing children?

A: I think the most drawing thing was just to be in the streets with them, and then I’d go back to my apartment and I’d be with my wife, I’d have food, I’d have what I need to do for my life. So it’s that kind of a back-and-forth that is a little difficult to deal with. But that’s not a problem compared to what they were going through. So I felt I was doing something that was necessary in the work. I’m very proud of it, I’m proud to show it even though it shows something that is hard. I knew that I was proud of what I was doing when I was doing it. I believed in the work — I still do. It was OK to be seeing this and accompanying this. I just always felt like I have it good, I have a good life. So comparatively, I just feel really lucky in that way.

Q: What happened to the indigenous people when the slaves came to Brazil?

A: The Portuguese tried to enslave the indigenous people. They knew the land; they were much better at escaping. They enslave them, but they really weren’t as easy to enslave. Knowing the land, they could escape. So they just kind of pulled back from the settled areas and there were conflicts and everything. When the slaves came, when they started importing Africans, then you had a huge amount of Africans, a lot of Indians, even though a less amount of indigenous peoples because of disease and things like that, and then a small number of Portuguese. The writer that I worked with, if you ever look at the quilombo article in National Geographic, just Google quilombo… his first paragraph is really interesting because he said, “Well if you imagine flying over Brazil, and you would see a bunch of black people, a bunch of indigenous people and just a couple white people, you know a couple of Portuguese — who would you think is in charge? Who ran the show?” Well, unfortunately, it wasn’t the African or the indigenous, so it was the Portuguese. And then there was mixture between the three groups. There was a lot of mixture in terms of the miscegenation… so in Brazil you have this huge mixture of peoples there, which is very different from where I’m from in the South. In New Orleans there was the one-drop rule. So if you had one drop of black blood, you were black. And that was very harsh, and Jim Crow was kind of built on that as well. And in Brazil, everyone has one drop of black blood at least. You’re kind of using white blood to whiten, in a way. The span of the skin tones are great. Like here, we have a great span of skin tones, but there it’s like there’s not as much of a black-white line as there has been here.

Q: How did the residents of the quilombos earn their livings?

A: Farmers. They would have pigs and cows. A lot of them did everything. Whatever the industry was — if they had rice, if they had beans, if they had corn, they would have their pigs. And you’d have kind of the rural thing where you’d have a couple of pigs and they would get the scraps. The chickens, the pigs. The pigs were like the bank. You start to feed the pigs and then you’d sell the pigs when they got big. In these areas, the rice was important. The rice was interesting too, because they grew rice in dry areas, in the mountains and the hills. So it was mixed with other plants, it was a West African variety called red rice… that they had planted here, and was not as commercially valuable in terms of selling in the markets. They sell Jasmine rice and rice from Asia in the markets packaged like we get, but they would also sell, and for their own consumption, they would raise the west-African variety, the red rice. So they were small farmers.

Q: What about the education?

A: The education is mandatory, so all these little places would either have a school in their community or nearby. So the kids would go to school, I forget until which age they were legally bound to go to school, but they all had some education. In some areas better, some areas not as good, but still they had schools.

Q: Who provides the education?

A: It’s public.

Q: Did the slave owners try to get the slaves back?

A: Yes, they definitely [did.] The historical one that I was explaining, Palmares, the 16 campaigns by the Portuguese crown when they were throwing their forces at Palmares and losing, they wanted to defeat Palmares because the plantation owners wanted to defeat Palmares. It was a huge magnet for the slaves. They knew about this place, they knew that they could run away to it. It was an example of flagrant disregard for this colonial rule. So the plantation owners were really the ones who were in charge, the large landowners, and so they are hiring people and getting the Portuguese crown to send the soldiers out there. They want those slaves back. So there was a huge industry in people who would go out and get slaves, like in the United States.

Q: What kinds of cameras and lenses do you use?

