Every morning, José Carlos leaves home at 5:00 AM and takes several buses into the heart of São Paulo to deliver bread and juice to the people living on the streets of Cracolândia, or “Crackland,” where more than a thousand people gather daily to sell or consume crack cocaine. A street sweeper by trade and a resident of one of the city’s suburbs, he’s been visiting the area for five years now, always with fresh food in hand. Once, when he ran out of bread, he offered items from his own lunchbox. The locals call him the “bread shepherd.”
The bread shepherd was one of the first people to introduce the photojournalist Luca Meola to the community three years ago, when he started documenting life in Cracolândia. And in some ways, his story has become emblematic of a larger truth that the photographer has come to understand about the area. It’s a place touched by acute suffering, hardship, and heartbreak–Meola describes it as an “open wound” at the core of the city–but if you stick around long enough, you might find moments of resilience, hope, and unconditional kindness.
Members of this community have endured traumas; some have been incarcerated, and one confided in the photographer about escaping an abusive childhood home. Many struggle with addiction and have been unable to stay clean. Estrangement from family members is not uncommon. But there’s also another side of Cracolândia; despite its flaws, it’s a community where people look after each other. “It is a kind of small town, where everyone knows everyone,” Meola explains.
There’s one mother who hits the streets whenever she has a day off to search for her son, who has lives in the area. She brings him clean clothes, food, and sometimes, money to bathe in a hotel nearby. “He can’t give up crack and that life, so for her, going to this place is the only way to be close to her son,” the photographer says.
And then there’s a local hotel, Pensão Dino Bueno, which serves, in part, as a refuge and shelter for abandoned animals. When Meola visited, the hotel manager was caring for forty dogs, twenty cats, and a duck. One local businessman, Enrique, has been cutting hair for the people of Cracolândia since he was a teenager. He has an improvised salon, and one of Meola’s portraits hangs proudly on the wall.
Meola has no interest in sugarcoating life in Cracolândia, and he’s never shied away from documenting its painful realities, but it’s important to him to tell the whole story. “When you frequent the part of the neighborhood where people buy and use crack, there is one image that strikes you more than any other,” he tells me.
“Many families and children live in this region, simply because it is the cheapest place to live in the center of the city. Whenever a child approaches, even if he is only passing on his way home, people start shouting, ‘an angel, an angel,’ and everyone hides their pipes and stops smoking. In this gesture, I have always seen the great humanity of this tormented population.”
We asked him to tell us more about Cracolândia and the people he’s met there.
How did you first learn about Cracolândia, and what initially sparked your interest?
“The first week I arrived in São Paulo, in December 2014, as I was getting to know my new city, someone told me about the existence of this neighborhood, famous for the sale and consumption of crack cocaine in the open air. I later met a boy living on the streets, and I convinced him to take me to Cracolândia.
“That boy, in exchange for some cigarettes, took me straight to the fluxo–this is the name given to the concentration of about a thousand people who sell and smoke crack here. You have to imagine it as a local market, open 24 hours, every day. In the center of the fluxo, there are little stalls, protected from view by plastic sheets, where you can buy crack.
“That first time, I felt like I was entering a circle of hell. Over the next few years, I developed projects on other issues, but in 2018, I decided it was time to return to this complicated place. I made contact with several organizations operating there, and after a few months, I was making those first portraits and collecting the first stories.”
How did you gain access to this community?
“As I said, this is an extremely complicated place. Like Dante, I needed a ‘Virgil,’ a companion. I found this figure in a woman named Giulia Grillo, an activist. Giulia has dedicated years of her life to assisting the people of the fluxo, without having a church or an association behind her–only a great humanity. Those who live in the fluxo call her the ‘godmother of Cracolândia.’
“Giulia has been a mediator on more than one occasion during conflicts between drug users and the police. She fights against the eviction of the poor families who live in the neighborhood, and she helps the drug users to regain contact with their families. Giulia became one of my best friends here, and the people of this area, associating me with her, started to trust me.
“Another thing that helped me was my approach. In my work, the consumption and the sale of crack take place only in the background. My interest has always been with the people who live in Cracolândia and their stories, which are extremely unique and varied. My goal was never to criminalize this place but to humanize and understand it. I think that this approach, together with a great deal of patience, made the difference.”
Similarly, why do you think so many people trusted you to photograph such intimate moments in their lives?
