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Favela life: ‘Jesus, Make-up and Football’

A great deal of media attention has been focused on the pacification efforts taking place in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Military police have been going into the slums and clearing out drug gangs ahead of the World Cup soccer tournament this summer. They’ve encountered some resistance, leading to violence in a few cases.

But photographer Frederik Buyckx didn’t want to focus his camera on that. He wanted to stay away from the conflict and take a closer look at the people who call the favelas home.

“I just want to show more of the daily life side of it,” said Buyckx, who lives in Belgium. “A lot of people go in there with the police. I, on purpose, didn’t want to go with the police. I just wanted to have a look from (the residents’) side.”

Buyckx became interested in the favelas when he visited Brazil one year during Carnival. He made plans to go back to the country and stay in the favelas for weeks at a time, which he did four times from February 2012 to February 2013.

It was initially meant to be for a school project, but the final product turned into an acclaimed photo series, “Jesus, Make-up and Football,” that is now a book.

The title reflects what Buyckx saw as three major themes of life in the favelas.

There’s the religious side of the culture, which is perhaps not surprising when you consider the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue that towers over Rio.

A few of Buyckx’s pictures highlight religious tattoos. One photo shows a large painting of Jesus on a playground.

“They also use it a lot in their language,” Buyckx said. “Like when you say ‘good night’ or when you go away, they would say something more like, ‘go with God,’ ‘be saved’ or something like that.

“There's also a lot of small churches in every narrow street. So you would just hang out and have a beer and you would hear the preacher preaching. ... And almost every door has a sticker saying something about God, like ‘Jesus is watching you’ or God makes it a safe place or ‘My family loves God.’ ”

The “Make-up” part of his book’s title references what Buyckx calls the “body culture” in the favelas: a commitment to beauty and looking your best.

“The guys are very muscled … and the girls, they start wearing makeup when they're 4 or 5 years old,” he said. “Even the guys go to the hairdresser every Friday and get their hair shaved in a new haircut. It was very, very obvious they focus a lot on their bodies.”

And then, of course, there is the football. Children play soccer in the streets and on tiny fields squeezed in what little open space there is in the crowded slums.

“I used to play with them as well. They were really good,” Buyckx said. “I played with the guys my age, and they would really get mad at me when I didn't play well. Even though they were my friends, they would be like ‘Aw, the Belgian guy sucks today!’ and yell at me. … They really get into it. They mean it when they play football.”

From the months he spent in the favelas, Buyckx’s takeaway was that despite their difficult circumstances — despite the poverty and the crime — most people there weren’t much different from him: They just want to have a beer and have fun and play football.

“They realize where they live, you know? They have television,” he said. “Only a few kilometers from them, it's Ipanema Beach, one of the most expensive places in the whole wide world. So they see the contrast and they know it's not the best place to live, in the favelas. But at the end, of course, they make the best out of it.”

- Kyle Almond, CNN