Rio Carnival

Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley

The first time I went to Rio, I was captivated — changed, in fact — by the city’s charms. “What are these uncomplicated people made of, that they smile so spontaneously, walk so self-confidently? What are these exaggerated — like everything in Rio — hills made of, that those huge favelas are perched on so precariously?”

A Carioca tourist that visited my show accused me of perpetuating stereotypes, of staying at the surface of things, of not revealing anything significant about Rio. And it was true. These photos of the cidade maravilhosa are a distortion that can only be justified by an inhabitant of the Andes who’s accustomed to hiding the body yet is fascinated by the attraction it exerts when it’s carried with self-confidence and freedom. Sensuality lies not in nakedness, in the amount of skin exposed to the air. No, sensuality lies in the easiness with which a person inhabits the body. For the Cariocas, the attraction, sexuality, sweetness of the skin, the rhythm of the body are natural phenomena — and what’s the point of rebelling against nature? All those things simply are, they’re there.

This project needed to ripen, penetrate, investigate, reveal. I worked for only a few weeks in Rio. These photographs are of the surface of things, but there’s something liberating in that lightness.

I photographed two Carnivals, and I was blown away by the excess. Despite the fact that there’s a huge publicity machine — it’s a spectacle that generates millions of dollars — the happiness, the freedom, and the devotion of the people in the processions are absolutely real. When you’re in the middle of the drum corps — thousands of drums pounding simultaneously — the vibration drills into your head, mysteriously animates your feet, and boils away every last drop of scepticism or reserve.

I’m given to writing letters when I’m traveling. The first time I went to Rio, before I’d gotten to know Carnival, I wrote this:

“How alone I feel, more alone than ever. I watch the world pass by in this city which is a serpent of light. A savage hammering, a brutal emptiness, this sense of being alone — alone despite all the affection. A solitude with no solution.

“A girl from Ipanema passes by. Her face is perfect, her movements are effortless; she looks at me. She smiles as though she knew me, as though once, in another space and another time, she’d loved me. Does she have any idea of the devastating power of her smile? She’s gone.

“She’s gone. . . . This city, a serpent of light, a river of light, a river of white teeth in the darkness, a parade of derrieres — round, golden, playful, dancing derrieres.

“I untangle the tentacles of my grilled octopus, just as I’ve untangled all sorts of tentacles: slowly, expecting nothing new, yet savoring every bite. I view myself as free, no ties, brutally free and brutally alone. Isn’t that the same thing? Aren’t those two words synonymous? Freedom, and solitude. No ties, no strings, so free that nobody even knows where I am right now. Nobody probably remembers me now, or thinks about me. I could go in any direction, take any road.

“The waiter forgot to take away the other plate. That empty plate reminds me that I’m eating alone on the terrace of an Italian restaurant, watching the world pass by, in this city that’s a river of solitudes, a river of favelas rocked to sleep by the soft cadence of a samba, a river of pains redeemed and blessed, a glittering serpent rebelling against the night.

“A couple is talking on the corner. He touches her, she backs away. He puts his arm around her neck and steals a kiss. It’s the first kiss. She resists, struggles, until finally she surrenders. I watch her muscles relax, watch them both relax. And life becomes a tangle of tears and tongues and thirsty hands.

“This city is a river of thirsty hands, thirsty mouths, mouths that cure, mouths that kill, mouths that laugh, mouths that sing.

“What profound pain, what profound solitude, what desperate freedom, what silence shattered by the deafening silence of the sea!

“And I choose life, and I choose kisses — even the impossible ones — and I choose pain. And emptiness, too. And I allow myself to be conquered by saudade, and I let the night pour over me in torrents, and I drown in it, and I am saved in it.

“I picture the terrible ships dragging the black slaves to Brazil. I imagine the powerful tam tam of the black sorcerer, that drumming sound of rebellion and identity.”