“In Cracolândia, I have never stolen a photo, and I have always tried to explain the goal of my project to everyone. I’ve found three types of reactions: those who never want to be photographed, those who agree to my proposal, and finally, those who come to me expressly asking for a portrait. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible with the people I’ve met and with myself, portraying them exactly as I saw them.
“I think a lot of people agree to be photographed because most of us share a desire to tell our own stories, even when those stories involve suffering and loss. Most of the pictures I’ve taken in recent years in Cracolândia I’ve printed as 10×15 prints, to be given to the people in the pictures. Many people, when they receive the final prints, turn them around in their hands, and tears begin to fall.
“For some, these images are perhaps a dim reminder of who they were before they started smoking crack. In one case, some girls from the fluxo got ready for our photo shoot and put on their best clothes. Some of them then sent those little printed photos to the families they had abandoned, just to say, ‘It’s not that bad, and I am alive.’
“Shooting in Cracolândia, I realized the power of a simple photograph. These days, for example, a man named Cirilo works for an evangelical NGO in this neighborhood, but he really wanted me to reprint a photo I took of him back in 2018, when he was on the street consuming drugs himself. Today, he keeps it in his wallet to remember that he does not want to go back to his former life.”
Have there been any moments in Cracolândia that you’ve chosen not to photograph?
“I am of the opinion that everything must be shown, especially if it helps people to understand a situation. I have many images of people using crack, but I have always preferred to use and publish the ones where you can’t see their faces. In many reports about Cracolândia, people are photographed smoking crack, without their knowledge, from afar, and with a telephoto lens. This does nothing but criminalize and increase stereotypes. My project is about doing the opposite.”
Might you tell me a bit about the history of Cracolândia?
“In Brazil, a quilombo refers to a community founded by enslaved African people who escaped the plantations where they were imprisoned during the time of slavery. Cracolândia is a kind of quilombo: a refuge and a world apart, with its own peculiarities and rules. It is impossible to conceive today of the existence of this microworld without knowing the history of the neighborhood that houses it.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, this region of São Paulo began to develop thanks to its proximity to the train station and the old bus station. The area came to be known as Boca do Lixo (boca of garbage) due to the amount of garbage that passed through its streets before being loaded onto trains. By the 1920s and 1930s, Boca do Lixo was home to an active film industry. During this period, companies such as Paramount, Fox, and Metro were established there due to the ease of receiving and shipping filming equipment and film tapes.
“In the 1950s, this neighborhood began to be called the quadrilateral of sin, due to a large concentration per square meter of sex workers and outlaws of all kinds. Despite its decline, in the 1970s, the Boca do Lixo region was the main production site of Brazilian independent cinema. Its current connotation, as well as its name Cracolândia, arose in the late 1980s from the void left by the old abandoned bus station, where drug traffickers and crack users found refuge.”
What is daily life like in Cracolândia today?
“Cracolândia serves an average of 1,000 to 1,600 people a day. Among the visitors of the fluxo are those who sleep on the sidewalk, those who rent rooms or beds in the hotels in the area, and those who camp in tents in a square within the neighborhood.
“Around the fluxo, where crack is sold and consumed, a whole system of services has developed: in addition to the drug dealers, there are cigarette sellers, pipe makers, people who sell clothes or food, hairdressers, and sex workers. There are small grocery stores and second-hand good retailers. The dilapidated buildings in the neighborhood host poor families, who have lived in this region for decades and have seen all its transformations.”
Can you tell us more about the police presence here?
“Cracolândia is a disputed territory between those who control drug trafficking in the area and the public powers that be, represented by the police. The whole area is manned by the GSM (Guardia civil metropolitan) and the PM (Polícia Militar). Every day, two or three limpeza (cleaning) operations are carried out, and the fluxo (that is, the concentration of people selling or using crack), moves from one square to an adjacent street.
“These displacements often lead to conflict and riots. Police attack with tear gas bombs and rubber bullets, and the fluxo might respond by throwing objects and sometimes with bottle rockets. During the pandemic, these conflicts were the order of the day, and Cracolândia became a kind of war zone. In September 2020, the Human Rights Commission (OAB SP) publicly demonstrated against the violence in this region, including the abuse of non-lethal weapons, gas bombs, and torture.
