An image made of ink and blood

Research tells the story of Brazilian society over the last 30 years through photos from the papers

In the thesis for her doctorate, which she has just defended at the Department of Sciences of Communication and Arts, of the School of Communication and Arts of the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP), professor Francisca Eleodora Santos Severino analyses the structural transformations connected with the modernization of Brazilian society in the course of the last 30 years, through photos from Brazilian newspapers.

In the researcher’s apartment, there are thousands of photos on top of her desk, in files, or inside the computer. It is material that she has been collecting for five years, to be used in research for her thesis for a doctorate Journalistic Photographs: the Image of Violence as the Mirroring of the Metamorphoses of Brazilian Society in the Process of Globalization. The period covered by the study runs from 1968 to 1998.

“Journalistic photography finds itself at the center of the structural transformations connected with the modernization of Brazilian society over the last 30 years”, observes Francisca Eleodora, explaining the reasons that led her to choose this period of history. “Its silent presence can be the spokesperson for various voices, above all in the period that runs from the end of the 60’s to the 80’s.” In her opinion, this is the period when journalistic photography arises as a media instrument and also one conditioned by the institutions. “And it is a period that has been contributing towards the putting together of an immense mosaic of our history, which is energized by the eye of the reader, who brings up to the present the social and political relations of the past”, she says.

Empirical study
Under the guidance of professor Waldenyr Caldas, the exhaustive work of the researcher – that she began while she was still a student at ECA/USP five years ago and has been developing over the last three years with a grant for research from Fapesp – has been condensed into 460 pages. The thesis presents an empirical and theoretical study of journalistic photos that portray violence. Its objective is to prove that these images are, at the same time forms of cultural expression and a representation of social and political relations, characteristic of Brazilian society in a process of structural change resulting from the phenomenon of globalization. “The photos have multiple voices, and I have tried to unveil at least two of them”, Francisca explains. “On one hand, the ideological conditionings, and on the other hand, the historical determinations that confront this direction”, points out the researcher.

“The role of photography in unveiling the reality falsified by the military and institutional intervention was of extreme importance” she continues. “But not for its assertion or as a document faithful to reality, but for its contradiction.” says Francisca. Conditioned by technical reproducibility, photography responds to the vocation of instrumentalization at the service of modern society. “It expresses this vocation by alienation and by popular massification.” explains the researcher. On the other hand, in her opinion, this same capacity of technical reproducibility, emphasizing a certain angle of the object photographed, makes it possible to visualize a fragment of history or a detail of reality which, in a random fashion, was also registered by the photographer’s camera.

For Francisca, this reveals that photography lets itself be impregnated by little fragments of imploded reality, even though conditioned by the angle of the photographer or by the news items of the newspapers. “It is these fragments that ought to be selected and analyzed”, the researcher notes. “My work sets out to carry out a reading and a revision of these fragments, in the light of the theoretical contributions from Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukàcs, Roland Barthes, Boris Kossoy, Olgária Matos, José Guilherme Merquior, among others”, she says.

To support her research, Francisca also worked with theoretical reference to authors of social sciences – like Octavio Ianni, Florestan Fernandes, Emir Sader, David Harvey and Frederic Jameson, just to mention a few – and with bibliographical references to historians and anthropologists. “Starting out from a kaleidoscope of photographic fragments, I carry out an hermeneutic reading of the structural changes to Brazilian society and the way how the society saw Brazil’s insertion into a globalized world”, Francisca explains.

“What is important in a hermeneutic reading is the quest for the original message in archaic and primitive elements of the approach” explains Francisca. According to the dictionary published by Aurélio Buarque de Holanda Ferreira, hermeneutics is the interpretation of the meaning of words, of sacred texts and of laws. Francisca would go still further. “It refers to an interpretative experience, employed for the recovery and translation of the symbolic and allegorical representations that belong to a given culture” she says. “Indeed, it loses a little of its character as an instrument of theological exegesis, and may, as such, be applied to profane texts.”

