“The Flávio Story” examines the power, limitations and ethics of documentary photography

By Bliss Bowen

A young Flávio da Silva (right) became the central figure for Parks’ 1961 photo essay on Brazilian favelas like Catacumba (left)

Here in the 21st century, cellphone photos or video posted to social media are frequently the lens through which we bear witness to raw human suffering — be it police brutality, mass shootings, or border refugee’ rosaries, toys and other personal belongings trashed by Customs and Border Patrol officers (see janitor/photographer Tom Kiefer’s viral photos).

In June 1961, it was a 12-page black-and-white photo essay by photographer Gordon Parks that opened American eyes to poverty in the sweltering favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Published in Life magazine, a mainstay of the golden age of photojournalism, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” became a landmark of the form. It was also a signature piece of work Parks considered one of his greatest achievements — not least because it materially changed the life of his subject, a seriously asthmatic 12-year-old boy named Flávio da Silva.

“Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story,” now on exhibit at The Getty, presents more than 100 photos (including outtakes that Life did not publish), original magazine issues, private correspondence and memos detailing the momentous response to Parks’ essay: more than 3,000 letters, $25,000 in reader donations, and an offer of free treatment for Flávio from the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver. Parks accompanied the boy to Denver, and the story helped secure better housing for Flávio’s large family (he was the oldest of eight children). In recent years, CNN’s Anderson Cooper has cited Parks’ photography for Life, and specifically his work documenting Rio’s favelas, as an inspiration for his own interest in journalism and giving a voice to the voiceless.

“It is speculation, but I think [Parks] recognized in Flávio a very universal story, something people could relate to,” says curator Amanda Maddox. “I’m sure that Parks’ upbringing and being raised in abject poverty allowed him to view Flávio as a kind of equivalent, in a way, someone in whom he could recognize parts of his own story in terms of Flávio’s circumstance.”

“Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story” is being presented in tandem with “Once. Again. Photographs in Series,” a thematically connected exhibit in which other artists track a subject over a span of years.

Traveling the world on assignment, Parks, who died in 2006 at age 93, was one of the great Renaissance men of 20th-century America: a self-taught photographer (the first African-American staff photographer at Life), poet, essayist, novelist (“The Learning Tree”), memoirist, filmmaker (“Shaft”), pianist, composer, painter and civil rights activist.

The youngest of 15 children in a poor Kansas family, he took up photography at age 25, and by 1942 had expanded from portraiture to photojournalism for the Farm Security Administration. An iconic picture from that experience, “American Gothic,” depicts African-American cleaning woman Ella Watson with her mop and broom before an American flag — a searing, starkly framed indictment of poverty, racism and injustice that presaged the core themes of the Flávio story as well as Parks’ creative endeavors.

“Poverty is one of the social ills that he targeted as a photographer, and I think he wanted to help remedy through photography,” Maddox observes. “But he also acknowledged that he wasn’t necessarily successful in doing that because of his emotional attachment to the people he met, and that sometimes he felt that kind of muddied the waters in terms of how objective he might be, or how passionately he tried to advocate for people.”

Originally assigned by Life to photograph a patriarch of a poor family in Brazil, Park responded to Flávio with such fierce compassion that he “sidestepped” his editor’s direction and focused on the boy’s plight instead. He returned to Brazil a month after the original Life essay was published, to follow up with the da Silvas, and stayed in touch with Flávio for years.

“He fought for this story to be published,” Maddox says. “It turned out to be kind of a political blockbuster for Life, which they didn’t anticipate. We’re just trying to unpack the complexities of what one might think of as a conventional documentary story and consider the humanist tradition of photography and the complications that come with making that kind of work. You’re engaging with subjects, and their lives and their futures are at stake, and what does that actually look like? This is a story where that narrative can be unpacked.”

In the 1960s, the engaging yet vulnerable human child at the center of that story was nearly obscured, when charges of exploitation were traded by competing magazines in Brazil and the U.S. and politics inevitably intruded. The exhibit includes “translated texts” that Life kept of Brazilian media coverage of Parks’ visits and work.

“Those will be in the show,” Maddox says. “For example, there might have been a story in one newspaper that talked about how Parks may have staged this scene or that scene, and you would see in the margins of that memo in his handwriting that says, ‘Not true’ or ‘Another lie’ or something like this. So he was definitely aware of those stories but I just don’t know at what point exactly — if it was shortly after those stories came out or years later, because those transcripts were ultimately used by Parks to create the 1978 book ‘Flávio.’”

Parks’ photos force viewers to see what is generally more comfortable for society to ignore — the grime, isolation, humiliation, and grinding pressure of poverty and injustice — so that awareness will compel action and problem resolution. Conflict is inherent in that experience via the violation, however kindly intended, of the pride or dignity of the individuals revealed by the camera’s lens. It’s an ethical and moral conundrum that Parks seems never to have fully resolved to his own satisfaction, and one that continues to plague modern photojournalists.

“A disadvantage sometimes pushes you, if you use it right,” he observed during a 1997 interview with PBS’ “NewsHour.” Given his background, he likely hoped that his talent and connections would construct a platform from which Flávio could push himself into more stabilizing opportunities. But part of the poignancy, and relevance, of Flávio’s story is how he tried to persuade the adults around him to let him remain in his new life in America. He was unsuccessful. Now 70, he has never returned here from Brazil.

“Parks was pretty conflicted, I think, about his role in this story and in other stories,” Maddox says. “He talks about how Flávio wanted to be adopted, and about how his kids wanted him to adopt Flávio but he couldn’t. He talks about the family in his book ‘Flávio,’ and how the house was in a state of disrepair when he revisited them in the ’70s and how Flávio was still hopeful to come to America. Flávio expressed his desire to stay, after his two-year stint in Denver finished, and he was supposed to be sent back to Brazil, which he was. But he did not want to go. He tried to convince the people who hosted him on the weekends to adopt him, and Parks, and other people. So I think there were many elements of this story that were quite tough and complicated for Parks on a personal level. …

“You get a lot of information in one image, but there are so many stories behind that image, that surround that image, the moments that happen before and after. One of the ideas that I hope can be gleaned from the show is that there are stories that go beyond just one or two photographs. Representation of anything is very complicated, and not necessarily straightforward.”

“Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story” remains on view at the Getty through Nov. 10. Call (310) 440-7300 or visit getty.edu