On Sunday, closing ceremonies marked the end of this year’s contentious Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. But even as athletes and tourists vacate the city, Rio’s residents are left to contend with a city that has changed profoundly–both economically and socially–since it was awarded the Olympic bid in 2009.
One group of citizens who won’t be able to return to their lives before the games are those who were displaced from their homes in the city’s favelas, or shanty towns. Many have been moved to housing built by the state, their former homes demolished to make way for new Olympic venues or, more likely, luxury apartments. Photographer Marc Ohren-Leclef has been documenting the eviction and relocation process since 2012–resulting in a project called Olympic Favela that was recently highlighted by Citylab and is currently on display at New York’s Baxter St Gallery.
He says that Rio’s poorest citizens have not only seen their homes destroyed–they’ve also experienced a loss of community that won’t be as easy to rebuild.
“I don’t think that [the new housing] will resemble anything close to the sense of community that people were taken from,” Ohren-Leclef tells Co.Design. In the favelas, residents had set up informal businesses and support systems, such as a neighbor who provided childcare, or a grocery store owner who would deliver food to elderly residents up the hill. The municipal housing that residents were removed to is cheaply made, he says; it enforces a strict curfew and doesn’t allow businesses. In the past two years there’s been more of an effort to relocate communities together, but in many cases neighborhoods and even families have been broken up to live in housing across the city from each other.
Moving forward, says Ohren-Leclef, there needs to be a better system set in place that holds cities accountable for meeting their Olympic promises. “Between the local communities and the International Olympics Committee, there needs to be a system of checks and balances,” he says. “Otherwise, just like the World cup and FIFA, people are losing trust in those organizations.”
Ohren-Leclef had been interested in the individuals displaced by the Olympics since 2006, when he read about people being evicted from their homes in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. German-born and based in Brooklyn, Ohren-Leclef was familiar with the city of Rio after doing some commercial work there, but his chance to shed light on the phenomenon in RIo wouldn’t come for another five years. When he heard about what was happening to the favelas in 2011, he flew to Rio and began working with CatComm, a Rio-based nongovernmental organization that advocates for people living in the city’s favelas.
CatComm introduced Ohren-Leclef to the local leaders within more than a dozen favelas, who helped connect him to his subjects. The resulting photo series, Olympic Favela–which is now also a book and a short film–depicts residents in a pose of defiance: with fists raised in the air clutching emergency flares. Many of them are standing in front of homes that have been marked SMH (short for the housing authority Secretaria Municipal de Habitação) for demolition.
Over the four years he worked on the project, Ohren-Leclef traveled to Brazil nine times, staying for two to four weeks each. He chronicled people in the favelas as they fought their eviction, waited to be removed, then visited them once they were set up in their new homes. He says the municipal housing, often located on the outskirts of the city, look nice from the outside, but from the inside it’s clear that they are low quality. That only makes sense, he says, once you “consider the incredible speed that they were built.”
“Brazil was awarded the Olympic games based partially on the fact that they were going to revamp these urban structures,” Ohren-Leclef says, referring to Brazil’s promises for improvement when it put in its Olympic bid. While Ohren-Leclef acknowledged that the Olympics allowed the city to build infrastructure improvements like a new subway line and schools, as The New York Times reported this week, he feels that the costs to the city’s poorest citizens outweigh the benefits to the city. “I had this love for the idea of the Olympic games and the unity it represented, but then you see that contradicted by the way they’re realized,” he says.
The series is on display at Baxter St Gallery in New York City. Prints and signed copies of the Olympic Favela book can be purchased from the artist here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article noted that Ohrem-Leclef worked with iBase on the project. He actually worked with the NGO CatComm. The article has been updated to reflect that.
[All Photos: courtesy Marc Ohrem-Leclef]