- (main image, above) Thursday 26 March, 1:54 pm. A homeless person lies in the entrance to one of the many banks on Rua Boa Vista, famous for the financial institutions which congregated there at the highpoint of São Paulo’s historic centre, in the early 20th century.
This essay was written by Fraya Frehse. The photographs are by Tiago Queiroz.
All images © Tiago Queiroz
With its roughly 12.5 million inhabitants (22 million if we include the metropolitan region), São Paulo is undoubtedly the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic in Latin America. Following the global trend of exponential increase, the official figures on 10 April from the Ministry of Health comprise 6,379 ‘confirmed’ cases and 412 deaths, whereas the figures for Brazil as a whole are 19,638 cases and 1,056 deaths 1)Tayguara Ribeiro, ‘Covas estuda fechar ruas de São Paulo para aumentar isolamento social’, in Agora São Paulo, 10 April 2020; accessed on 11 April 2020.
Almost four weeks ago Bruno Covas, the mayor of São Paulo, implemented a decree from the federal state governor of São Paulo which stipulated the closure to the public of all commercial and service establishments, as well as parks, from 24 March onwards.
In accordance with WHO recommendations, the measure remains in force, and on 6 April the governor extended the measures to every municipality in the state for a further 17 days.
In direct defiance of these measures, the president of Brazil has been systematically using social media and his outings in Brasília to campaign against this regime of social distancing, known in Brazil as ‘horizontal social isolation’. On 31 March he made his position public and official via a nationwide address on radio and TV2) Op.cit..
So, living in this cross fire, how are the inhabitants of São Paulo coping with the street in their everyday lives under social isolation? Especially when, in addition to the disputes about the epidemiology, the politics and the ideology, you have a public health system which has been trashed for decades, alongside levels of social inequality which all too often make social distancing ‘at home’ a harsh challenge – not to mention the extreme case of those for whom home is the street.
I would like to share with LAB my answer to this question based on one particular visual experience: The photojournalist Tiago Queiroz photographed streets and squares of the city’s historic centre during the afternoons of 26 March and 6 April, days three and fourteen of the official period of social isolation.
A strangely empty street
The photos were taken at random while Tiago was making a photo-feature about the effects of Covid-19 on the city’s downtown for the daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, where he has worked since 2002.
The Sé (cathedral) district is home to the city’s main historic monuments, government agencies and four of São Paulo’s 89 subway stations, including the main interchange. With approximately 26,000 inhabitants (2017) and 45% of the city’s homeless population (2019), the Sé district also includes some of Brazil’s most popular shopping streets. This means that the number of pedestrians on the street varies drastically according to the opening hours of shops and offices. Moreover the relatively small number of people living within four walls in the area is balanced by the huge quantity of homeless people.
The photo captures a tiny area of São Paulo’s largest and symbolically most important square 3)See among others Fraya Frehse, On the everyday history of pedestrians’ bodies in São Paulo’s downtown amidst metropolization (1950-2000), in Bianca Freire-Medeiros and Julia O’Donnell (eds.), Urban Latin America: Images, Words, Flows and the Built Environment, London/New York, Routledge, 2018, pp. 15-35. The rough sleeper (he almost certainly is one) is the only living being there and his isolation is very likely not voluntary. “I remember so vividly,” Tiago says, “a city centre crowded with pedestrians, hurrying along, trying so survive in the midst of the metropolitian frenzy. Now it has become a city of emptiness.”
Indeed, Tiago’s ‘photographic imagination’ – his ability to deconstruct in pictures what is visible and hence strange in them 4)José de Souza Martins, Sociologia da Fotografia e da Imagem, São Paulo, Contexto, 2008, pp. 64-66 – led him to kindly offer to me and LAB a set of images that capture his own way of ‘estranging’ the variations in the presence of pedestrians in the city’s central streets and squares over the first two weeks of the quarantine. If street photographs usually document the photographer’s actual encounters with pedestrians in this space 5)Frehse, op. cit., 2018, p. 18, Tiago captured these people in a minute temporal framework. ‘I worked,’ he says, ‘as quickly as possible, taking the necessary safety precautions, hand sanitiser in my camera bag and a mask on my face and making the effort to preserve social distancing.’
