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See How This Photographer Captured Rio's Gangland

BuzzFeed News talks with Joao Pina about his longterm project in Rio's favelas.

Posted on August 13, 2016, at 4:14 p.m. ET

Vesguinho (center) and his gang control drug trafficking in Parque Royal, a neighborhood in Ilha do Governador, Rio de Janeiro, July 2008. This gang is part of a larger gang known as Terceiro Comando.
João Pina

Vesguinho (center) and his gang control drug trafficking in Parque Royal, a neighborhood in Ilha do Governador, Rio de Janeiro, July 2008. This gang is part of a larger gang known as Terceiro Comando.

We spoke with João Pina, the photographer behind Gangland, a stunning series that caught our attention during Visura's open call for stories about Brazil. The country is in turmoil, with its economy suffering and its politics upended by the dismissal of President Dilma Rousseff over allegations of illegal accounting earlier this year. Numerous reports of pollution, violence, and incomplete projects led up to the Olympics.

Pina's work, which spans the last nine years, stands out for its elegant juxtapositions of violence and everyday life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A young drug trafficker plays foosball with another young man in Morro do Dendê in northern Rio, July 2008.
João Pina

A young drug trafficker plays foosball with another young man in Morro do Dendê in northern Rio, July 2008.

What drew you to Rio?

It is the so-called Wonder City, and its a mirror of what's going on in Brazil. That is fascinating.

Has anything improved in the past few years since the World Cup?

There has been some improvement with infrastructure, but it's still far from where it should be. There are still issues with class and race. There is more political awareness since the World Cup, there is more outrage at inequality between class and race. Mothers have organized to talk about injustices. We will see how these changes affect society.

Two young men suspected of drug trafficking are arrested in Acari, a neighborhood in northern Rio, February 2008.
João Pina

Two young men suspected of drug trafficking are arrested in Acari, a neighborhood in northern Rio, February 2008.

Is the pacification [the government initiative to clear drug traffickers from the favelas] still ongoing?

There is the widespread assumption that it has failed — there are still conflicts between gangs and cops. The so-called “pacification units” are police units, but now they are operating in the exact same ways as the police before being transformed into pacification police units. Widespread corruption and police abuses, total disconnection with the local communities inside the favelas, and ignoring or getting bribed by the drug-trafficking gangs. Traffickers still have control of certain places and populations, and no one really trusts the police in the favelas.

A scene of an evangelical preaching session to "cleans" a young woman of her sins in Morro do Dendê in northern Rio, July 2008.
João Pina

A scene of an evangelical preaching session to "cleans" a young woman of her sins in Morro do Dendê in northern Rio, July 2008.

If you had to summarize this project, what would you say?

It is a portrait of my experience of a city that is beautiful, but has been ignored in many aspects. I am going to the ignored aspects, turning my lens on that. Life has a different meaning in those areas.

Someone born and raised in the medium-high classes ... has very different life perspectives and opportunities. Which makes the younger people born in the favelas sometimes go into the drug trafficking business because of segregation and very little opportunities for them due to the lack of basis services like education and health. So they would rather live shortly but intensely.

Are you planning on continuing this project?

I'm going to look at what will happen in the Olympic vacuum, what will happen when everyone leaves, how will society and politics react when we have to pay for all these facilities.

For several days, half of the residents of the Santa Marta neighborhood didn't have access to running water in their homes, April 2009.
João Pina

For several days, half of the residents of the Santa Marta neighborhood didn't have access to running water in their homes, April 2009.


Young men from the Fazendinha favela play soccer near their homes in Complexo do Alemão. During the FIFA World Cup, most schools are on forced vacation. June 2014.
João Pina

Young men from the Fazendinha favela play soccer near their homes in Complexo do Alemão. During the FIFA World Cup, most schools are on forced vacation. June 2014.


A young girl watches a telenovela (soap opera) from inside her tent, June 2014. She is part of a group of 120 families who were evicted from the Telerj favela and are now living on church property in Ilha do Governador.
João Pina

A young girl watches a telenovela (soap opera) from inside her tent, June 2014. She is part of a group of 120 families who were evicted from the Telerj favela and are now living on church property in Ilha do Governador.


The final rehearsal at Porto da Pedra, a samba school in São Gonçalo, February 2007, before the citywide Carnival parade — one of the largest celebrations in the world.
João Pina

The final rehearsal at Porto da Pedra, a samba school in São Gonçalo, February 2007, before the citywide Carnival parade — one of the largest celebrations in the world.


A woman coming out of the Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí — which hosts the Rio Carnival parades — walks by discarded costumes, February 2016.
João Pina

A woman coming out of the Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí — which hosts the Rio Carnival parades — walks by discarded costumes, February 2016.


Civilian police officers from DRAE (a unit of special police who seize weapons and explosives) carry the body of a young man suspected of drug trafficking, November 2009. He was killed by officers during a raid in Manguira for allegedly resisting arrest.
João Pina

Civilian police officers from DRAE (a unit of special police who seize weapons and explosives) carry the body of a young man suspected of drug trafficking, November 2009. He was killed by officers during a raid in Manguira for allegedly resisting arrest.


Weslei de Oliveira Batista's funeral in Sulacap cemetery, April 2009. Batista was a 30-year-old military police officer who was killed after being shot five times while off-duty. Many police officers are killed are killed while off duty, as victims of robberies (or would-be robberies), when they've been identified as police.
João Pina

Weslei de Oliveira Batista's funeral in Sulacap cemetery, April 2009. Batista was a 30-year-old military police officer who was killed after being shot five times while off-duty. Many police officers are killed are killed while off duty, as victims of robberies (or would-be robberies), when they've been identified as police.


A retired man catches sunlight on Ilha do Governador facing the Guanabara Bay, May 2015.
João Pina

A retired man catches sunlight on Ilha do Governador facing the Guanabara Bay, May 2015.


A Brazilian man works on a construction site in the Vidigal favela, June 2014. In a police effort to gentrify the neighborhood — known as “pacification” — many investors, attracted by the city views, are now building luxury hotels and restaurants in the area.
João Pina

A Brazilian man works on a construction site in the Vidigal favela, June 2014. In a police effort to gentrify the neighborhood — known as “pacification” — many investors, attracted by the city views, are now building luxury hotels and restaurants in the area.


João Pina is a Portuguese photojournalist based in Brazil.

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