The Flávio Story




This book explores a once-popular picture story by Gordon Parks and the extraordinary chain of events it prompted. Published in Life magazine in June 1961 as “Poverty: Freedom’s Fearful Foe,” this empathetic photo-essay profiled the da Silva family, living in a hillside favela near a wealthy enclave of Rio de Janeiro. Focused primarily on the eldest son Flavio, an industrious twelve-year-old suffering from crippling asthma, Parks’ story elicited more than 3,000 letters and $25,000 in donations from Life readers to help the family and the favela.

In Brazil the story sparked controversy; one news magazine, O Cruzeiro, retaliated against Life, sending photographer Henri Ballot to document poverty in New York City. Undeterred, Life embarked on a multi-year “rescue” effort that involved moving Flavio to a Denver hospital, relocating the family to a new home and administering funds to support the favela. The story, as well as Parks’ relationship to Flavio, continued to develop over many years. The details of this extraordinary history provide a fascinating example of US exceptionalism during the early 1960s and a revealing look inside the power and cultural force of the “Great American Magazine.”

Co-published with Steidl

Instituto Moreira Salles, São Paulo, 2 December 2017 to 28 January 2018 
Instituto Moreira Salles, Rio de Janeiro, 6 February to 29 April 2018 
Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, September 2018 
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 9 July to 10 November 2019

Link to Steidl



Interviewer: Do you remember the first time you saw Gordon in Catacumba? In his book, he wrote that you smiled at him with a big smile.

Flávio: Well, if you see somebody different, what is your reaction? So much things is different. It’s tough to imagine. You laugh, or you get serious. And I think that day, I paid attention. And that’s it.

Interviewer: Gordon said that he thought you were different. That there was something about your optimism. He said that despite your illness and the terrible environment, he saw you as surprisingly alive and energetic and happy.

Flávio: If he say so, I’ll believe it. I do remember I was very sick, full of pain, and I believe that I had something I was doing, something walking up. Maybe carrying the water. I don’t remember.

Interviewer: Flavio, can I ask you to look at these pictures right here? These are Gordon’s pictures of you having an asthma attack. Do you remember what that was like, when you would have an attack?

Flávio: How can I describe that? It’s terrible, it’s something that you can’t touch, can’t find, and that you need. Your breath.

Interviewer: Did you feel like you could die from that? Was it scary for you?

Flávio: I never was scared, because I didn’t know what to be afraid of.

Interviewer: When you met Gordon, did he talk to you about growing up as a poor person? Did he explain his background?

Flávio: No, after, when he came here later, he told me.

Interviewer: When he came back to write his book about you? In 1976?

Flávio: Yes, when he come back.

Interviewer: Do you remember what you thought when you first saw the book?

Flávio: Yeah. I read it, but then I stop. I read it, then I stop.

Interviewer: Why did you stop?

Flávio: The feelings. It hurts so much. Because, so many situations that pass, and . . . how can I say? So many situations that is not very glad in one part, and in the others very glad. I’m going to tell you the simple way. It touch my feelings and I just couldn’t get to the end of the book.

Interviewer: How do you think about Gordon now that he’s gone?

Flávio: I miss him. Yeah. In truth, if you lose a parent, you’re going to . . . you’re not going to forget it. But you know that situation pass, and brings you peace, and you’re going to . . . tears.

Interviewer: Cry?

Flávio: Tears, cry every day, every night. Then one moment you stop.


Excerpt from “Interview with Flávio da Silva” (December 10-12, 2016), Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story