Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story explores a seminal photo essay by pioneering African-American photojournalist Gordon Parks, and the extraordinary chain of events it prompted. Published in Life magazine in June 1961, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” profiled the da Silva family, living in a hillside favela near a wealthy enclave of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Focused on the eldest son, Flávio, a resourceful twelve-year-old suffering from crippling asthma, the story elicited thousands of letters and nearly $30,000 in donations from Life readers. In response, the magazine launched an extraordinary “rescue” effort—relocating the family to a new home, moving Flávio to a hospital in the United States, and administering funds to support rehabilitation of the favela. Meanwhile, in Brazil the picture story sparked great controversy in the press: the influential Brazilian magazine O Cruzeiro retaliated against Life’s coverage, sending photographer Henri Ballot to New York to highlight poverty in America. The Flávio Story provides an in-depth look at Parks’ most celebrated photo essay in the context of Cold War politics in the United States and Brazil, and at the inner workings and cultural force of the “Great American Magazine.”

“This exhibition tells the story of one of the most important, enduring, and deeply personal assignments that Gordon Parks ever undertook for Life,” says Paul Roth, Director of the Ryerson Image Centre and co-curator (with Amanda Maddox of the J. Paul Getty Museum) of The Flávio Story. “The extraordinary nature of this story speaks to the uneasy relationship in journalism between reporting and intervening in the lives of one’s subjects. The story of Flávio da Silva, its profound emotional impact and political repercussions, illustrates Parks’ rare ability to portray the lives of others with unusual intimacy and directness, in a way that resonates long past the time of the photographs’ publication.”

Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story is organized by the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, USA, in partnership with Instituto Moreira Salles, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York.

Main text

Gordon Parks carrying Zacarias, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961. Photograph by Jose Gallo. 


Flavio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio Feeds Zacarias, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Albia and Isabel, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio Amuses Smaller Brothers and Sisters, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio's Neighbor's Corpse, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

Flavio After Asthma Attack, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961


I hold a fierce grudge against poverty because I was so desperately poor when I was young. But accusing my past is hardly the answer. There is, I want to believe, a personal need to recognize the right of every man to live a reasonably decent life.


Parks' diary, p1

Flavio After Asthma Attack, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

During the time he spent with the da Silva family in the favela in 1961, Gordon Parks kept a detailed day-to-day report. Here are some excerpts from his diary as published in Life magazine in June 1961, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty”:

This morning I reached the shack at 7:30. Little Zacarias was crawling around naked in the filth outside. maria and the rest werwe swinging in a greasy hammock, stretched from one side of the room to the other. Flavio was cooking black beans and riece for lunch. The kids, at least, seemed glad to see me. I stepped back to get a shot of the others in the hammock and upset the pot of beans. This sent them all into hysterics. Flavio, who because of his asthma and weak lungs must satisfy his expresssion of mirth with a broad grin, enjoyed the luxury of real laughter until the strain brought on convulsive coughing. He was so weak from it that I had to hold him...

Flavio was daydreaming when I arrived today--looking out over the lake, and the great white buildings. Though he is 12 he has never been acrosss the small lake to downtown Rio. None of the kids has--not even to Rio's famous Copacabana Beach, which is onlt 10 mins from the bottom of their miserable world. I have promised Flavio to take him there. Maybe one trip outside will give him the added incentive to someday get out of this. I may create a longing impossible to fulfill, but I think it is worth the gamble. When he is dreaming like that he feels lonely. I stood with him. After a while, not knowing just how to express his feeling, he walked over and took my hands, rubbing his face against my arm over and over again...


Parks' diary, p2

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961

This was the day I had promised the trip to Copacabana Beach. When I arrived this morning at 7, Flavio and Mario were already waiting at the entrance to the favela, waiving and jumping excitedly. They had made no attempt tod ress up so the dirt from the day before still covered their bodies... As we drove through the valley of gleaming white buildings Mario's hand closed tightly about that of Flavio's and the two of them sat close together, wide-eyed and silent, in the center of the car seat--looking...

At first the two were afraid to move about on the wide, exposed serpentine walks and the expanse of sand beyond. They were just feeling bold enough to move off to the water when a jet liner roared over from behind the buildings. The boys ducked and cringed. After the din died away they joined hands and warily approached the water. The first time a wave broke against the beach they screamed and ran. But within minutes they were skipping joyfully and unafraid in the foamy surf...

I said goodbye to Flavio and the family today. "Gorduun, when do you come back?" he asked. "Oh, someday soon," I lied. Or was I lying? "You come back to favela to see Flavio, yes?" "Someday soon, Flavio," I said. Now I was telling myself that perhaps I could manage it in some way, even take him out of this place. 

To Denver

Untitled (Gordon Parks comforts Flavio da Silva at the airport), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961. Photograph by Paulo Muniz.

Life magazine published two follow up reports in the weeks that followed. In a Special Report in the July 7, 1961 issue, a small selection of the letters from the magazine's readers were published, many of which came with monetary donations. The full follow-up was published as the cover story two weeks later. "The Compassions of Americans Brings New Life for Flavio" (Life, July 21, 1961) shared the news that The Children's Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver had taken Flavio in as a free emergency case. Also, the donations enabled the da Silva family to move into a new home.

Parks himself returned to Brazil to escort Flavio to the United States. It was an emotional reunion as captured by photographer Paulo Muniz, whose image (left) was published with the caption: "Too much to bear. As the crowds press in on him at Rio airport, Flavio breaks down, huddles behind the protective arm of Photographer Parks. When the two good friends finally parted later in Denver, Parks wept."


Untitled, Denver, Colorado, 1961. Photograph by Carl Iwasaki.

Thanksgiving at the Gonçalves home. Flavio’s very first turkey dinner, Denver, Colorado, ca.1961. Photograph by José Gonçalves.

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1976

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1976

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1976

Untitled, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1999

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