João Roberto Ripper Barbosa Cordeiro

Fellow Ashoka
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
This description of João Roberto Ripper Barbosa Cordeiro's work was prepared when João Roberto Ripper Barbosa Cordeiro was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


João Ripper, a photojournalist, is the author of over 25,000 photographs of the life and work of the Brazilian laborer. He is now creating the Brazilian Laborer's Documentation Center, which will not only act as an archive of visual documentation but will produce dossiers for syndicates, the press and NGO's on matters concerning the Brazilian worker and human rights in general.

A nova ideia

Photojournalist João Ripper treasures the small victories in his seven-year effort to document the lives of Brazilian workers. He recalls, for example, feeling especially gratified when Amazon squatters invited him to photograph their harvest and when big-city news photographers asked to "come breathe the air" of the studio archive and see workers in a fresh way."As our work here gains recognition, people begin to see the laborer as a person, not as a brute who goes on strike. We manage to capture what's beautiful in worker's movements," Ripper says.The Center for Documentation and Images of the Worker has an archive of more than 20,000 photographs of laborers and workers in Brazil. Its five main associates and numerous collaborators, who include photographers and historians, are expanding the unique archive and making it available to such "clients" as labor and human rights organizations and their publications. Amnesty International has used photos from the Center's archive in denouncing torture and murder of rural workers in Brazil.The Center's photos, slides and accompanying records portray the lives and struggles of Brazilian laborers throughout this century but principally during the past ten years as labor organizations grew, challenged military rule, demanded democracy and gained political strength. Unions furnish written or taped materials to enhance the Center's visual archive.Besides its primary function of documentation, Ripper says he perceives that the Center increasingly serves an educational function as well.Early this year, (1990) he and co-workers traveled in the United States presenting lectures, slides and a photo exhibition on rural workers in Brazil, all to benefit Amazon rubber tappers."Our intention was to try to show that the deforestation, the murders (of rural workers and activists) and the foreign debt are intimately connected," Ripper explains. "The idea was to show Americans a human side to ecological themes, to tell them it's nice to support ecology in Brazil, but before you defend the forest you have to defend the lives of the forest people."Within Brazil, the Center's growing educational function is to encourage the national media to photograph and report about workers with greater sensitivity."Life in Brazil gets very little space in the press," Ripper says. "Even though our work is a grain of sand in the history of the Brazilian worker, it is helping change that history."

O problema

There are few image banks in Brazil and none that deal with topics involving the life and interests of the Brazilian rural and urban laborer. Most organizations that work in this field have documentation centers, however, these documentation centers rarely have the financial or professional resources to function at utmost potential. Publications put out by these organizations usually are needy of materials which will "catch the interested eye" of those beyond the immediate public these publications address.

As in most modern societies, the visual image in Brazil is an important source of information and of identity. The images produced and dispersed by communications systems -- television, newspapers, magazines -- usually provide the population with information on national problems and issues.

In Brazil, the highly sophisticated telecommunications system is particularly influential because of its nationwide penetration -- few institutions and/or systems are linked to the number of municipalities television is.

Due to television's commercial make-up (there is only one public television channel in Brazil and it has a very limited audience), programs, as well as the focus of information, are oriented to that sector of the population towards which its sponsor's products are geared: the urban middle class.

Consequently, an important source of information offers little representation of the economic, social, racial and cultural diversity of Brazil. Often this results in a general misunderstanding of the social and economic issues of the country.

A estratégia

Visual material on the Brazilian worker is basically filed by region and type of work. Within those files, however, you find subjects as wide-ranging as workers' leisure and family lives to damning photos exposing rural slave labor and clandestine charcoal plants in the Amazon. Ripper says the visual denunciations of abuse, violence and destruction are sometimes pivotal in halting such practices.

The file grows as collaborators contribute historic photos and, mainly, as photographers throughout Brazil accompany labor themes -- railworker's struggles against layoffs and privatization, for example, or women textile workers. Ripper finds workers respond eagerly to having their lives and labor documented and thus valued.

"Workers who repair train tracks so there are no problems in mass transit asked us to photograph their work," Ripper recalls. "It's very physical labor, and we were able to portray the sensuality of it. They appreciated our interest. You're someone from the outside, and they're surprised to see you're thinking all day about their work."

Ripper and associates in Rio use the Center's darkroom for processing black-and-white film and send out color film for processing. Archives are stored partly in the Center and partly at another location in Rio.

The Center is becoming a clearinghouse, as well, for taped and written information from its "clients". Ripper envisioned from the beginning this two-way exchange to involve workers in enriching their own identity within Brazilian society. He foresaw the Center as a tool to help strengthen and transform labor in Brazil.

He didn't foresee that the Center also could become "a school," as he puts it, for photographers open to seeing work -- their own and others -- in new ways. Mainstream media photographers and journalists often must bend their vision, Ripper says, to accommodate their employer's target audience or readership, the small urban middle class, rather than reflect the reality of the great majority.

"We explore the engagement of the photographer in society, while making it clear that our engagement doesn't affect esthetics, doesn't impede creativity," Ripper says.

A pessoa

Although Ripper began organizing the Center seven years ago, his dedication to photojournalism of the Brazilian worker began in the 1970s. He has worked on the staffs of national newspapers and actively promoted photojournalism as a professional category, enabling photojournalists to establish minimum prices and reserve rights for their work. Ripper now works freelance for unions, organizations, newspapers and magazines in addition to coordinating the Center.