All photographs by Vincent Catala
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Hotel Nacional under renovation, Sao Conrado, in the early morning in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro.
All photographs by Vincent Catala

Dreams, Illusion, and Isolation in Rio de Janeiro

When photographer Vincent Catala had the chance to move from France to Rio de Janeiro, he leaped at the opportunity. “Like many people, I had the impression that I knew Rio de Janeiro before I had even lived there. Images and descriptions of it were so visual: the city and the beach; the dazzling light; all your senses are blown away,” he says.

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Arpoador beach, looking in the direction of Ipanema, in the south zone of Rio de Janeiro

It seemed like the perfect place for a photographer to make a home base. Catala had already made himself familiar with the city, having worked there off and on for a few years prior. In the past he had focused on individual stories—like the story of a prostitute named Jane, which inadvertently opened Catala’s eyes to the city and all it had to offer. Catala followed Jane at night, and gradually he began to see a different Rio than the one he first imagined.

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Street view along Avenida das Américas, in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro

“Three years later, my fascination is as strong as ever for Rio, but now I look at it more from within. The power of illusion that it radiates entices me more than its beauty,” he says.

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A real estate agent in his office in the north zone of Rio de Janeiro.

“From a geographical point of view, the city is difficult to quickly get a grip on,” Catala says. “Everyone pictures two classic images: on the one hand, the favelas, and on the other, districts with famous names bordered by a perfect coastline. The reality is very fragmented, as most of the inhabitants neither live in favelas nor in the wealthy districts. The area in between is huge: a long succession of residential areas, wastelands, and segments of highway.”

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Supermarket Extra along Avenida das Américas, Barra da Tijuca, in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro

Gradually Catala started to notice a not uncommon juxtaposition: isolation and metropolitan life.

“I found many people on their own in Rio. This solitude is sometimes, but not always, endured. In this city there is a very specific relationship with time, with a sense of slowness. It isn’t unusual therefore to encounter immobile, prostrate, and contemplative figures.”

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Two brothers on the football field of their condominium, Cidade de deus, in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro

As the project unfolded, he encountered many challenges that caused him to slow down or rethink his understanding of the city. “The climate is very humid in Rio, and the weather is changeable. I was surprised by the number of gray and overcast days. This tricky light, at least in color, became one of the themes of this work.”

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Downtown Rio at the end of the afternoon

Not only did Catala have to contend with fluctuating weather, he also needed to learn some street sense. “You need to know the ground rules in Rio,” he says. “Even as a foreigner fluent in Portuguese, there are places you cannot go alone. Furthermore the town is very spread out, and you can be stuck in traffic jams for two to four hours. You have to plan ahead.”

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A view of the Rocinha favela, in the south zone of Rio de Janeiro

Catala also works with large-format film, which in itself is a slow, meticulous process. “Getting the film and developing it is proving really complicated here. Traditional film is impossible to find in Brazil and laboratories are also closing.”

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Zona portuaria, downtown

Catala hopes to continue working on the project through the end of the year. Ultimately, he sees its meaning extending beyond a simple narrative of life in Rio.

“All of my photos tackle reality head-on, without any staging. They deal with solitude and seeking equilibrium, as could be the case for anyone living in a large town.”

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Copacabana during the World Cup in the south zone of Rio de Janeiro

View more of Vincent Catala’s work on his website. Catala is represented by Agence VU’.