Just days ago, the unspeakable desperation and anguish of a Salvadorean family, trying to cross the Rio Grande, was made real by photo-journalist Julia de Lac, as she documented a painful truth as no headline or tweet can. Decades ago, Gordon Parks made the same emotional choice in deciding to tell a tough story published in Life Magazine. His photo essays prompted an extraordinary sequence of events over the years, as clearly, such stories still do. Gordon Parks: The Flavio Story lives on at the J. Paul Getty Museum. 

Gordon Parks' photographs chronicling social justice, civil rights, and the African-American experience in the United States are both a vital historical document and a compelling body of artistic work,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “And, of all his varied projects, Parks considered the photographs of Flávio among his most important achievements. The great impact that it had, and still has today, can only be appreciated by presenting these photographs in their full socio-political context, which is what this exhibition does for the first time.” An accomplished filmmaker, composer, writer and poet, Parks is best remembered for his prolific career as a photographer. He became the first African-American photographer on staff at Life magazine, where he covered subjects ranging from fashion to social injustice. In 1961 the magazine sent him to Brazil with a specific assignment to document poverty in Rio de Janeiro for a special series on Latin America. Told to photograph the hardworking father of a large, impoverished household, Parks essentially disregarded these instructions and focused attention instead to one resident in particular—an industrious, severely asthmatic twelve-year-old boy named Flávio da Silva who lived in Catacumba, one of Rio's working-class favelas. Over the course of several weeks, Parks photographed Flávio as he performed household chores and entertained his seven brothers and sisters—daily activities that were often interrupted by debilitating asthma attacks. Having also grown up in abject poverty in Kansas, Parks felt deep empathy for his subject and forged an emotional bond with the boy. Ultimately, Parks argued for a comprehensive photo essay dedicated to Flávio's story in the pages of Life, and editors responded by publishing a twelve-page piece, titled “Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty,” in June 1961. Within days of its publication, Flávio's story emerged as a blockbuster. Moved by Parks' heartbreaking coverage, Life Magazine readers wrote thousands of letters and, unsolicited, donated money to support the da Silva family and the revitalization of the 3 favelas. When the president of the Children's Asthma Research Institute and Hospital (CARIH) in Denver, Colorado saw the images, he offered to treat Flávio as a patient, free of charge. The Getty exhibition will include images from this spread, as well as outtakes from the assignment.


In July 1961, Life sent Parks back to Rio to follow-up on the story, and in turn, he helped to move the da Silva family from Catacumba, escorting Flávio to the United States. For the next two years, Flávio lived and received treatment at CARIH but spent most weekends with a Portuguese-speaking host family who introduced him to a whole new American culture. Anticipating a compelling story about Flávio's medical progress and experience in the U.S., Life assigned local photographer, Hikaru “Carl” Iwasaki, to document the boy's arrival in Denver, admission to the hospital, and adjustment at school. Many of these images will also be on view, including some that Life never published, alongside snapshots made by Flávio's host father in Denver, José Gonçalves. In spite of his wish to remain in the United States, Flávio was sent back to Brazil in 1963, and now, at 70, was never able to return. When published in 1961, “Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty” was actually met with criticism, particularly within the Brazilian press. Outraged and determined to retaliate against Life's negative portrayal of the Catacumba favela and its residents, the Brazilian magazine O Cruzeiro sent staff photographer Henri Ballot to report on poverty in New York, where Life was headquartered. While exploring the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Ballot documented an immigrant family from Puerto Rico—Felix and Esther Gonzalez and their children—who lived in a decrepit one-bedroom apartment. Arguing that poverty was equally endemic in the United States, O Cruzeiro published Ballot's photographs in October 1961 in the photo essay “Nôvo recorde americano: Miséria” (New American Record: Misery). Photographs from this story, as well as from an investigative exposé on Parks' reportage also published in O Cruzeiro in 1961, will be on view in the exhibition.


Over the years Parks periodically returned to Flávio as a subject. In 1976 he published Flávio, retelling and updating the story through words and pictures. In the book's introduction, Parks provided insight into his own conflicted engagement with certain photographic assignments that focused on people like the da Silva family, acknowledging that he “was perhaps playing God” by digging “deeper and deeper into the privacy of these lives, hoping . . . to reshape their destinies into something much better.” Following this admission, Parks returned to Brazil only once in the 1990s; it marked the last time Parks and Flávio saw each other prior to Parks' death in 2006.“Parks regarded poverty as 'the most savage of all human afflictions,' in no small part because he was born into destitution,” says Amanda Maddox, co-curator of the exhibition and an associate curator at the Getty Museum. “As a photographer, he consciously wielded his camera as a weapon—his chosen term—in an attempt to combat economic and racial inequality. Viewed in this context, his documentation of Flávio da Silva—for Life and beyond—reveals the complexity of his empathetic approach and the inherent difficulties of representing someone else's personal story—a story that resonated with many people over many years—in any form.” In addition to more than 100 photographs, the exhibition will also include original issues of Life that featured Flávio's story, previously unseen ephemera related to Flávio's time in Denver, and private memos, correspondence, and records held by Life and Parks.