The red light signals “Stop!”. But the woman in the picture is reluctant to wait – her white hair betrays that she belongs to one of the at-risk groups, unlike the two other pedestrians, a young main and a woman who are approaching her on the ‘photographic front’ 6)Fraya Frehse, Ô da Rua! O transeunte e o advento da modernidade em São Paulo, São Paulo, Edusp, 2011, p. 209; Frehse, op. cit., p. 19. The woman has improvised a face mask, although there are still no oficial guidelines on wearing them 7)Frehse, op. cit., p. 19.. Her white coat suggests that she works in the health service, perhaps as a nurse.
Social paradoxes in isolation and gatherings
Forged in that kind of photographic imagination, Tiago’s images juxtapose symbolic opposites regarding the pedestrians’ social situation of either keeping alone (on day three of the quarantine) or gathered (on day fourteen) in the São Paulo streets.
This sloping street, one of the city’s busiest, specializes in party costume and accessory shops. A shadowy sign promises a collective happiness that is impossible for now. The uneven grey tarmac reflects the heavy traffic of lorries, cars and pedestrians that used to keep the slope alive during workday shopping hours. Yet here is a street-cleaner toiling up the slope entirely alone on what only a week earlier was a usual workday.
This image suggests that street cleaners are the only pedestrians free to be out on Brazil’s most important shopping street. As in Photo 1, the photographer focuses on people’s limbs. This time it is a forearm and an imprisoned hand. The light blue shirt suggests a caretaker carrying at his waist the keys to his own prison.
On the western edge of the Sé district – over the channel containing the Anhangabaú brook – we see a dystopic landscape of shadowy buses and bus-stops devoid of passengers, streets empty of cars, and crossings and pavements free from passers-by except for the single, socially marginalized bikeboy.
Almost two weeks after the start of the official quarantine, carefree young people meet up on bicycles, turning the Viaduto Santa Ifigênia into a park. But it is a measure of how normality has changed. Previously it would have been quite impossible for three cycles to attempt to cross the viaduct like this: there would have been too many passers-by and ‘non-passers-by’ – especially street traders 8) Frehse, op. cit., 2018, p. 17.
We are still on the Viaduto, but now it has become a gym.
A few minutes later, and about a hundred metres from the Viaduto, we see the paradoxes implicit in other kinds of gathering. Council workers are grouped together both at the front and at the back of the picture. But the latter group are working to prevent crowds forming on the slope down to the Ladeira Porto Geral (see Photo 5). Apart from decorations and costumes, the street is known for its jewellery and accessory shops, aimed to make you beautiful and put smiles on your face, as in the poster in the upper part of the photo. Ironically, the face seems to be looking at another traffic light at red (see Photo 3), which vainly commands ‘Stop!’
Tiago Queiroz is a professional photojournalist at O Estado de S. Paulo, where he has worked since 2002. His work can be seen on Instagram at @tqueirozl
|↑1||Tayguara Ribeiro, ‘Covas estuda fechar ruas de São Paulo para aumentar isolamento social’, in Agora São Paulo, 10 April 2020; accessed on 11 April 2020|
|↑3||See among others Fraya Frehse, On the everyday history of pedestrians’ bodies in São Paulo’s downtown amidst metropolization (1950-2000), in Bianca Freire-Medeiros and Julia O’Donnell (eds.), Urban Latin America: Images, Words, Flows and the Built Environment, London/New York, Routledge, 2018, pp. 15-35|
|↑4||José de Souza Martins, Sociologia da Fotografia e da Imagem, São Paulo, Contexto, 2008, pp. 64-66|
|↑5||Frehse, op. cit., 2018, p. 18|
|↑6||Fraya Frehse, Ô da Rua! O transeunte e o advento da modernidade em São Paulo, São Paulo, Edusp, 2011, p. 209; Frehse, op. cit., p. 19.|
|↑7||Frehse, op. cit., p. 19.|
|↑8||Frehse, op. cit., 2018, p. 17.|