A: I actually try to be as light as possible. Like with the Glue Kids, I usually only had one body and two lenses. I usually worked with a 28, a 35 and an 85. Mostly shot with a 35 or a 28. So very simple, not even zooms at that point. I was just working with fixed lenses. And I was shooting Nikon. We were shooting film — I processed the film, every roll of it, in our apartment. Later on with digital, I shoot Canon. Now I have the Canon 5D Mark III, so I always shoot a variety with fixed lenses, and also with some zooms. But I usually find myself, if there are some photographers out here, I usually find myself with a 28 or a 35. I’m really comfortable with that. I work close to people. You want to step into the scene. I like that life-kind-of-flows-by-you feel in a photograph. So that’s kind of the equipment I work with. The first editor that I knew — I never worked with him, but I know him — was Tom Kennedy at National Geographic, and he said he really liked when photographs had this feeling of life flowing around you. Like you’re in a river and the life is just flowing around you. He liked that feeling as an editor looking at picture, and I like producing pictures like that, with motion and energy.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring photojournalist who wants to do the kind of work you’re doing?

A: I would say to really find stories and people — I’m very attracted to people. I don’t do natural environments as much or landscapes. I have done them, I can do them, but I really am more attracted to people stories. And so find a story, start to shoot it, show it to people, get feedback and just keep working. Find a story and keep working on it. Even when I worked at the newspaper, I worked six years at the newspaper in New Orleans and I loved that job, they could send me to shoot anything from pet of the week to real estate — as long as I had my story that I was working on, my story that I was working on and that I controlled, they could send me to do whatever they wanted me to do and I was happy. So find your story.

Q: There’s a 10-year-old somewhere on the grounds, probably at Boys’ and Girls’ Club, who wants to be a National Geographic explorer. And he’s 10, so where should he start right now?

A: Keep on reading National Geographic and learn about the world. I feel pretty lucky that I studied about all these different kinds of things and I’ve been able to incorporate the things that I’ve learned into the photography that I do and continue to learn about the world through these assignments and through photography. Whatever path you eventually take, continuing to really delve into what you’re passionate about is probably the thing I would say.

Q: They said, “We were in Rio in March and visited two favelas that had been reformed by the government. They want to know what favelas you’ve been in and whether they were reformed.” And I’d like to know what that means to be reformed.

A: They mean pacified. So there are these big favelas in Rio that, in the years leading up to the World Cup, they started to really confront the drug gangs and trying to really get the drug gangs out of the favelas. One of the largest favelas in Latin America, I think it’s Rocinha, it’s in Rio and it has a huge amount of population… They started to put in soldiers and have fights with people. One of the times I was in Brazil, I saw it on the TV that the drug gang shot down a military helicopter with an RPG. There have been abuses on also the police and the military side who live in the favelas. So it’s not a clean process at all, but they’ve pacified a lot of these favelas right around Rio, and I think in other cities as well, in preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics coming up. However, it’s pushed the drugs and the gangs into other areas. So they haven’t really fixed the problem, but they have shifted it so that areas that used to be more dangerous to be in are not anymore. In fact, they had people renting rooms out to people who were going to the World Cup things in the favelas, which have beautiful views of the area — at least the ones in Rio do. The ones I was working in were a little different. They were in Recife. It wasn’t as controlled by these big gangs, however you had gangs and drugs and that kind of stuff. And we really had to go with someone. Sometimes I was just going with Glue Kids, but at least the people had seen me before, they knew what I was doing. I wasn’t focusing on the drug dealers or the drug activity, so they kind of left me alone.

Q: Are there vigilantes — community people who intervene in the drug culture?

A: The cops who shot those kids before I went to Brazil, that was kind of a vigilante thing. That wasn’t like, “Oh, I killed those street kids.” I don’t know about that. I don’t know about a kind of vigilante against them, whether or not if someone’s bothering someone and they end up hurting the kid, but I wouldn’t be able to speak to that.

Q: One is about the youngest child you saw who was a glue sniffer. The other is what kind of social acceptance is there for this problem? Do people just leave it alone?

A: Leave it alone. People just walk on by. It’s a very difficult thing to deal with. It’s more like a leave it alone and just hopefully they won’t bother us and that kind of thing. The private organizations, I didn’t even see churches really working with them. I saw more these social organizations, [non-government organizations] or the government trying to deal with it. But the everyday person, I’d be photographing and everyone would just be walking by. They don’t want to deal with a Glue Kid. If you see a band of Glue Kids it’s kind of scary, actually, so it’s not something you want to confront.

— Transcribed by Kelsey Husnick