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The past that intrudes into the present

Collection compiles articles by historians so that a broader audience can understand contemporary Brazil

FEB procession in São Paulo. Photo by José Linhares (1945) shows small plazas along Avenida São João

Public domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010FEB procession in São Paulo. Photo by José Linhares (1945) shows small plazas along Avenida São JoãoPublic domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010

To historian Evaldo Cabral de Mello, history, like the master’s big house, has a lot of doors and windows. The windows must be opened wide in order to air out the “house” by introducing new interpretations. But the doors are always open to revelations and to the entry, without ceremony, of those who are interested in what the “house” has to tell them. It was with this in mind that Lilia Schwarcz, of the University of São Paulo (USP), who is both a historian and anthropologist, while working alongside an interdisciplinary group of renowned researchers, conceived the idea of compiling the collection entitled História do Brasil nação: 1808-2010, (History of Brazil as a nation: 1808-2010). Published by Objetiva in six volumes and to be completed by mid-2013, it will then be translated into Spanish and distributed throughout Latin America. Alberto da Costa e Silva, José Murilo de Carvalho, Alfredo Bosi, Rubens Ricupero, Elias Saliba, and Leslie Bethell are among its authors.

One of the volumes in the collection is devoted entirely to photography, and portrays in 459 images the last 170 years of Brazilian history: Um olhar sobre o Brasil: a fotografia na imagem da nação (A look at Brazil: the role of photography in forming the image of a nation). It was coordinated by historian and photographer Boris Kossoy, a professor at the USP School of Communication and Arts (ECA/USP). Kossoy is also curator of the exposition of the same name that has been on display in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and will, sometime this year, extend its tour to Brasília and Belo Horizonte. The photos that illustrate this article are from the book and the exhibit that, besides Kossoy, had contributions from Sônia Balady and Vladimir Sacchetta, as well as Schwarcz as assistant curator. “The name says it all: I want to conquer the idea of a history of Brazil told in images. It will be ‘a glance’ at that past, like various others that will become possible,” says Kossoy. The same is true of the collection as a whole.

“The idea is to produce a history of the Brazilian nation that combines quality with the most recent visions of historiography, but is intended for a broader audience. The challenge posed to the team was to write in an accessible style without using footnotes and other academic resources, adapting the language to the general public, but covering the subject in depth,” Schwarcz explains. “We didn’t want to simply compile earlier materials and knowledge, but to introduce new interpretations in an attractive way, with refined graphics and plenty of illustrations, always employed with the intent of complementing the written text,” she says.

Silvestre Bridge on Corcovado Hill. Photo by Marc Ferrez (1900)

Public domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010Silvestre Bridge on Corcovado Hill. Photo by Marc Ferrez (1900)Public domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010

The collection is part of a project sponsored by the Mapfre Foundation of Spain, that in addition to the Brazilian series includes similar works from 10 other Latin American countries, among them Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela, as well as Portugal and Spain. The result will be 50 books that cross-reference each other. “Instead of writing history from the standpoint of Europe and the United States, we opted for comparisons with our neighbors. This comparative perspective enables the reader to perform not only a horizontal reading, but also a vertical one among countries, observing what was happening in them at the same time as in our own country,” she says.

After all, Brazil was for decades a monarchy surrounded by republics, an option that has important consequences for the present. “That is the source of our gigantic role on this continent and the behavior of our elites, whose power became deeply rooted because of that more conservative solution. The same is true for slavery: Brazil was the last nation to abandon that horrific practice. Furthermore there were no social disruptions or grassroots uprisings. Our independence, in contrast to the struggles experienced by neighboring countries, was seen as a ‘gift’ rather than a conquest,” Schwarcz recalls.

That generated a lot of mistrust among Latin American countries, which were tending to isolate themselves. Even today, one party’s suspicions about another can slow down procedures toward union. “At the same time, we have much in common, such as social imbalances, and an almost endemic corruption. The comparison of our histories very clearly reveals similarities and differences in the process of nation-building,” says the researcher.

Using as motto French historian Lucien Febvre’s comment that “history is the daughter of time,” Schwarcz and her colleagues believe that one must reconstruct the past, using the new questions posed by the present. “History is a living process and while its agenda may not be guided by current reality, certainly there are strong connections between what we want to know about the past and the questions that our present era asks us. At a time when people are debating an ethical perspective we need to understand the roots of that problem,” she observes.

Kamayurá. Photo by Milton Guran (1978) shows two girls from the tribe that inhabits Xingu Park.

Public domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010Kamayurá. Photo by Milton Guran (1978) shows two girls from the tribe that inhabits Xingu Park.Public domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010

“The fact is that in Brazil there never have been many populist battles, we did not experience revolutionary movements, and we lacked a major period of formation of civic awareness. Our past, marked by cronyism and slavocracy, did not emerge gratuitously, just as the predominance of the elites in decision-making was no coincidence. All this is reflected in the current social morass,” she believes. The collection emphasizes new theories that revise the Old Republic, now called the First Republic. “It was a phase that featured active mobilizations of struggle by the citizenry. People were excited about abolitionism, the arrival of immigrants, urbanization, and industrialization. It was a vibrant period that was disparaged as mere conservative stupefaction by Vargas’s Estado Novo, which wanted to get all the credit,” Schwarcz states.

