This collection of photographs—in conjunction with Flawless Imperfection—emerged initially from a fascination with certain formal and aesthetic qualities that are present in my early silkscreen lightboxes from early 2007.
More specifically, in my early experiments with silkscreens as a potential medium for painting I was fascinated by the ways in which 'sloppy technique' allowed for the emergence of beautifully complex mixtures and juxtapositions of color, texture, light and form.
The varying layers of thickness of unevenly applied emulsion caused for its natural iridescence to refract background light in ways that produced seemingly-intentional gestures, shapes and forms. Combined with the natural iridescence of standard silkscreen nylon, there was an overall quality of glowingness to the entire screen. The interplay of these aspects with the silkscreen's stenciled shapes (which I flooded with colored ink) caused for the entire piece to take on a quality that couldn't have been designed or engineered—an aesthetic result that rivaled an artist's intentions, but which could never be prescribed.
When I moved to the Pelourinho neighborhood of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil in June of 2007, these ready-made qualities of texture, color, light and form (by which my silkscreen paintings had seemingly created themselves) were the same qualities—and the same underlying process—by which nature was organically self-creating an entire city of buildings that rivaled the visual beauty of abstract expressionist paintings.
I was fascinated by the essence of the process by which the fracture and deformations of urban decay were rendering raw materials (plaster, brick, concrete, wood, steel, pigment, etc.) into the perfect final stages of an 'artwork,' thereby allowing a passerby such as myself to provide the crucial final contribution—made clear to us in examples such as Marcel Duchamp's readymades and John Cage's 4'33"— of perceiving such raw materials (be they visual, sonic or otherwise) as artistic.
My photographs were initially intended as a way to capture this rich and ubiquitous visual beauty—to enact my role of converting raw visual information into art. However, my purely formal and aesthetic fascination with the visual quickly led to an acknowledgement and exploration of the underlying sources of such visual beauty: a long history of systemic oppression beginning with the slavery that made Salvador (the first capital of Brazil and one of the oldest cities of the New World) the locus of the Brazilian slave trade. It is no accident that the name of the historic district in which I lived—the Pelourinho—is the Brazilian word for the pillory where slaves were publicly beaten and sold.
In many cases, the buildings that were most beautiful were also those that were farthest along in the process of abandonment and decay—often on the brink of total collapse. Moreover, these 'prized' artistic structures were typically not found along the main pedestrian routes that are normally packed with tourists—the more carefully manicured and monitored streets and zones that the city intends to serve as its public international face (and for which politicians claimed its UNESCO World Heritage status).
By veering off course in my search for beautiful decaying buildings I often found myself in places where few outsiders are likely to have gone. In a city that is plagued by violent crime, getting robbed on the street is often referred to—by tourists and local residents alike—as a commonplace occurrence; a part of normal life. In that regard I was fortunate to have remained unharmed and uncharacteristically lucky to have made it in and out of questionable circumstances dozens and dozens of times with both my camera and my photos intact. In this sense, the photographs represent a logistical and strategic triumph almost as much as an artistic one.
However, although I came away from my photography sessions unharmed, there was no way to prevent a decisive change in the nature of my perceptions of what I was documenting. An unforeseen human element flooded its way into my mind as I worked, and the meaning of the images (although visually no different than before) had begun to take on a new significance.
During one of my off-track explorations, I came across two boys (likely around the ages of 10–12) who I recognized from daily encounters in the heavily populated tourists zones. However, in the privacy of these forsaken streets—and within the confines of a once-multi-story structure that had only walls remaining—I didn't see them running around playful (even if mischievously). Rather, I saw them holding a crack pipe.
I kept walking, without stopping, while pretending not to see. But there was no way to unsee what I had seen. No way to pretend, to myself, that I hadn't seen what I had seen.
Although drugs, abject poverty and homelessness were plain and open facts in the Pelourinho (and the city in general), and although it was always obvious that the pervasive and city-wide structural decay was a result of in-built social inequality, there was something inescapably different about my encounter with these boys. There was no way in which I could take another photograph of a beautifully decaying building without being viscerally aware of what it represented.
At the same time, I was still fascinated by the process in which beauty was so organically emerging. Despite its source, there was still a very basic and powerful aesthetic draw. As such, the images increasingly became—for me—about this very polarizing tension of grappling with the emotional contradictions of being captivated and inspired by something that is at once so visually beautiful and so socially sinister.
My experience with these boys was perhaps the most extreme such encounter, but it was not the only one. There was a homeless man who I would see on a nearly daily basis—both on my way home from school and during my photography sessions amidst the back streets. He took a liking to me in his appreciation of the fact that I wanted to cherish and glorify buildings that most people were quick to disregard. He had a sincere appreciation for that fact that I saw beauty in his world. He would often point out his admiration for my project and we became amicable acquaintances, frequently chatting while I worked.
This relationship was deeply complicated, however. There is the obvious, in that he would frequently ask for alms—something I was reluctant to give, both because I was living on the tightest budget of my entire life and also because I was afraid that the money would go directly to the purchase of drugs. Also, he was a vivacious and outgoing person who would often put out his hand for a high-five—a gesture of courtesy and friendship on his part that I was always unsure how to manage...
Early on (during one of our casual talks) he mentioned to me the he was H.I.V. positive—citing the patient tag on his wrist as he told me how he had recently come from a hospital clinic (this was told to me not far from the spot where I took photo #6). This information problematized our relationship in obvious ways. There was clearly a sincerity of appreciation and understanding between the two of us that I wanted to preserve (even develop) but, at the same time, there was a level of distance that I needed to maintain for the sake of my own health and safety. I am thankful to him that it wasn't long before he understood why I wouldn't return his gesture, and stopped offering his hand. His good-nature didn't change, however. He simply understood the position I was in and did me the very humane favor of solving my dilemma on my behalf.
Unfortunately, our relationship did eventually change. Late one evening on my way home from school, he asked with more insistence than usual for some money with which to buy dinner. He told me he could get a good deal from the restaurant we were standing in front of and proposed that we could both sit on the curb and eat dinner together. I gave him $8, all the cash I had, and he told me he would be right back. I waited 30 minutes before admitting to myself that he would not be coming back and that, no doubt, that money had been spent on either heroin or crack—drugs I knew he was addicted to.
I saw him again many times in the streets, but his eyes no longer met mine, he was not lighthearted and friendly and we never talked again.
These photographs, while still visually captivating, represent far more for me than mere eye-candy—which is likely the purpose they serve for others that see them without knowing their context. However, these photographs were also the first time I had explored the powerful ways in which art can be used to grapple with problems of social inequality and establish a connection with a viewer that is often impossible through statistics or more standardized means of communication. They would prove to be the first of several projects that acknowledge the power of empathy through beauty.