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In June 1961, LIFE magazine published a story that, at the time, was astonishing not only for its unflinching coverage of abject poverty, but for the tender and fierce way that photographer Gordon Parks chronicled lives crushed and twisted beneath that poverty’s relentless pressure.
That the story focused on poverty in Latin America — and, through Parks’ lens, focused on poverty in one family in one favela, or shantytown, in Rio de Janeiro — added a global as well as a deeply human dimension to a story that few American publications of the era could have envisioned, much less pursued.
The story that ran in LIFE, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” was remarkable for a variety of reasons, not least of them Parks’ intimate portraits of the family of Jose and Nair da Silva and their eight children, ranging in age from 12 years to 17 months old. LIFE showed its readers a frightening, brutal world where the da Silva children — and, by implication, countless others like them — spent their days “penned in their shack [built of tin cans and broken orange crates] or roaming the foul pathways of the favela where the filth of the inhabitants is tossed out to rot.”
At the center of the story was the eldest da Silva son, 12-year-old Flavio; after his father was hurt and could not work, the burden of caring for the entire family landed on Flavio. His struggle to keep the family afloat, even while he himself was sick — and getting sicker — is tortuously clear in Park’s photos.
Here, LIFE.com republishes all of Park’s photos from “Freedom’s Fearful Foe,” while also offering a special appreciation of Parks by his friend, Barbara Baker Burrows (see below).
Parks himself was a remarkable, inspiring creative force — a man whose protean talents were neatly summed up in the indispensable book, The Great LIFE Photographers:
“The anguish which poverty inflicts,” LIFE observed in 1961, “is cruel and varied — statistics cannot convey its accumulated torments and degradations. But poverty always has a human face.” Throughout his life, Gordon Parks sought to put a human face on the grand currents of history, as well as on quieter, more intimate, and often more revelatory moments.
The Flavio story, in particular, always held a special resonance for Parks, as Barbara Baker Burrows explained to LIFE.com:
Barbara Baker Burrows (left, with Gordon Parks in 1997) has been associated with LIFE for more than 45 years, assigning and coordinating photography for major events from coverage of the Apollo space program to political conventions and the Olympics. Among the books she has edited are the New York Times best seller, One Nation, America Remembers September 11, 2001, photographic biographies (The American Journey of Barack Obama; Bob Dylan, Forever Young) and Titanic. Bobbi lives in Manhattan with her husband, Russell. They have two children, James and Sarah.