Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (1912–2006) dedicated his seven-decade-long photographic career to exposing truth, injustice, poverty and inequality. He began photographing in the 1920s, and in the 1930s had won a Fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). His stark black and white documentary style was modelled on photographers whose work he admired, and developed further during his time with the FSA.

The exhibition “Gordon Parks: The Flavio Story” examines the chain of events and the impact of a single photo story published in Life Magazine in 1961 under the title “Poverty: Freedom’s Fearful Foe.” Parks travelled to Brazil to document the slums of Rio de Janeiro for this assignment, and his photo essay focuses on the di Silva family, in particular the eldest son, 12-year-old Flavio, who suffered from malnutrition and asthma so severe he was often bedridden. The exhibition brings the viewer directly into contact with the photo essay in Life Magazine through the use of original copies of Life and excerpts from the story, as well as the day-to-day diary kept by Parks during the 18 days on assignment. Each day, as he described in his diary, he visited the family, climbing the steep mountainside to reach their home. The story was one in a series commissioned by Life’s owner, Henry Luce, under the title “Crisis in Latin America,” a reaction to the economic and political interventions proposed for Latin America by the Kennedy administration.

“The Compassion of Americans Brings a New Life for Flavio,” LIFE, July 21, 1961, cover. Photo: Carl Iwaski. Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

The intention of Life Magazine had been to fulfill the demand for a story and capture a set of images that exemplified the editor’s convictions about communism and the directives of the Kennedy administration. Parks built his story around the child Flavio and is a bleak presentation of extreme poverty and suffering. The response in readers’ “Letters to the Editor” was immediate and emotional. The magazine’s circulation was over seven million per week, and letters of sympathy, offering money and assistance, arrived almost immediately, with readers sending in more than $30,000. The Children’s Asthma Research Institute in Denver wrote to offer care for Flavio, at no cost. As a result, the di Silva family was moved from their favela and resettled in a better neighbourhood and young Flavio was flown to the United States to receive treatment. Life Magazine followed up, featuring the young boy, safe and healing, photographed in colour, on the cover of their July 21, 1961, issue.

The headline—“The Compassion of Americans Brings a New Life for Flavio”—celebrated the warmth of the American people, and an article published subsequently captured, in photographs, Parks’s return to Brazil, as he himself escorted the young boy to the United States. The caption of the photograph taken by Paulo Muniz spoke for the intensity of the moment and the now perceived paternal relationship Parks had with Flavio: “Too much to bear. As the crowds press in on him at Rio airport, Flavio breaks down, huddles behind the protective arm of Photographer Parks. When the two good friends finally parted later in Denver, Parks wept.”

Flavio’s arrival in the US was celebrated, and Life Magazine published a full photo story of the young boy receiving treatment in hospital and already looking healthier. The action was not so well received in Brazil, and the exhibition examines the controversy as the news magazine O Cruzeiro retaliated by sending photographer Henri Ballot to photograph examples of poverty in New York City. Life Magazine remained at the helm of the rehabilitation effort, and a multiyear story emerged. Offers of food, clothing and money poured in, and Flavio lived with a Portuguese family while undergoing treatment. Once his asthma was under control, the decision was made to have him return to his family in Brazil. At this point Flavio had spent nearly two years in the US. He was 14 years old when he returned to Brazil. The close relationship between Parks and the boy continued and they wrote letters back and forth while Parks himself returned to Brazil in the 1970s and again in 1999 to visit and photograph Flavio.

Gordon Parks, Falvio After Asthma Attack, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil , 1961, gelatin silver print. Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

A substantial addition to the story is the journey taken to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 by the co-curators, Paul Roth and Amanda Maddox, to interview, photograph and film Flavio. The material exhibited probes and enlightens the extent to which Flavio was affected by the relationship with Gordon Parks and also the scope of Life Magazine’s cultural force. The impact of Parks’s most celebrated photo essay, the context of its publication and the decades following unfold, beautifully documented, impeccably researched and illustrated in the exhibition.

Cleverly creating the timeline of events using original archival documents, including contact sheets, drafts of essays, letters written to Life Magazine and the diary of Parks, the exhibition elaborates the story from creator to publication, its public reception and the impact a single photo essay had on readers of Life Magazine and, ultimately, on Parks and the young Flavio.

The exhibition, curated by Amanda Maddox, associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and Paul Roth, the director of the Ryerson Image Centre, was shown from September 12 to December 9 at Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. It was also exhibited at the Instituto Moreira Salles, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janerio, and will be at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in July 2019. It was created in partnership with the Gordon Parks Foundation in New York and the Instituto Moreira Salles in Rio de Janeiro.

These stark photographs are also the subject of a new book, Gordon Parks: The Flavio Story (Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation), which accompanies the travelling exhibition. With written texts by the exhibition’s co-curators, Roth and Maddox, the book includes the full interview with di Silva conducted by them in 1999, as well as essays by Beatriz Jaguaribe, Maria Alice Rezende de Carvalho and Sérgio Burgi.

“Gordon Parks: The Flavio Story” was exhibited at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, from September 12 to December 9, 2018.

Dr Joanne Stober is a curator and historian of photography currently working as the Historian of War and Visual Culture at the Canadian War Museum.