In her study, the researcher gives a place of honor to the photos that trouble the eye of the observer. “Apparently naive, devoid of any more immediate intention, they shock us because of some detail, that may even be the look in the eyes of the person in the picture,” the teacher notes. One of the photos on Francisca’s desk that most calls attention was published in the newspaper, O Estado de S. Paulo, on November 6th, 1969. The image portrays the political left-wing activist Marighella, dead – he had just been shot by soldiers in Casa Branca Boulevard, in the upper class Jardins district of São Paulo. In spite of the activist being an atheist, his image reminds the observer of a fragment of the Pietá, by Michelângelo, in which Jesus Christ has just been taken down from the cross and lies dead on the lap of the Virgin Mary. In that allegorical vision of Marighella published in the paper, though, there is no trace of the mother’s lap, he is completely alone. “It is certainly a set up photo” says Francisca. The researcher recalls that Marighella was killed in the street – in the photo, you can notice that he is inside a car. “The important thing is the way that the photographer framed him, the message is swifter than the text, it puts the reader in readiness and goes in search of its historical and cultural points of reference”she explains.

Nobody’s child
“By bringing to mind the absence of a mother in this photograph, the observer is led to analyze the character as someone who had no mother or homeland, nobody’s child”, is her assessment. Photos of this kind – allegorical and metaphorical, also in the forefront in her work -, in her opinion, shock the observer, but also activate the memory of those who see them. Indeed, she observed that biblical allegories would become more recurrent as the popular rebellions were intensified, over the period under analysis. “This is a strategy for the manipulation of the masses of the people”, is her analysis. “The biblical allegory is reminiscent of the memory of archaic experiences of confrontations with nature” she observes. And so, for Francisca, history is reduced only in its natural dimensions, as it provokes the remembering of fears long overcome. “The fear of disappearance, of disunity, of exclusion, makes the subject melancholy and desolate.”

“I consider that it is necessary to cast a look between now and before, so that the past is not suspended in a poorly finished rite of passage”, warns Francisca. Coming closer to the present day, there is another photo that also calls attention for its impressive image of an event that took place in 1997. In it, one can see a mugger shot in the back by the bodyguards of João Paulo Diniz, in the course of an attempted robbery (see the photo on page 67). The dead youth, disguised as a florist, is lying face down on top of the flowers, and a dribble of blood trickles from his body. To the back, the boots of anonymous uniformed policemen. “They are the army boots in full democracy”, the researcher observes. “The image cannot be seen out of context, since it contains multiple historical determinants”, she comments. “But what we see is the set of ideas of freedom under surveillance. It is a sign of the degradation of society.”

“Photography is an object in a social relation” Francisca notes. “In this capacity, it is the product of planning and an act of human wills” she continues. “Forcibly, in the relation of its production and reproduction, it allows itself to be impregnated by this humanity” she concludes. To carry out her research, Francisca handled more than 2,000 photos – almost always originals – prospected in the Archives of the State, in her personal archives, in those of friends, intellectuals and journalists, and, in particular, from the Mário de Andrade Library, which houses a good collection of the newspapers O Estado de S. Paulo and Folha de S. Paulo.

All the photos were digitalized by a Mavica, a camera that records photos on a diskette, and they are organized on cards, by theme. This equipment, as well as the Power 4 computer and a scanner, she purchased with the help of FAPESP’s technical reserve. “I have to thank them, because it really facilitated my work” Francisca stresses.

Besides the text of the thesis, she produces an appendix that brings a historical survey, made by the researcher, containing a synopsis of Brazilian history of the last 30 years, which works like an itinerary. “I emphasized the conceptual aspects, and inserted my reflections in the attempt to show the metamorphoses brought about by history” explains Francisca Eleodora on her work for a doctorate.

The project
Journalistic Photos: the Image of Violence as a Mirroring of the Metamorphoses of Brazilian Society in the Process of Globalization (nº 97/12289-0); Modality Grant for a doctorate; Supervisor Waldenyr Caldas – School of Communication and Arts of USP; Researcher Francisca Eleodora Santos Severino – School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo