Flavios Home Essay

Flavio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 1960s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.8. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks described poverty as “the most savage of all human afflictions.” Born into destitution and segregation in Kansas in 1912, he spoke from experience. Parks made a career from documenting the social ills and injustices of the 20th century, particularly in marginalized communities. One of his best-known photo essay chronicles the life of a young Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva.

The J. Paul Getty Museum recently acquired twenty-one photographs from Parks’s photo essay. The acquisition strengthens the Museum’s holdings of works by documentary photographers who—like Parks—were affiliated the Farm Security Administration and Life magazine.

Meeting Flavio

On assignment for Life, Parks arrived in Brazil in 1961 with the intent of documenting the plight of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty. In the Catacumba favela—a slum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro—Parks met the twelve-year-old Flavio.

As the oldest of eight children, Flavio was charged with taking care of his siblings and keeping house while his parents eked out a living and selling kerosene and bleach. Flavio suffered from severe asthma, rendering his tasks even more Herculean. In his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, Parks describes Flavio, saying, “Death was all over him, in his sunken eyes, cheeks and jaundiced coloring.”

Flavio After Asthma Attack, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 1960s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.2. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Bringing Flavio to Life

Parks documented the difficult lives of the da Silva family with unflinching honesty He captured seven family members sleeping in one bed, crying children left inconsolable, and the skeletal body of Flavio reclining on his one day of rest. “I am not afraid of death,” he told Parks. “But what will they [my family] do after?”

The photographers were published in the June 16, 1961, issue of Life under the title “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” It became one of the best-known photo essays ever published by the magazine and inspired an outpouring of letters and donations from the American public.

Family’s Day Begins, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 1960s–70s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.3. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

The Aftermath

With the financial help of Life readers, the da Silva family moved out of their ramshackle dwelling into a proper house, and Flavio traveled to Denver to receive treatment for his asthma. Parks, who accompanied Flavio from Brazil to Denver, published photographs that document Flavio’s recovery in a second photo essay on July 21, 1961.

Flavio returned to Rio de Janeiro after two years in Colorado.  Although he later married and had children, he struggled to reconcile his home in South America with his desire to return to the United States. Parks visited Brazil again in 1977, capturing images of Flavio’s adult life for the magazine.

Untitled from Flavio, negative 1977; print about 1970s–80s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.15. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

The Getty Museum acquisition includes seventeen photographs from Parks’s original visit to Brazil and four from his subsequent trips. Not only does the series embody the photographer’s mission to condemn poverty by calling attention to it through his work, but Flavio’s story also became a project of great personal significance to Parks.

José da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 1970s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.10. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Flavio’s Neighbor’s Corpse, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 1960s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.1. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Isabel, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 1960s–70s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.8. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Albia and Isabel, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 70s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.11. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Isabel beside Sick Father, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 1960s–70s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.4. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Mario, Crying After Being Bitten by Dog, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Flavio, negative 1961; print about 1960s–70s, Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.18.6. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

This post is part of the series This Just in, spotlighting new acquisitions and newly digitized holdings of the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute.
See all posts in this series »

Flavio's Home By Gordon Parks Essay

Making a DifferenceGordon Parks grew up as an African-American in the United States during the early 1900s. He endured much hardship but, through art, used it as inspiration to help others. Parks was a self-taught photographer that used his camera to show the intolerance of the world (Bush 36). It wasn’t until he had studied some photos that were taken during the Depression, when he realized the value of the words tied to a photograph (Parks, Weapons 228). He soon began writing photographic stories, to include his famous Life magazine article, “Flavio’s Home.” The article showed the world exactly how ugly poverty is. Parks wrote this story as an attempt to help fight poverty by exposing it.

The story of “Flavio’s Home” began in 1961. Parks and his colleague, José Gallo, were sent to Catacumba, Brazil for an assignment on poverty. Shortly after their arrival, they met a twelve-year-old boy, named Flavio da Silva. He lived in a 6-foot by 10-foot tin shack with his father, pregnant mother, and seven siblings. They had little furniture and even less food. Their toilet was a hole in the far corner of their home. Flavio, severely malnourished and suffering from an untreated sickness, was responsible for cleaning, cooking, and taking care of his seven siblings. There was a moment when Flavio began coughing until he fell to the floor. His skin turned blue and began to sweat. Immediately after it was over, Flavio stood up, with a smile on his face, and continued his chores. Parks had decided to take the boy to the local doctor and found out that he had less then a year to live. With that news, Parks told Flavio he was going to be all right and not to worry. Flavio responded by saying his only concerns were of his brothers and sisters. He didn’t know what they would do without him.

Flavio da Silva is a child with more responsibilities than most adults I know; he had more responsibilities than his own father did. Through all the appalling conditions, this selfless, twelve-year-old boy stayed positive and fought to live because of the love he had for his siblings. They were like his children. Gordon Parks did an amazing job writing this story in a way that people can visualize. Parks made the statement, “This...

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