Le Goff’s phrase, that “history lived under the imperialism of the written word,” led to the production of the volume on images, Um olhar sobre o Brasil: a fotografia na imagem da nação. “Actually, the ideal approach would be a combination of images with the written word. We cannot have just one history, but many histories, because there is not just one truth in an image, but several possible interpretations, depending on the observer. Photography does not come to us charged with meanings: we are the ones who infuse it with meanings,” says Boris Kossoy. “Hence the importance of situating the spectator by setting up an encounter between the image and the text, a way of breaking down superficial appearances, something that people usually avoid doing,” he advises.

Starting in 1833, with the precursor experiences of Hercule Florence, the collection furnishes images from the Reign of Dom Pedro II, the Estado Novo, and the building of Brasília as well as pictures of leaders like Getúlio Vargas, Juscelino Kubitschek, Jânio Quadros, Leonel Brizola, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Lula. The end point is 2003, which according to Kossoy represents the maximum amount of history one can digest.

“Photography is a valuable source of data, but it is a cognizance of appearances, a creation/construction of realities, always in the plural. It is a cognizance that starts from the iconographic surface and reveals more and more as we delve into its interior reality,” he explains.

Candy seller. Photo by Marc Ferrez (1889) shows blacks who were still being portrayed as slaves

Public domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010Candy seller. Photo by Marc Ferrez (1889) shows blacks who were still being portrayed as slavesPublic domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010

According to Kossoy, there are no such things as “innocent documents,” and even the presumed “real” depicted by photography is also “fiction.” Brazil is the country that was home to the largest number of professional photographers in Latin America during the 19th and 20th centuries. “Manipulation of the meaning of an image begins at the moment when the person contracted to take the pictures selects and sets up the ‘scene’ in order to make the image more dramatic,” he says.

And so, the researcher observes, a narration of history using images cannot stand alone. They must be brought together with the text, which is capable of revealing the micro-story hidden in each snapshot of the past. This premise contradicts the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words. “It would only be worth that if we had a thousand words to interpret what the image contains,” Kossoy cautions. Thus the images selected for this collection depict a full range of situations, punctuated by images that are “nuclear” in the figurative sense. “They are symbolic, often metaphoric photos that reveal mentalities and ideologies. This special iconography functions as a denunciation of systems, calling attention to both social, economic, and political deformations and to great feats, emphasizing disruptions and emotions,” he says.

Among the high points are the photos of slaves. We need only remember that Brazil was the country where slavery was practiced the longest, and the country in which the art of photography first took hold, a circumstance that generated a vast archive of images of the enslaved. “Photographers took photos of the blacks for foreigners to take home as souvenirs. There were also a lot of pictures taken to ‘prove’ racial selection and show the Africans as inferior,” says Kossoy. To him, photography in Brazil has always served as a form of identification and social and police control, emphasizing the differences among classes.

“It was as a copy of the real that photography came to be incorporated into historical research. It was invented to adorn, corroborate, or simply justify a theory. And so, until not long ago, images used in historiography served to reaffirm what we already knew. They were ornaments, they had an illustrative function,” he says. According to Schwarcz, the image reflected more of what could itself be taken as subject and topic for reflection. Similarly, photographers were seen as mere ‘recorders’ of facts, as impartial. “It took time for photos to enter the historiographical debate,” says Schwarcz. To her, those who wield the lenses are not merely copying what they see; they are selecting and editing. Their photos “invent” ways to annotate the real and they penetrate so deeply into the reality that they themselves are transformed into reality itself. “What we are doing is telling the story of Brazil based on photos, but knowing in advance that they camouflage and disguise their birth certificates,” she says.

Gauchos billeted in São Paulo during the 1930 Revolution. Author unknown

Public domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010Gauchos billeted in São Paulo during the 1930 Revolution. Author unknownPublic domain image/ História do Brasil Nação 1808-2010

“We need only recall the photos by Sebastião Salgado taken at an invaded [by groups claiming to be landless] ranch, or the pictures of Vargas or Kubitschek building Brasília. Very often we remember an event because of a photo that stuck in our memory, like a tattoo or scar that becomes part of our body,” the researcher observes. “When images are our documental source, it is essential always to remember the pervasive power of persuasion and seduction inherent in iconographic representations,” Kossoy observes. To him, what is apparent in the document must be only the starting point of any investigation. “It is in the broad diversity of micro-histories and their images that our look at Brazil resides,” he says.

“The same is true for our history. In the thirties, Brazil rediscovered itself in the great essays by Gilberto Freyre and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda. Starting in the 1970s, a more specialized kind of thought arose in the universities and its authors did not want to take long flights of fancy when they thought about this country. After all, Brazil is an enigma. If there is one new feature in the historiography of this collection it is that it thinks about the nation through various doors and windows,” Schwarz argues. “We want to provoke, to question certain national myths, models and theories that are still out there because of reiteration, ideology, and custom.” The concern of the researchers was to portray a country that gradually invents itself and begins to think of itself as a nation. As a Tennessee Williams character said in The Glass Menagerie: “The past insists on intruding into the present.” Our historical experience insists on presenting itself, even today.