Brazil is believed to have one of the largest archives of photographs of slavery in the world. That's because slavery in Brazil ended so late there, and the last few decades of the practice coincided with the beginning of photography.
Many of the pictures have been unknown outside the country. One institution, theMoreira Salles Institute, opened up its photo library to me, and I wanted to see what these images tell us about what women experienced under slavery in Brazil — and what that can tell us about some of the challenges in the country today.
Curator Sergio Burgi says most of the images "are almost staged photographs, all of [the subjects] are completely conscious of the photographer."
ia dos Santos is a professor and an activist with the black women's rights group Criola. I showed her the images and asked her what she thought of them. She said it reminded her of a statistic she recently heard, that 1 in 5 black women are domestic workers in Brazil today.
"This social condition of inferiority ... is more than just because they are domestic workers, it's because they are black and because they are women," dos Santos says. During slavery, black men were deemed more valuable than black women, even though black women were a huge part of the slave economy.
She says you can still feel that hierarchy in Brazil today. She says there still needs to be a profound change in the country.
As for the pictures themselves, curator Sergio Burgi says we know a lot more about the white men who took the images — all famous Brazilian and foreign photographers of the era — than about their subjects. Burgi says many show enslaved women who were dressed up and shot in a studio for pictures that were then sold commercially.
"You are looking at individuals in a way, and that's [something] very powerful that only photography can bring you. But somehow it's also ambiguous, in the sense that it doesn't tell the whole story," he says.
History has forgotten these women's names, if it ever even knew them. But their legacy — that story — is still being told today.