“Most of the organizations present in the territory criticize the current approach of those in power and think that all those resources spent on bombs and police operations could be invested in effective rehabilitation projects instead. In the last few years, this ongoing war on drugs and addiction has been used as a justification for gentrification. They’re demolishing old houses and building new ones, which hands profits to construction companies and often displaces locals as middle and upper-class residents move in.”
How has the community changed amid the pandemic?
“Starting in mid-May 2020, I decided to closely monitor the impacts of the pandemic in Cracolândia, and from what I could see, things changed little, even in the face of a viral outbreak. In the fluxo, there was no social distancing, masks, or hand sanitizer. Even so, there were few cases where people had symptoms of the virus. We are talking about a community where everyone knows everyone, and those who have actually tested positive can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
“In the first week of April 2020, ‘Atende 2,’ the last social assistance service in the district, was closed. In the midst of a pandemic, removing this one source of clean water and toilets from crack users only seemed to leave these people in even more misery, abandoning them to die from Covid-19. How the people of Cracolândia have not been decimated remains a great mystery.
“In August, I followed the activity of Médicos do Mundo, a philanthropic initiative that aims to provide humanitarian assistance to people in situations of social vulnerability. This association is the only one that carried out Covid-19 tests in the Cracolândia region. Although only about eighty people were tested, between this neighborhood and another vulnerable region, none of those tests came back positive. Some wonder why such an exposed population has not yet been wiped out. Inhabitants of the area ironically joke that it is the smoke that keeps the virus away.”
What factors contribute to the existence of Cracolândia?
“I’ve approached many drug users, and each trajectory is unique. Dependence on crack and alcohol is devastating, but the reasons that lead people to find themselves in these conditions run deeper. Inequality, unemployment, and the lack of government assistance all contribute. Most people who live in Cracolândia are Black or brown, and many people come directly from the prison system.
“In the heart of São Paulo, the richest metropolis in South America, you can find a neighborhood like Cracolândia, and there are 24,000 people or more living on the streets. It’s hard not to see a correlation between these two things. Cracolândia is one of the many symptoms of the sickness of social inequality in Brazilian society.
“Cracolândia is often treated as an urgent issue, and in the last few decades, various municipal administrations have tried to deal with the problems related to this territory. But to date, no solution has been found. Starting in 2014, the government, under Mayor Fernando Haddad, tried to confront the situation with a project focused on the concept of harm reduction.
“The ‘De Braços Abertos’ (open arms) project involved more than 400 residents of the neighborhood. They offered housing and three meals a day and asked for street cleaning jobs in return. Participants did not need to abstain from consumption, but they were given alternatives. Of the 467 participants, 65% significantly reduced their use of crack.
“However, in 2017, with the new administration led by Mayor João Doria, the project was closed, and City Hall launched a big police operation to suppress all commercialization and consumption activities in the area. Many buildings were demolished, and repressive actions continued, but the result was that the drug users only moved a few blocks over.
“Based on these bad results, the next Mayor, Bruno Covas, who was recently re-elected, took on the policy of harm reduction, but only on paper. Half of the hotels that housed people during the time of ‘De Braços Abertos’ were closed. The presence of social workers and medical personnel, who should serve as a bridge between drug addicts and health services, is unfortunately perceived in the area as relatively ineffective.”
Might you tell us about some of the organizations working to help those in the community?
“Among the associations and organizations working in the area, I’d like to mention Tem Sentimento, who hosts a tailoring workshop that helps cis and trans women from the fluxo generate income, and Biricoarte, a group of artists, some of them frequenters of the fluxo, united to strengthen projects in this stigmatized territory.
“During the pandemic, the theatrical company Personal do Faroeste helped many families and residents of the territory. I’d also mention the Invisible Clown project, led by Dr. Flavio Falcone, which gives aid to this vulnerable population.
“The absence of help from the state–which I see as a major problem–has been offset somewhat by the presence of several organizations, linked mainly to Pentecostal and Neopentecostal churches. Among them are Instituto Sonhe, Projeto Ação Retorno, and Projetocracolandia. In addition to basic needs, they offer the possibility of admission into clinics for those who want to start a journey of drug rehabilitation.
“Amid the pandemic, I believe solidarity in the community increased. Some organizations distributed words of comfort and donated food and blankets. To the residents of the tenements, help came in the form of baskets to cover basic needs. Despite everything, Cracolândia is not a hopeless place.”
All images © Luca Meola