Like many of its North American counterparts, Brazilian mainstream media has a sadistic appetite for the depiction of Black pain. Despite having the largest black population outside of Africa, black representation in Brazilian media is limited to characters living in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, in subservient positions or through dehumanizing statistics and images of dead black bodies. Not only are these inaccurate representations of AfroBrazilians, mainstream media has commodified a certain black experience and sells it to the Brazilian population for mass consumption.
Yet, a new generation of Brazilian youth are dismantling negative racial tropes and redefining the AfroBrazilian identity. Such is the case with Helemozão Fotopoesia, a 22 year-old photographer from Salvador da Bahia. Her personal photography ranges from street photography to high fashion editorials that seek to empower through aesthetics and accurate representation of the black experience. Her photography poetically challenges the deep-rooted anti-blackness that plagues Brazil and offers a new definition of AfroBrazilian beauty.
The body is an instrument of speech, analysis, a weapon, and power.
As an AfroBrazilian herself, Helemozão understands the nuances of photographing black skin and adjusts her technique depending on the skin tone of her subject. Then, she sprinkles her #blackgirlmagic on it. She places special emphasis on photographing AfroBrazilians in a positive light, emphasizing black joy, black love and black excellence. Furthermore, during her editing process, she tends to make her subjects darker and brighter rather than lightening their skin color.
Beginning in November 2016 during Brazil’s Black History month, Helemozão began her photography project Um Preto por Dia (One Black Person per Day) with the intention of photographing one black person per day for the entire year. In the face of Brazil’s more than 130 racial categories for different skin tones, she asks her subjects one question: “What does black mean to you?”
We linked up with Helemozão to learn more about her work.
What does Black mean to you?
It is strength. It is my ancestry. It is the need to resist to exist in this racist, misogynist, sexist world. It is to have the resilience to keep going despite knowing whiteness doesn’t care about you and will not accept you. It is to survive.
Why is this an integral question in your projects?
I raise this question in my project Um Preto por Dia (One Black Person per Day) because I believe we have to be protagonists of our own stories, and each one of us has our own unique experience. Not all black people are the same; we each have our own singularities, privileges or not. That is why each one of us should speak for ourselves.
We don’t need someone to speak for us. We are our own voice. We just need ways in getting our message out. And that is what I do with my work, I use it as a means for my brothers and sisters to have their voice heard.
Why is Black representation important especially in Brazil?
I believe many times people associate black with slave and the inferior condition given to the slave. Here in Brazil there is a denial [of African ancestry] or even repudiation and hatred against oneself and a widespread hatred of blackness on account of slavery. Yet, though there was a lot of resistance during the whole process, that side of the story isn’t told. Omitting this is a deliberate erasure of our history, and this is where I discuss how racism acts towards us in relation to our image, our aesthetics and our power. This is why accurate representation is important. We need to see ourselves in another light and know about our history, a history that is not in the books. By becoming conscious of our history, we combat the racism that was ingrained into us.
How is accurate representation of the black experience connected to “combating racism and a path towards the revolution?”
We need to be the power in mass but for that to happen we need to be accurately represented. We have many references of fashion models, trendsetters, doctors but they aren’t being shown. The only thing being shown is the statistics of the dead bodies, because that is the way the majority of the media represents us. We are more than statistics of dead bodies.
But the game is changing. The senzala (colonial slave house) now called the periferia (favelas) is ready to take a stand and take back everything that was stolen during from us during slavery. Because “We want to be the owner of the circus, we are tired of the clown life” (excerpt from Boa Esperança/ Emicida).
How is the body political?
The body is an instrument of speech, analysis, a weapon, and power. A free body transcends barriers and it resists patterns pre-established by society. Every detail, mark, scar, wardrobe, physical form speaks on what you stand for.
Why do you call yourself a mulher periférica (a woman in the periphery)?
I call myself a woman in the periphery because I see myself outside of the center and in the periphery in many situations. I am in the periphery from where I live (favela) to where my ideologies stand.
Why do you use the name Fotopoesia?
I adopted the name after many people would tell me they saw poetry in my work, and that my work wasn’t only a photograph, there existed more beyond that. So that is how I identify with my work.