Copacabana Palace is a complex of six concrete shells in Rio de Janeiro’s Campo Grande neighbourhood – buildings left unfinished 30 years ago after an economic crash stalled a housing project. The name comes from the eponymous five star hotel that looks over Rio’s Copacabana Beach, but the complex is also known as “Jambalaya”, the title of a Brazilian TV show, and “Carandiru”, the Sao Paulo prison where more than 100 inmates were massacred by police in 1992.
When they were first abandoned, the Copacabana Palace buildings were looted and gutted of pipes, wires and electric cables. The hall floors have collapsed in many places. One building is completely uninhabitable, but the other five house about 300 families, some of whom have been squatting there for decades. German-born photographer Peter Bauza started taking pictures of them in June 2015, often sleeping in their homes.
“When I appeared, they were just surprised to see a gringo there,” says Bauza. “I told them that I had an idea, that I would like to document their daily lives – their joy, their pain, not only their misery, because beside the misery there is also joy.”
The resulting series, Copacabana Palace, won the Days Japan Photojournalism Special Jury Prize earlier this year, as well as the Visa d’or Feature Award, and will be the inaugural exhibition at the new Officine Fotografiche in Milan, which opens on 15th December.
Some of the Copacabana Palace residents are unemployed, some can’t afford to pay rent, some have no documentation and are therefore ineligible for housing, many are on the housing waiting lists. “It’s a story about homelessness, about a hidden society,” says Bauza.
One woman, Edilane, who now has eight children, was granted government-sponsored accommodation after two years on the waiting list. But she decided to stay at Copacabana Place, after realising that the apartment was in a favela dominated by drug gangs.
“There is this whole social circle that the government needs to understand before trying to do something with a family,” says Bauza. “You have to understand all of the stories.”
“The pictures are about defending people that need to be defended,” he continues, adding that he hopes his series can shed light on the politicians’ “empty promises” and highlight the flaws in the government’s housing system.
“By showing this, it means that people can’t say later on: ‘Oh, I didn’t know. I didn’t know that this happened’,” he says. “It’s the same when you go to somewhere like Aleppo. You do it because you want people to open their eyes.”
Copacabana Palace by Peter Bauza is on show at the Officine Fotografiche Milano from 15 December – 17 February. milano.officinefotografiche.org www.peterbauza.com