Rodrigo Oliveira is a portrait photographer based in Rio de Janeiro. His photographs illustrate the diversity of our world, exploring the ways in which humans express identities and cultures. Rodrigo is currently documenting the queer BIPOC community inhabiting the peripheries of Rio. A work that empowers a minority within minority group often marginalised, aiming to deconstruct the misrepresentation of queer bodies in the media through the expression of queer culture, gender-bending identities and social resistance.
You live and work in Rio de Janeiro. How much do you feel Rio de Janeiro has impacted your work and the way you see things? In which ways?
I think that Rio de Janeiro has helped me filter things. Although a truly captivating city, Rio is quite chaotic, and it’s sometimes challenging to isolate good from bad. I had a certain level of animosity towards the city before living almost five years abroad, back when I could only see the issues and difficulties the local government leaves us with. I decided to move back to my hometown cause living in white-majority places like Australia and Germany gave me a feeling of alienation, I missed the feeling of belonging somewhere, and I found that here. When I moved back with a fresh perspective, I fell in love with the city, and I came to the understanding that the system was what was wrong with the city and the people here were just struggling to survive. With that in mind, I turned my camera to the communities that needed the reassurance that regardless of how the government neglects us, we have to make ourselves visible. Rio has given my work a purpose.
You are documenting the queer BIPOC community at the peripheries of Rio. How did this come about? Was it a project that started out as such or did it gradually develop?
At first, it all started with some shots I was taking at queer parties for fun. I began shooting those events right after the election of our current president, Jair Bolsonaro, so you can imagine it wasn’t the safest time to be black, queer and proud. You know, I really thought that would change the way queer folks were expressing identity and gender because our president’s policy had a very aggressive take on normalising homophobia. Yet, I found quite the opposite navigating through queer spaces. There I saw a community thrive, come to life amidst all the threats we were about to face, and that felt so inspiring. More and more, I started to photograph queer events and networking with other black creatives to help them out with their visual work. Black suburban creatives in Brazil have very little access and resources to foment their creativity, so I thought that collaborating with them not only helped me build my portfolio but also provide them a channel to tell their own stories. There’s also a lack of representation of the Black suburban life in Rio, which is highly marginalised, I wanted to break that down and do something for my community that was uplifting. Giving something back to my community is a really important aspect of every work I do and every chance I’ll get I’ll put someone from the peripheries of Rio to be the protagonists of my images.
What do you feel are the most important messages you wanna bring across through your work? What needs to be said?
The message in my work is for the people I photograph, I’m committed to giving a voice and platform to those who often go overlooked. I work with subjects and places that are foreign to most of my audience. My images tell the untold stories of a community, the narratives of people the mass media isn’t familiar with. I am very proud to have come from a periphery and I think that a big part of my current work has been showing these spaces through a romanticised point of view, even through my IG stories. There’s a lot of misconceptions of what a favela is and what life is like within these communities. I hope my work adds to the deconstruction of our marginalisation.
How is the situation for minority groups in your country?
It has been bad since the moment the country was colonised, and it’s hard to see things getting better at the present time as we get through one of the worst presidencies ever. Women and POCs are the majority in numbers in Brazil but that’s far from being representative of what we see in the media, in positions of power and in the socio-economic scenario. There’s still a struggle for minority groups to have an active voice and to engage in social decision making, so those in power are actually in control of the narrative of the people they don’t represent. The pandemic made it visible in the media how vulnerable minority groups are in Brazil, the negligence of the government for the population has led to the death of so many, while the rich and privileged had access to much better health institutions. Social inequality is widespread with most POCs living in the peripheries, which most of the time, lack basic infrastructure and sanitation. Using the war on drugs as an excuse to break into those areas, to mass murder black bodies. Brazil is such an incredible country, not only because of the gorgeous landscapes we have here, but most importantly because of the people. So it saddens me and frustrastes me to see people struggle just because it’s more convenient and lucrative for the system.
How did you first get into photography? If you were not a photographer, what do you feel you would be?
I bought my first camera to conciliate photography with the science degree I was after back in my Biology days. At first, it was just a hobby and I would spend hours in the wild taking pictures of animals for fun. I remember the moment it clicked that photography was really fascinating to me, it was when I took a photo of a dragonfly at one of the lakes at the university I was studying, the photo was so ethereal. I realised at that moment that through the camera lenses I could frame life the way I see it, I’m an emotional person and I believe my photographs depict the feeling of love I have for life. With the right lighting, anything can be beautiful. I have a hard time expressing myself with words and I found a way I could translate the way I see the world without having to describe it. If I hadn’t fallen in love with photography I would’ve probably graduated in biology and would be doing something with wildlife conservation now. I love behavioural sciences I guess somehow I just switched my interest in animal behaviour to the ways humans express identity through race, gender, fashion and culture.
What would be your dream project to be working on next?
I wanna hold a solo exhibition; there’s just something about seeing your work in print, you know. I’ve been doing my work to bring visibility to the people I photograph, and I also want to make that tangible. I want to make sure the first installation takes place somewhere accessible for people living in the peripheries cause it’s important for me that they realise that art isn’t made just for the privileged and that our bodies are not the subject of their colonial gaze, that we are in control of our own narratives.