What it’s like living in an abandoned building in one of the most-populous cities in the world

Last fall, The Washington Post partnered with Visura in an open call for submissions of photo essays. The Post selected five winners and three honorable mentions out of almost 300 submissions. We are presenting one of the honorable mentions today here on In Sight: Javier Alvarez and his work “Predio.”

Sao Paulo, Brazil, is one of the world’s most populous cities. The city is also the capital of Sao Paulo state, which in turn is the country’s most populous and wealthiest. Sao Paulo attracts a lot of visitors to enjoy its many monuments, parks, museums and galleries, and it also is home to some of the country’s largest skyscrapers. But like any large urban area, it has economic disparities that spur people to find ways to eke out a dignified existence — for instance, by inhabiting Sao Paulo’s many abandoned buildings.

Alvarez has always been drawn to big cities. In 2010, he visited Sao Paulo while attending a photo festival there, and during that time became drawn to the city and wanted to work on a project there, he says. Three years later, he returned to explore the city’s inhabitants squatting in the abandoned buildings. He ended up documenting life in one in particular, the “Marconi” building. Alvarez says that at the beginning of the project, “I literally knocked on the door and introduced myself because I wanted to know about the inhabitants and how they came to squat in these massive buildings in the middle of the city.”

The project was particularly poignant for Alvarez because, he said: “A couple of months before my first visit to Brazil, my own family was evicted from our apartment in Chile due to financial struggles. So when I saw that places like this exist in the middle of a city and people actually fight for this cause, I just wanted to learn and get in.”

So Alvarez ended up in the Marconi building, documenting the lives of 400 people squatting inside 13 stories of what had been an office building in downtown Sao Paulo. Alvarez immersed himself in the building’s life, saying, “During this process, I became part of the community while I was living there — for periods of six to eight weeks at a time, sometimes two are three times a year.”

What he found were nearly 400 people living as squatters, hoping for a dignified housing solution. It was a place where “the notion of home … becomes fleeting because of memories and expectations of a more stable future … a place where life stories share common experiences of nostalgia and loss.”

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