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In 1961, Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to document conditions there for a series on poverty in Latin America. He set about photographing the working-class neighborhoods known as favelas, which were home to more than 700,000 people. In one such community, called Catacumba (Catacomb), death seemed to close in from all sides. The place was wrecked by malnutrition and disease; open sewers ran between meager shacks. Having grown up impoverished in Kansas, Parks was shocked by what he saw. “Pockets of poverty in New York’s Harlem, on Chicago’s south side, in Puerto Rico’s infamous El Fungito seemed pale by comparison,” he later recalled. “None of them had prepared me for . . . the favela of Catacumba.”

Parks focused his attention on an industrious but ailing twelve-year-old, Flávio da Silva. Over several weeks he empathetically profiled the da Silva family, their tiny shanty, and the boy’s daily activities, which were often interrupted by debilitating asthma attacks; Parks would learn that Flávio was not expected to live more than another year. After a moving good-bye, Parks returned to New York and presented his story to the editors at Life.

Parks’ photo essay, titled “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” was published across twelve pages in Life in June 1961, and it set off a chain of extraordinary events. The story elicited thousands of letters in praise of Parks and nearly $30,000 in donations from Life readers to help the family and the favela. The magazine embarked on a “rescue” effort that involved relocating the family to a new home, moving Flávio to a hospital in the United States, and administering funds to support rehabilitation of the favela. The story, as well as Parks’ and Life’s relationship to Flávio, continued to develop over many years. The details of this history provide a fascinating look at the impact of one of Parks’ most celebrated photo essays, at the context of its publication amid Cold War politics in the United States and Brazil, and at the inner workings and cultural force of the “Great American Magazine.”

Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story is a selection of photographs from the exhibition of the same title that was made in collaboration with and on view at Instituto Moreira Salles, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

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Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio Amuses Smaller Brothers and Sisters, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio After Asthma Attack, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio Feeds Zacarias, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

José da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio's Neighbor's Corpse, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio Behind Spider, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Mario, Crying After Being Bitten by Dog, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961. Photograph by Paulo Muniz

Untitled, Denver, Colorado, 1961. Photograph by Carl Iwasaki

Untitled, Denver, Colorado, 1961. Photograph by Carl Iwasaki

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1976

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1976

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1976

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1999

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Life Magazine, June 16, 1961

Life Magazine, June 16, 1961

Life Magazine, June 16, 1961

Life Magazine, June 16, 1961

Life Magazine, June 16, 1961

Life Magazine, June 16, 1961

Life Magazine, June 16, 1961