RIO DE JANEIRO — In the first days of the new year, a photo from Rio’s traditional fireworks show on Copacabana Beach has spread like wildfire on Brazilian social networks — a shot of a little boy, alone, wading into the water, separated from the joyful crowd celebrating and taking pictures behind him. Arms crossed, he stares up wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the fireworks in the sky.

Despite the absence of any information about the child other than his age (9), the image Lucas Landau shot for Reuters news agency has sparked tens of thousands of shares and comments on social media, newspaper articles, blog posts, op-eds and a national debate about race, class and inequality.

To some, it’s just a photo of a young black boy entranced by the spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks; to others, it’s a symbol of hope for better days ahead after several turbulent years of political crisis and economic recession. Many think the image is emblematic of Brazil’s acute inequality, an interpretation that has prompted others to push back with questions about how black and mixed-race people are seen and stereotyped in Brazil, where they have traditionally been marginalized.

copacabana, 2018como a foto está sendo bem divulgada, acho válido contextualizar: eu estava a trabalho fotografando as...

Posted by Lucas Landau on Sunday, December 31, 2017

“The image itself is very well done, but what’s been most interesting is seeing everyone’s reactions and the polemic issue it’s become,” said Luiz Augusto Campos, a sociologist at Rio State University.

“A punch in the stomach,” said one Facebook user. “Maybe (I hope so) he’s making a wish that one day he’ll be able to fulfill,” another user guessed. “You’ve produced the photo of the year, magnificently and poetically portraying Brazil’s social exclusion,” another user told Landau, only to meet with criticism. “Why social exclusion? Is the boy poor? Or is it just pure racism?” someone else fired back.

Others on social networks echoed that sentiment, criticizing the tendency to associate black children with negative images. “Have you guys had enough with this social fetish? Stop stereotyping black children,” wrote one user. “If the boy were white, no one would see any kind of contrast or think he’s poor or a homeless kid,” said another.

“Seriously, we need to stop thinking that all black boys, and without shirts on, are abandoned, sad, alone and unhappy, contrasting with the happiness of others,” wrote Mayara Assunção, who’s part of a group that discusses maternity and the African Diaspora.

The photo and subsequent reaction prompted coverage in local papers. “The New Year’s Eve boy and the future of inequality,” read the title of a column in Brazil’s largest newspaper, the Folha de Sao Paulo.

Several Facebook accounts even likened the shot to the famous photo of a naked girl, screaming and running from a village during a napalm attack in the Vietnam War, which acted as a tipping point of U.S. public opinion and a call to protest.

Glenn Greenwald, a journalist well known for his role in the Edward Snowden saga and a Rio resident, also weighed in. “This photograph … has gone massively viral in Brazil. Nobody can explain exactly why, but it’s an incredibly stirring image," he tweeted.

Landau, a 28-year-old freelance photographer, spoke out on social media after the photo went viral. “This photograph opens margins for various interpretations; all of which are legitimate, in my view,” he wrote.

He said that he had not caught the boy’s name amid the noise at the beach, hearing him say only that he was 9, and that he prefers not to comment on the case until he contacts the boy and his family.

About half of Brazil’s population of 200 million identify as mixed-race/black, meaning the country has the second-largest black population on the planet, second only to Nigeria. But black and mixed-raced Brazilians are underrepresented in academia, politics and leadership roles. Less than 10 percent of Brazil's Congress is black, and just 18 percent of leadership roles are held by Afro-Brazilians.

But for Campos, the sociologist, the wide-ranging interpretations of the photo, as well as the explosive debate it generated, represents a changing tide for Afro-Brazilians.

“The fact that it’s become so problematic is a reflection of a complex transition in terms of race in Brazil,” he said, adding that 20 or 30 years ago, the photo would have stirred few or no concerns about whether  it reinforced negative stereotypes.

“The main interpretation is that the boy is black and therefore on the margins of society and a symbol of inequality and poverty, but this stereotype was called into question with this photo, which is a reflection of a changing society,” he explained, citing a growing black consciousness movement and increased racial quotas in universities.

“These changes are still relatively small in Brazil, but they have the long-term objective of dissociating the ideas of blackness and poverty,” Campos said.

Read more: