Dwellings – An exhibition by Carlos Reyes Manzo

12 March 2015

Reflections from Roger Williamson on Carlos Reyes Manzo’s ‘Dwellings’ exhibition

For 50 years, Chilean photographer and poet Carlos Reyes Manzo has been criss-crossing the globe. This exhibition of nearly 60 photos, taken over the last 35 years of his career, tells the story of people worldwide who are uprooted and displaced. Called Dwellings it has found a temporary home at Birkbeck in the University of London, just near Euston Station. You may well know his pictures without knowing that they are his. Almost all of the pictures of the murdered Archbishop Romero of El Salvador are by him.

The exhibition depicts a world quite literally on the move – often on foot. The scenes in the photos cover Canada to Chile, Gaza to Uganda, India and Afghanistan to the Philippines.

I visited the exhibition twice – the first time was to attend the private view where the Chilean ambassador gave a generous accolade to the artist. This is a far cry from the time when he was one of those expelled under a decree personally signed by General Pinochet.

Responding to the speech by the Chilean ambassador, Reyes Manzo recalled coming to London and living on one of the worst housing estates in the capital. His own experience of the precariousness of human existence has led to a long-term empathy with those who are displaced.

How to respond?

On the second visit, I had much longer, on my own, to ponder the pictures and the stories behind them. I then had a challenging and heated discussion with the only other visitor in the gallery, who herself had Algerian family members, so was particularly interested in the Algerian pictures on display.

We agreed that the impact of the pictures cumulatively is overwhelming. However, we disagreed about the United Nations.

One panel at the exhibition quotes article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The text reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate to the health and well-being of himself and his family, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This statement prompts two observations – first, how far we are from this standard and second, the assumption very much of its time (the 1940s, when welfare state was an aspiration, not something to be disparaged) that households will be headed by a man. The pictures show that this is very often not true - particularly in these situations of extremity.

My discussant held the view that the statement is nonsense, because it is simply not observed. I argued that to give up these standards, signed up to by the governments of the world, is to leave the displaced even more defenceless.

It is a view energetically held by Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. Last year, she criticised the UK government’s housing policies including the bedroom tax, provoking predictable responses from the government. The exhibition includes shots of London, where the photographer has lived for half his life. On the day of my second visit, the Evening Standard cited Crisis figures that rough sleeping in the capital has increased by 37 per cent in a year and 79 per cent during the mandate of the current government. A poignant London image shows a man with one leg, crutches propped against the wall under a football pools poster: ‘Hop on to a winner’. The unattainable world of advertising is a mockery to those without the resources to cash in.

There is a deeply evocative picture of a homeless man and baby in the North-East of Brazil in Recife, cradle of liberation theology, a place associated with the name of Archbishop Helder Camara, the friend of the poor. It shows a well-lit shop window with a young father and baby temporarily camped outside. Inside, there is a full dining room suite just ready for use and a glamorous female mannequin. The electric light is for the barren advertising space, not to provide home comforts for the poor.

Two worlds in one. Homeless father and child in Recife, Brazil, 1990. Photo by Carols Reyes Manzo’s from his 2015 ‘Dwellings’ exhibition.

(Two worlds in one. Homeless father and child in Recife, Brazil, 1990)

In other pictures, weddings are prepared, death is present. The scenes  are urban and rural. The two worlds of rich and poor are captured in a shot of Mumbai. On one side of the water, a horse and the shacks of the poor – looking across to the skyline on business Mumbai, the globally connected city of capital.  A country of slums and skyscrapers, open defecation and mobile phones, as Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen make clear in An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. Yes, there has been rapid growth, but not much ‘trickles down’ to the slums or the remote rural regions.

Horses by the Seashore. Colaba, Mumbai, India 1994. Photo by Carlos Reyes Mandoz, from his 2015 'Dwellings' exhibition.

(Horses by the Seashore. Colaba, Mumbai, India 1994)

The exhibition also shows the ‘Third World in the First World’ – images of Roma in Romania and in Paris show that there is not much for them anywhere. One picture shows a ramshackle family home under a leaking sewage pipe – another, a mother and children on the wet streets of Paris.

Roma community living on the outskirts of Bacau.  A leaking sewage pipe runs over the houses affecting the families’ health. Bacau, Romania 2002. Photo by Carlos Reyes Mandez, from his 2015 Dwellings exhibition.

(Roma community living on the outskirts of Bacau.  A leaking sewage pipe runs over the houses affecting the families’ health. Bacau, Romania 2002)

A series of powerful images from the large informal settlement of Kamwokya, Uganda in 2002 include the picture of a woman dying of AIDS in a shack. The same day here belongings were moved out and another family moved in.

Kamwokya. One of the largest informal settlements. Uganda 2006  Photo by Carlos Reyes Mandoz from his 2015 Dwellings exhibition.

(Kamwokya. One of the largest informal settlements. Uganda 2006)

Africa is the continent which is in danger of proving to be the first to have ‘urbanization without industrialisation’ to use the term of Anna Tibaijuka, the former head of UN-Habitat. She stresses that the crisis of 2008 was a ‘housing and finance crisis’, a theme which radical geographer David Harvey analyses in his extensive writings – see for example his recent comments on ‘The Crisis of Planetary Urbanization’.

What makes the exhibition so powerful?

The range of contexts, from so many times and places, and the quality of the pictures is the strongest element. The dislocation, war, destruction of lives and homes and dreams – all in technically excellent and powerful black and white images – leaves indelible impressions. 

My discussion partner cited the social documentary tradition of Dorothea Lange and Paul Strand as a tradition which Reyes Manzo stands in. Freud said that the meaning of human life is ‘to work and to love’. I feel that Carlos is doing for loving – (home as the space where life and love and family can be protected) something similar to Sebastiao Salgado’s documentation of work. (It is worth noting that he began working in this social documentary style before Salgado.)

Carlos is not only a photographer, he is a poet with these images – the pictures are all carefully captioned to give the identity, time and place, locating the peoples struggle in the succession of days of life and death. The exhibition has a home until 20 March 2015. Then what? The question is even more poignant for those all over the world whose residence is temporary and precarious. 

Images by Carlos Reyes Manzo. 

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