LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
A new exhibition in Brazil is showing rare, late 19th century photographs of slavery. The South American country was the last place in the Americas to abolish slavery, and that period coincided with a photography boom - still a fairly new invention What resulted is arguably the largest archive of photographs of slavery in the world. And as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paulo, that is giving new insights to academics and ordinary Brazilians, into their country's past.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The image has been blown up to the size of a wall. What was hidden in the original photograph is suddenly revealed.
LILIA SCHWARCZ: Things that you would never see, suddenly you can see. So let's go there, for example. Here, you have a photograph of Fejez. That - it was one of the most impressive photographers from the 19th century Brazil.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz, one of the curators of the new exhibition called "Emancipation Inclusion and Exclusion." In its original size and composition, the image she points to shows a wide shot of a group of slaves drying coffee in a field. Their faces are indistinct, but the overall impression is one of order and calm. But once the picture is blown up, the expressions are clearly seen. Details emerge. A female slave is breastfeeding a child in the field; clothes that look neat are seen to be in tatters.
SCHWARCZ: Expanding the photos, we can see a lot of things that we couldn't see, and the state didn't want to see. We do not want to show slaves just like victims. But also, to show how they could use agency, how they could negotiate the place, how they can try to show themselves using the body, using expressions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Slavery in Brazil lasted for 300 years, and it imported some 4 million Africans to the country. These images were taken during the waning days of slavery and Brazil's monarchy. Many were commissioned by the state, in an attempt to show slavery in a better light.
Sergio Burgi is with the Moreira Salles Institute, which donated the photographs to the show. He says blowing up the images shows the underlying brutality of the system. In another picture, slaves are lined up waiting to be taken into the fields. All are barefoot. In between them, once the image is enlarged, we can see many young children.
SERGIO BURGI: It's incredible what you see, you know? The amount of children, very early, that go out; you have to think: This early, how would they manage to take care of these children out into the field?
SCHWARCZ: The slave system is a system based on violence. If you look here in the original format, what do you see? You see a lot of workers very well-dressed. And then when you look here, you can see like a sea of expressions, a sea of reactions. And you can see how violent can be the system.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's astounding about the exhibition is the variety of situations that slaves were photographed in, not only in the fields but in their owners' homes, in the city, taking care of their masters' white children.
One of the most striking images is of a white woman sitting in a litter. The two slaves that would carry her through the streets of the city are standing next to her. One looks down in deference. The other man, though, is leaning against the litter, his hat tipped at a jaunty angle, staring straight at the camera.
SCHWARCZ: He's showing himself and saying: I'm not just like this. I'm another thing, I'm something different, I'm something else.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The images in the exhibition were taken from 1860 to 1885. Slavery ended in Brazil in 1888.
SCHWARCZ: What we are seeing here, it was a very tricky moment because it was almost the end of the slave system in Brazil. But those owners, probably the clients, they wanted very much to keep the slave system.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Helena Machado is a historian who also contributed to the exhibition.
MARIA HELENA MACHADO: Late 19th century, even more brutal than before because slavery was ending - was about to end - and slave owners wanted to get as much as they can, in terms of slave work. They are not concerned anymore about surviving. So who cares, you know? I need to get my money back.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Machado says many slaves were running away; others had formed armed bands and were revolting. And once these images are magnified and you can see the look in the slaves' eyes, their bearing, the battle, says Lilia Schwarcz, is very evident.
SCHWARCZ: They don't want to show themselves like slaves. They were fighting for their freedom. So you have here a discussion about freedom.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A discussion that, says curator Sergio Burgi, continues today with the people who have come to see the exhibition.
BURGI: People here in Brazil reacting in ways that are very interesting, saying, oh, that reminds me of my time as a kid, where I used to live in a rural area; that everything looks similar.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says even decades after slavery, blacks lived in the same conditions. And that legacy continues to resonate today. The exhibition runs through the end of December at the University of Sao Paulo.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.