At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Stephanie Foden shares a collection of images from Brazilian state of Bahia.
The first time I told someone I was traveling to Salvador, I was discouraged from going. I was heading south along the coast when a Brazilian woman I had befriended at a pousada (a guesthouse) explained how bad the crime was, and how I was bound to get robbed.
Despite her warning, I still went.
As a naïve 22-year-old solo backpacker, I wasn’t the type to change my plans based on one person’s advice. From what I had read about the region, it was vibrant and unlike any other part of Brazil. But when I arrived at my hostel in Pelourinho, Salvador’s candy-colored historic center and a UNESCO World Heritage site, I continued to hear warnings that the city was unsafe.
Typically, when I travel to a new place, I try to explore all the nooks and crannies. I wander down alleyways and like to get lost before finding my way back. This time it was different. I felt timid and unsure of where to go. Certain streets, I’d been warned, were no-go areas. I couldn’t relax or take in the city.
The next day I met a quirky Brazilian with a deep passion for the state of Bahia and the rest of northeast Brazil. It was refreshing to hear about his version of Salvador. We became fast friends, and he turned into my guide, showing me all over the city. It was beautiful to see the place through his eyes.
I fell in love with Salvador. I fell hard — so much so that, before I knew it, months had passed, then years. Salvador became my home for nearly half a decade.
I always wanted to share the version of the city I came to know and love with others — the version described by the famed Baiano writer Jorge Amado: “The city of Bahia, Black and religious, is almost as mysterious as the green sea.”
Photographing here has always been a joy: The colors are plentiful, the light is sparkling and the people — they’re everything. Even in a country as culturally unique as Brazil, the state of Bahia still stands out to me like no other. There are sounds, smells, foods and music distinct to this region. At almost any time, you can hear drumming in the streets, smell the aroma of moqueca (a fish stew made with coconut-milk) or come across a group of capoeiristas (dancers of the Afro-Brazilian martial art).
Salvador’s culture stems from its African influences: about 80 percent of the city’s population is of African descent, according to figures from the 2010 census.
The city was once one of the largest slave-trade ports in the Americas. For more than 300 years, beginning in the 1500s, around 4.9 million enslaved Africans were transported to Brazil, according to data from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Around 1.5 million were brought to Bahia alone. By comparison, around 389,000 enslaved Africans were taken to mainland North America during the same period.
Brazil was also the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. Now, despite centuries of repression, brutal treatment and collective trauma, African culture thrives in Salvador, finding expression in the city’s Afro-Brazilian musical, culinary, artistic and literary traditions.
Salvador faces many challenges. The state of Bahia is one of the least formally educated states in Brazil. It’s also impoverished, battling some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. And, in recent years, economic inequality has exacted a heavy toll on the city.
Bahia has also stood out politically: It is one of 11 states, all grouped near the northeast of Brazil, that Jair M. Bolsonaro, the far-right president, did not win in the 2018 election.
I left Salvador in 2018, and it’s been difficult to watch from afar as the city struggles through the coronavirus pandemic. Still, no matter the region’s stereotypes — good or bad, terrifying or vibrant — Bahia, I suspect, will continue to defy logic and expectation, and I’m hopeful for its future.
Stephanie Foden is a documentary photographer based in Montreal. You can follow her work on Instagram.