Rodrigo Oliveira is a photographer based in Rio de Janeiro. His work documents the experiences of LGBTQ+ BIPOC community in the peripheries of Rio de Janeiro through a photo series titled “Carioca, Negro & Queer”. We spoke to him about his experiences as a queer person of colour in Brazil, how his photography journey began and has transitioned since the pandemic as well as being joyful as an act of resilience.
Which unique experiences have shaped you as a photographer and as a queer person of colour?
I think that life in Rio de Janeiro, most importantly in the suburbs has definitely shaped who I am and how I approach my work today. There’s something very particular about Rio’s atmosphere that is captivating. Navigating the city is an incredible audiovisual journey. But there’s also all the struggles only those living in Rio experience, they play an important role on how I see the world today.
Tell us about your transition from travel photography to shooting portraits, when did you start shooting potraits and how did the evolution come about?
I used to study biology when I started photography and back in the day I was in love with exploring the natural world, being in the wild. Travelling to Southeast Asia was the decisive moment, I was there to explore the wild but I was so fascinated by the people I started shifting to taking portraits without even noticing. Some of the places I went to communication between the locals and I wasn’t possible, but we communicated through our eyes and the fact that I was able to connect with someone without words really stroke me and photography is all about that. I have this same feeling every time I take a portrait.
You have mentioned before that many of your portraits where taken in the queer scene in bars and techno parties. How's your work transitioned since the pandemic?
The beginning of the pandemic was a struggle for me, I was so involved with the queer night life in Rio and it became such an important part of my work that I couldn’t help feeling a little depressed when it all ended. But I with the lockdown I turned my photography into home and its surroundings. So my work shifted from the glamour of Rio’s night life to the simplicity of life in the suburbs. Now the content might not be as queer as it used to but it shows life through the lens of a black queer artist finding inspiration at home.
Tell us about your photo series; "Carioca, Negro & Queer", and it how came about? Are you continuing the series?
Through “Carioca, Negro & Queer” I demonstrate my admiration for my community, the BIPOC queer cariocas. Carioca is a person born within the city of Rio by the way. The series is a celebration of our bodies, of our identities and creativity. I started the series after moving back to Brazil after a few years overseas. During the five years I spent away the city of Rio had changed dramatically, being back felt like everything was new. Some things do not change for the better and when I got back, our current president had just been elected. As I started to reconnect with queer folxs in Rio I noticed people letting go of that frustration on the dancefloor, at the ballroom, on the streets... keeping in mind the kind of politics Bolsonaro stands for, going out at night dressed the way we do, is a political act, it shows resistance. I just felt like that revelation I had needed to be documented. The nightlife has been a really important part of my work, so as soon as we can get back out there to party I’ll continue shooting for “Carioca, Negro & Queer”, but for now I’ll edit the unpublished material I have and work on other personal projects.
What inspires you to keep creating beyond any challenges you might experience living in the peripheries of Rio de Janeiro?
The joy I see in my community despite all the hardship we face. People in the peripheries face real struggles but we’re happy, there’s hope in us and I truly admire that.
The work you create has contributed to the increased visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community in Rio de Janeiro, has it been embraced by media platforms in your country?
Very little to be honest. My work has way more visibility overseas and I think that says something about Brazil you know. After all, this a very homophobic country and we have the numbers to prove it.
Brazilian mainstream media representation has been predominantly white and heteronormative, has that shifted with the Black Lives Matter movement? And if not what do you think are some of the challenges to inclusive media in Brazil?
Things have changed but in a superficial level. You now see more black and queer folxs represented in the media as news anchors, models, actors... But having them in the spotlight does not mean that the structure behind all that is black. In the end of the day we still have black folks doing things for white folks and spreading white, capitalist ideals. To change that we need to change the whole structure of the media, we need to shift the logic of producing things for the capital instead of the people.
Brazil has historically been reffered to as a "racial democracy" denying the existence of racism and racial inequalities, what is your view on this topic and how does this impact your work as a queer person of colour?
Brazil is FAR from racial democracy. People of colour are only a majority here in numbers, white folxs still have the power and we are victims of systemic racism just as much as the US is. The existence of black folxs in Brazil has always been a struggle.
I read in an article in opendemocracy.net that a record number of LGBTQ candidates were elected during Brazil's 2020 municipal elections, more than at any time in it's history.
Has this had an impact in terms of a reduction in homophobia online and in general?
I don’t actually think so. I think that it gives us hope that we can make a change from within the system but you can find hate speech even in the posts celebrating the election of LGBTQ candidates. But I do feel like there’s more people on our side these days, standing up to the LGBTQ community, but the people who hated us before, still hate us now. There are some things politics can’t change.
And are you hopeful that this will have a positive impact in the long run in the politics of the country as a whole?
Yes I am, I think Brazilians are opening their eyes and realizing how messed up politics is here. I hope this is leading people to take more conscious decisions regarding who they’re voting for and what they want for the future of the country. We are tired of being dismissed.
Photography: Rodrigo Oliveira
Interview: Phendu Kuta