KU student documents Brazilian shanty town

Sarah Stern, a Lawrence native and Kansas University junior, still thinks about Rocinha. It’s been a year since her trip to the Brazilian favela, but her memories are still clear and unshakable.

They are the sort of memories that create stories that last a lifetime. Stories that shape, resonate and linger.

Many of the moments lodged in Stern’s memory are also preserved in a photography book, which was released this month.

The book, “Favela Da Rocinha, Brazil” is a photography project that captures community life in Brazil’s largest favela, or shanty town. The book also contains personal essays and a 14-page forward (written by James R. Hugunin, an art professor at the Art Institute of Chicago) and 139 photos. Stern, 21, earned a William Randolph Hearst nomination for a few of her photos, which will appear in the book.

In the book there are pictures of people riding motor scooters, flying kites and sweeping streets. There are photos of colorful shanties nearly stacked on top of one another. And there are pictures of children playing in alleys, oblivious to the poverty all around them.

One hundred percent of the money earned from book sales will benefit the city of Rocinha through free art classes for underprivileged youth.

“I think it’s rare that you can buy a book that not only can you put on your coffee table … but 100 percent of what you spend is going right back to the community that made the book,” Stern says. “I think that it’s a really good opportunity to feel … good about purchasing something.”

Gary Mark Smith will be spearheading the education initiative. Smith collaborated on the project with Stern, and he’ll be traveling back to Rio de Janeiro in the Brazilian spring, or winter of 2013, for a month and a half. He’ll teach photography classes and make sure everything gets under way without any hiccups.

Smith will also take pictures for the second installment of what he says will be an eight-year project. Wanting to document the transformation of Rocinha before and after pacification — a crackdown on gang and drug crime — Smith plans to return to the favela several times until 2019.

“(The project) had to start before pacification. … I foresaw that the gangs were going to be pacified and that it would be a big story,” Stern says. “I fully expect the gangs to be back (after the 2016 Summer Olympics). I’m going back to see if I was wrong or right.”

For the first leg of the project, Stern, Smith and another photographer, Carlos Beltran, lived in Rocinha for three weeks. They stayed in the favela before Brazil’s pacification process began, meaning the streets were riddled with gang members.

Avoiding the crime circuit, Stern, Smith and Beltran photographed and filmed the everyday life of Rocinha residents. Focusing on the community members, the photographers avoided the gang lords and gangsters who strolled the streets brandishing weapons.

But they were unintentionally roped into the gang circuit. One day Smith, known for plugging himself into dangerous situations — he’s photographed floods, warfare and volcanic eruptions — decided to take pictures without a guide. The act was forbidden by the gangs. Within 10 minutes, Smith’s camera was seized by gang members. Later on, Stern met “Nem,” the notorious gang leader, who gave Smith’s camera back.

But all of this is peripheral detail for much larger focus. The group’s intention was to capture community life in Rocinha. Pictures of this community life fill the pages of the book. And it’s this bustling community life that makes Stern yearn to return to the favela.

“Sometimes time goes by and you stop missing a place,” Stern says. “But I still find myself missing Rocinha, missing the girls I lived with, missing my day-to-day there. I still want to go back. There’s nothing like Rocinha.”

The book can be purchased at rocinhathebook.com for $35.95.