In 1961, Life magazine photographed systemic poverty in Brazil. One Brazilian magazine responded with a similar report — featuring photos of New York City.
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Life magazine, then the most popular general interest weekly in the United States, announced in 1961 that it wanted to help win the Cold War. Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro had taken control of Cuba two years earlier, making nearby Latin American countries the newest battleground over economic influence between the capitalist US and communist Soviet Union. The magazine wanted to promote President John F. Kennedy’s new “Alliance for Progress” financial aid program, which planned to use financial incentives to encourage Latin American countries to resist communism and fall under US influence.
As part of its new mission, Life sent photographer Gordon Parks to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to report on systemic poverty there. His resulting photo essay, and in particular his main subject, 12-year-old Flavio da Silva, was hugely popular in the US. Life’s readers, moved by the photos of Flavio and his story of struggling with severe asthma, mailed in thousands in donations to “save him.” The leading pediatric asthma hospital in the US, in Denver, Colorado, offered to treat him for free. A follow-up cover story by Life, titled “Flavio’s Rescue,” celebrated American generosity.
But Brazilian media saw the photo essay as a negative, stereotypical view of Brazil. Brazilian magazine O Cruzeiro — a weekly publication that, like Life, featured photographic essays — decided to respond to Life’s report. O Cruzeiro sent one of its photographers, Henri Ballot, to New York. There, he photographed a family of Puerto Rican immigrants living in a poor area of Manhattan, and O Cruzeiro printed the photos in a layout that directly copied Life’s. When examined side by side, the two photo essays — and the international feud they kicked off — tell a story of sensationalism, and propaganda.
Ultimately, US intervention in Latin American in the 1960s didn’t work out as Kennedy hoped. The Alliance for Progress sent Latin American countries billions of dollars in financial aid, but it didn’t end up benefiting the people living in the region, and by the 1970s was considered a failure. Like the two photo essays, the initiative was more about propaganda than it was about addressing the root causes of poverty.
The Flávio Story, co-published by Steidl Books and The Gordon Parks Foundation:
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Note: The headline on this piece has been updated.
Previous headline: These photos sparked an international magazine feud
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