Gordon Parks described poverty as “the most savage of all human afflictions.” Born into destitution and segregation in Kansas in 1912, he spoke from experience. Parks made a career from documenting the social ills and injustices of the 20th century, particularly in marginalized communities. One of his best-known photo essay chronicles the life of a young Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva.
The J. Paul Getty Museum recently acquired twenty-one photographs from Parks’s photo essay. The acquisition strengthens the Museum’s holdings of works by documentary photographers who—like Parks—were affiliated the Farm Security Administration and Life magazine.
On assignment for Life, Parks arrived in Brazil in 1961 with the intent of documenting the plight of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty. In the Catacumba favela—a slum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro—Parks met the twelve-year-old Flavio.
As the oldest of eight children, Flavio was charged with taking care of his siblings and keeping house while his parents eked out a living and selling kerosene and bleach. Flavio suffered from severe asthma, rendering his tasks even more Herculean. In his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, Parks describes Flavio, saying, “Death was all over him, in his sunken eyes, cheeks and jaundiced coloring.”
Bringing Flavio to Life
Parks documented the difficult lives of the da Silva family with unflinching honesty He captured seven family members sleeping in one bed, crying children left inconsolable, and the skeletal body of Flavio reclining on his one day of rest. “I am not afraid of death,” he told Parks. “But what will they [my family] do after?”
The photographers were published in the June 16, 1961, issue of Life under the title “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” It became one of the best-known photo essays ever published by the magazine and inspired an outpouring of letters and donations from the American public.
With the financial help of Life readers, the da Silva family moved out of their ramshackle dwelling into a proper house, and Flavio traveled to Denver to receive treatment for his asthma. Parks, who accompanied Flavio from Brazil to Denver, published photographs that document Flavio’s recovery in a second photo essay on July 21, 1961.
Flavio returned to Rio de Janeiro after two years in Colorado. Although he later married and had children, he struggled to reconcile his home in South America with his desire to return to the United States. Parks visited Brazil again in 1977, capturing images of Flavio’s adult life for the magazine.
The Getty Museum acquisition includes seventeen photographs from Parks’s original visit to Brazil and four from his subsequent trips. Not only does the series embody the photographer’s mission to condemn poverty by calling attention to it through his work, but Flavio’s story also became a project of great personal significance to Parks.