Reporter David Medcalf worked through a language barrier to speak with Leandro Gladstone – photographer and musician. During his month in Ireland, the Brazilian opened Irish eyes to the universal scourge of homelessness
This is a story of friendship. And not only friendship. There’s music, philosophy, struggle, hope and photography in the mix too. But none of the rest of it would have come to the attention of people in Ireland but for a friendship forged in a city thousands of kilometres away, the width of an ocean removed from County Wicklow.
Your reporter met Leandro Gladstone in the Delgany apartment of his pal Glauce Lucas, who advised the journalist at the start of our conversation that ‘Leandro has zero English’. Not quite zero as it turned out. The man from Belo Horizontale jumped up from the sofa where he had been sitting and he stretched out his hand with a very passable ‘how do you do’.
But that was about the extent of his practical grasp of the language and your reporter’s knowledge of Portuguese is confined to just one word, ‘obrigado’ – thank you. So the Irish journalist and the Brazilian photographer/musician depended on Glauce for translation, delivered with rapid fire enthusiasm by our hostess.
The visitor was in this country at Glauce’s invitation to take pictures, to play his songs and to promote the book which she published for him. During his stay, he had an exhibition of his work presented in Bray, and he prowled the streets of Dublin with his trusty Canon camera seeking fresh inspiration.
He confessed that he found it amazing that an alleged ‘summer’ could be so cold, though he certainly did not allow this to depress him. His home town is one that most folk in Ireland have never heard of and the climate there is considerably warmer
Though eclipsed by the likes of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizontale has a population of at least three million people. It is located in hilly country, famous in the region for its mining of gold and precious stones, and Leandro was born there just over 40 years ago. His mother is a blonde lady of Italian extraction while his father (who left the family shortly after his birth) is dark-skinned with a genetic make-up that speaks of Africa.
‘Racism in Brazil is huge,’ observes Glauce, who works in the marketing wing of an American country. Leandro confirms that this is the case, telling how his wavy hair and dark complexion have him regarded at home as ‘black’. The contrast with his fair mother is such that, when he was a baby, strangers would approach her to ask if he was adopted.
He grew up accustomed to be fearful of police harassment, while shop security staff would shadow him and generally view him with suspicion – standard treatment for blacks in Belo Horizontale. Aside from racism, poverty is also huge in Brazil, a country with a notoriously wide gulf between rich and poor.
Those who inhabit the poor end of the scale endure deprivation of a depth that Irish people can only imagine. Social welfare supports are patchy, where they exist at all, leaving those who have nothing to fend for themselves. Little Leandro was not only black but also poor, brought up in a favella – one of South America’s notorious slums.
Such neighbourhoods are notorious for crime and drug taking and hunger but at least he was thrown a life line – education: ‘I went to boarding school because there was no food in the house.’ He started working on building sites as he turned teenage, to cover for the lack of a money earning father in the household, but he also persevered with his lessons, up to the age of 18.
Classes included instruction in how to use computers and this proved useful in obtaining employment with a bus company. In a dramatic career shift, he switched from lugging bricks to co-ordinating a team of bus inspectors when he was not much more than 20 years of age.
And it was around this time that he first met his Belo Horizontale compatriot Glauce Lucas, whose upbringing was in lurid contrast to his own by a well-to-do white family. They were brought together by an informal youth movement which drew independently minded youngsters together in the nineties.
Those who followed the ‘Straight Edge’ - the name came from a US indie band - were committed to avoiding alcohol and other drugs. They were keen to play music, to read the literature of Chomsky and George Orwell and to agitate for greater social justice.
Leandro and Glauce reckon that they must have met first at an open air reading of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ on the grass of a public square. Reading was followed by discussion and in due course by a decision of some to form a punk band. In this enterprise the black man from the favella had an advantage that made him a leader – he was already an experienced guitarist.
His idol was Jimi Hendrix who had inspired him to buy his first electric guitar with hard earned savings at the age of around 16. Within three years he had his own outfit, called Two Minutes of Hate, the phrase culled from Orwell’s ‘1984’.
‘We were full of rage and we going to change the world, bring an end to racism and sexism,’ he says through his friend’s translation. Glauce was the only girl in the new band which rejoiced in the name Over State. Leandro wrote the songs, in collaboration with Glauce’s husband-to-be Matteo Ferrari, material which was recorded for an EP that appeared in 2004.
Over State enjoyed some success, touring as far from home as Colombia but they broke up four years later. The reason was that the couple were heading off to Ireland, leaving their musical mentor at home with his guitar and a new-found interest in photography. And there the story might have ended, but for Leandro’s talent and Glauce’s determination that friendship should mean more than exchanging occasional emails.
In Ireland she had a son, these days happily attending primary school, while the marriage foundered and she now lives separated from Matteo. Meanwhile, her former music coach found taking photographs was much more rewarding than overseeing bus timetables.
With steady money coming in he was able to add a storey to his mother’s house in the favella but it was time to change jobs. He began working on fashion shoots, while all the time pursuing a personal project for which he used the old Canon held in one piece with masking tape. The pictures he took with this were of the homeless people who populate the streets of Belo Horizontale.
Most of these people are country folk who arrive in the city with high hopes and zero finance. As their dreams of work and money fade, with no roof over their heads, they find that their most private and intimate moments are lived out in public. Over a period of ten years and more Leandro took the time not only to point his lens at them but also to talk to them.
‘It is hard to explain Brazilian poverty to Irish people,’ he muses. ‘It is a country where the price of a pair of shoes is equivalent to work for a month on minimum wage.’ He dreamed that his personal project might lead to an exhibition, perhaps even a book, but when speaking on the phone to Glauce last year such dreams appeared far from reality.
Sensing that he was really down in the dumps, she decided to lend a hand – and she did so in a most spectacular way. Crowd funding raised over the internet allowed her to make at least one of Leandro’s dreams come through.
She assembled and published ‘A Look at the Streets’, an immaculately presented book containing a selection of her friend’s images. And she did not stop there. The punk guitarist turned photographer was sent an invitation – complete with plane ticket - to come to Ireland for a month.
She greeted him with copies of the book and then revealed that an exhibition of 20 prints had been arranged for Finnbees on the seafront in Bray. Customers of the café were treated to the Gladstone view of life in his home town.
Your reporter finds one of the photos particularly memorable. It is a black and white shot of a young man silhouetted against the backdrop of a fountain. The man in the picture washes himself in this very public place, maintaining self-respect and personal hygiene in saddening circumstances. The music has changed since Over State snarled at their audiences and Leandro now espouses a more melodic style.
‘When I get home, I will write songs to reflect my time in Ireland,’ he promises. He will also have photographs to remind him of his month here, many of them of the homeless people who sit on Dublin’s pavements with their sleeping bags and canal-side tents. We may be of the First World but we have not wiped away the stain of poverty.
Glauce reckons that his efforts could give Irish people a look at themselves through fresh eyes. Could there be another book in the
making? An Irish edition of ‘A look at the Streets’?