For over forty years, Lázaro Roberto has photographed black Brazilian communities in the Bahia region of Brazil. Photography and black rights activism are so intrinsically linked for him that they have come to form a life struggle that is one and the same.
Like much of the world these days, Lázaro Roberto is confined and isolated at home; in his case, home is in the Fazenda Grande district, on the outskirts of the city of Salvador in Brazil. This modest suburb was his birthplace 63 years ago, and the photographer and activist has not left it since. It was there that he saw photography for the first time. “An Italian priest, involved in social movements and quite progressive, once set up a theater class and cultural activities in my neighborhood. It was in the 70s. At the end of the year, we used the church space to organize three days of artistic and cultural events, showing the art of people from the neighborhood but also from people from other places. That is where I was first introduced to photography. It was an exhibition by Antônio Olavo.” The young Lázaro Roberto marveled at the black and white images he discovered, and that is where his love affair with photography began. During the years that followed, Roberto couldn’t afford to buy a camera but managed to borrow one on a regular basis. He learned the technical aspects on his own, with the help of a few magazines but mainly with practice, trial and error and a bunch of missed shots. In 1980, he finally got his first camera, a Minolta, which took him many long months to pay off.
Photographing the fight and fighting via photography
Those years during which Lázaro Roberto became familiar with photography were also marked by important struggles and movements for black rights in Brazil. “It was my theater teacher who took me to the black movements, in the 1970s. I saw the movement start here in Brazil. I took part in a lot of debates and in the emergence of carnival groups integrating black Brazilian rhythms for the first time. Those rhythms were a form of resistance, and it was very striking to see them finally making their way into the carnival tradition. It was very powerful to witness the birth of all that excitement that wasn’t there in the 70s (when black Brazilian culture was only a facade that we paraded around at airports to show tourists the folklore they wanted to see). The revolution began with these parades.” Lázaro Roberto immersed himself fully in those struggles, documenting them tirelessly with his camera around his neck. He was there to capture the moment when Nelson Mandela came to the city of Salvador in 1991. He also photographed day-to-day life around him, from the hair salons in his neighborhood to the local street market in São Joaquim.
The simple fact that he was one of the first black photographers to photograph blacks – before him, photography was primarily reserved for white people, who couldn’t help casting a colonial gaze on those they photographed – was already a struggle in and of itself, a reversal of the established order. For in addition to photographing the struggles, Lázaro Roberto also uses photography to fight the fight. “In the 80s, I made a series of handmade postcards on the enlarger, using the kind of cliché images people send each other for Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and which always pictured only white people; but I showed black people instead. I used to pass them out at demonstrations.”
A collection in the shadows
1988 marked the one-hundredth year anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. The government was preparing commemorative events to celebrate the date. But many people were aware that the fight for equality was far from over for blacks. This led to many protest movements across the country, and the celebrations planned by the government turned into revolts. It was in this context that Lázaro Roberto created the collective Zumvi (in reference to Zumbi dos Palmares, a hero of anti-slavery activism in Brazil, and a play on words with the contraction of “zum – vi,” which can be translated as “zoom – I saw”). The collective has now compiled a collection of more than thirty-five thousand images produced solely by black Brazilian photographers.
Concerned by black photographers’ lack of visibility in Brazil – the lack of recognition of his own work is astounding: after a forty-year career, he is just now starting to be the subject of a few articles as well as a documentary in progress by filmmaker Iris de Oliveira -, Lázaro Roberto is now fully dedicated to the fight he has been waging for more than fifteen years: promoting these tens of thousands of archival images. “We managed to organize an exhibition in 2018, but since then, the images have been collecting dust in my house… There are so many photographs by great photographers picturing major activists who are leaving us… It makes me very sad to see that nobody is interested in this memory. ” Lázaro Roberto is well aware of being in possession of a treasure, of having in his hands so much history and stories told from black Brazilian points of view; it would be high time to get out of from under the shadow of the mainstream narratives.
By Elsa Leydier