Scott on Bezerra, 'Postcards from Rio: Favelas and the Contested Geographies of Citizenship'

Kátia da Costa Bezerra
Jason Scott

Kátia da Costa Bezerra. Postcards from Rio: Favelas and the Contested Geographies of Citizenship. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. 176 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-7655-4.

Reviewed by Jason Scott (University of Colorado) Published on H-Socialisms (February, 2020) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

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Citizenship in Rio's Favelas

Kátia da Coasta Bezerra’s Postcards from Rio: Favelas and the Contested Geographies of Citizenship offers a highly insightful look into the aesthetic commodification of Brazil’s urban margins. Bezerra sets out to challenge problematic narratives that “other” the favela and frame Rio’s less privileged communities in terms of abstract violence. The book’s strongest feature is a comprehensive description of the Rio de Janeiro’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), specifically Viva Rio and its community partners, that have helped to nurture a generation of notable favela-based cultural producers and activists who emerged at the start of the twenty-first century. By exploring and detailing the perspectives of favela-based groups, the author suggests alternative ways to conceptualize a divided city.  

Bezerra’s broader argument suggests that the dominant visual narratives concerning Rio promoted a commodification of the favela in the years prior to Rio’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. During this time, authorities sought to promote an image of inclusion, formality, and security. The inclusion of the favelas in official proclamations and discussions had both positive and negative impacts. On the positive side, there was a concerted effort to fund favela-based organizations that provided services in traditionally underdeveloped communities. For example, many of Bezerra’s interlocutors were photographers and educators who work in the favela and are connected to Viva Rio, one of Rio’s most important NGOs. But there were also, as Bezerra references throughout the book, forced removals and poorly intentioned projects that catered to tourists rather than favela residents.

Postcards from Rio provides a snapshot of a unique historical moment for Brazil during which neoliberal deregulation and deinstitutionalization butted heads with policies designed by the country’s social democratic workers party. The development of infrastructure in the favela was guided by a nebulous relationship between NGOs, the Brazilian state, and favela residents. This unique social hierarchy is reflected in the ways that knowledge and beliefs are created about favela space. Imagery of the favela created during this time reflected the everyday experience of favela residents and also the intentions and desires of a state intent on reshaping marginalized citizenship in twenty-first-century Brazil. Contributing to a broader theoretical tradition concerning Brazil’s favelas, Bezerra argues that the multiplicity of gazes (e.g., governmental, NGO, and residential) symbolized a contradiction within Rio’s urban spaces.

The organization of the book follows the tradition of favela research most notably implemented by Janice Perlman in her 1973 work, The Myth of Marginality, where community examples are used to develop a broader picture of marginality. The first and second chapters look at collaborations between NGOs and community journalists who confront Foucauldian heterotopias, or communities where everything is perceived in negative terms. Bezerra contrasts heterotopic narratives of violence and political disfunction in the favela that are historically mobilized by Brazil’s elite with narratives of creativity and hope currently used by community activists. In this sense, favela-based groups create dialogical visual narratives that defy dominant hegemonies of seeing and assert an alternative gaze. Chapter 3 compares representations produced at two separate moments in Rio’s urban development: the removal of favela residents in the 1950s and favela improvement programs in the late 2000s. The fourth chapter looks at the politics of representation that surround favela-based cable car systems. Cable cars redefined both spatial and aesthetic experiences within the favela. The final chapter examines how Rio is being redefined by its newest museums. In general, Bezerra structures the book in a way that shows the fluidity of urban space and the multiplicity of experiences that constitute urban governance in modern Brazil.

While Postcards from Rio grounds itself in several interesting case studies, the book can be best read as a theoretical contemplation on the nature of visual authority in a time of multifocal image production and urban inequality. Nonetheless, greater ethnographic reference to the everyday lived experiences of creating, promoting, and consuming images would have strengthened the book. The author’s own scholarly training tends to overwhelm the intentions and explanations of the book’s interviewees, and it is sometimes unclear as to whether the author is presenting their own critique of visual production, reproducing the critiques of favela activists, or embracing the work of Brazilian scholars who focus on visual production in the favelas. One example of this is the discussion of the Museum of Art in Rio, where the author provides promotional material and discusses the museum’s hours of operation. This information is useful when framed as a regimentation of museum space, but it does little to advance the author’s central arguments regarding commodification or demonstrate a form of critical empiricism regarding knowledge production in the favela.

Postcards from Rio will be useful for anyone interested in the rise of NGOs during a period of optimism regarding the future of Brazil and its favelas. With the 2018 election of archconservative and authoritarian populist Jair Bolsonaro to Brazil’s presidency, the inclusionary political period of Bezerra’s research appears to have passed. Bezerra’s work is somewhat ambiguous as to how outside academics and NGOs can continue to support favela residents as knowledge producers once political conditions cease to include a multiplicity of voices. This ambiguity is indicative of much of the humanistic and social scientific research published about Brazil’s urban periphery during this period, and Bezerra’s work provides an opportunity to reflect upon possible means and methods of including marginalized voices. The opportunity to delve into the work of community-based visual producers remains a valuable and productive means to challenge some of the more exclusionary elements of life on Rio’s periphery.

Citation: Jason Scott. Review of Bezerra, Kátia da Costa, Postcards from Rio: Favelas and the Contested Geographies of Citizenship. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

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