Twenty cents that shook a country
Ten years after the ‘June Days,’ when millions of people took to the streets of Brazil, right-wing and left-wing parties and political analysts of all shades are still trying to understand what those protesters wanted. Some blame them for the chaos that ensued in the country. Others blame the leaders who failed to handle such civil discontent. But everyone agrees that the month was historic. Photojournalist Gabriela Biló interprets that chaotic decade in a photobook featuring her images published in newspapers and social media.
By Miguel Vilela
On the night of June 6, 2013, around two thousand protesters took to the streets of São Paulo for the first time to protest against the annual increase in bus, train, and metro fares from 3 reais to 3.20 reais. Though small, the group had a clear agenda and marched with determination.
But as the protests continued, police brutality escalated. The number of street protesters skyrocketed, and the initial agenda became diluted. On June 20, over a million people took to the streets across Brazil in the most significant wave of demonstrations since at least the early 1990s, demanding all sorts of things: from the cancellation of the World Cup to be held in the country the following year, to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, who had just begun her second term.
Ten years later, those 20 cents of real appear as the trigger for a decade of political turmoil in retrospect. During that time, Brazil ousted its first female president. A former president was arrested months before an election in which he was favored to win. A far-right candidate narrowly survived a stabbing, was elected president, and then criminally mishandled the response to a pandemic. The incarcerated former president was released and selected for a third term. And finally, on January 8, 2023, a mob of radicalized individuals dressed in the Brazilian national football team’s jerseys and dissatisfied with the outcome of the latest election invaded and vandalized the palaces of the three branches of power in a failed attempted coup.
Photojournalist Gabriela Biló witnessed it all. First, as a street photographer in São Paulo, covering the entire June protest movement in the country’s largest city. Then, in the capital, Brasília, she moved to document the intricacies of power.
In the photobook ” A Verdade vos Libertará 2013-2023” (The Truth Will Set You Free 2013-2023), released in Brazil by Fósforo Publishing, Biló attempts to organize this chaos, this “damn bad trip we got ourselves into,” as the opening of the podcast Medo e Delírio em Brasília (Fear and Loathing in Brasília) always says, co-authored by Pedro Inoue. Without captions but with the help of newspaper headlines and collages, the book tells the story of this decade—a more polarized and radicalized country that seems destined to repeat its history.
One million Brazilians take to the streets in protest; one person dies. Photograph by Gabriela Biló, design by Pedro Inoue.
“Today, with so many tools and the agility we have with images and how they travel, photojournalism is much more than a simple record of the scene; it is an interpretation of the scene. Good photojournalism manages to capture, in a single image, an aesthetic and informative atmosphere. So, if you have those three things, it’s perfect.”
Impeachment/There will be no coup. Photographs by Gabriela Biló, design by Pedro Inoue.
Leaks, official documents, backstage gossip, and hidden sources heavily drive political journalism. How do you see the role or usefulness of photojournalism in this context?
I think the backstage process is delightful. It’s entertaining and amusing; only in a country like Brazil can you find such an excellent script. It may sound arrogant to talk about the role of a journalist, but I can speak about how I enjoy photographing, which is through discovery. My photos show how I understand that situation. So, whoever sees my photo is discovering alongside me what I think.
I believe that everyone who takes photographs tries to capture an atmosphere, not just the decisive moment. For it to be that decisive moment, there has to be a combination of factors. Therefore, I seek to photograph the atmosphere or what is happening in front of me and what I know is happening behind the scenes. I think this is a good way to inform. For example, the president is going to sign a document in Congress. Is it going well with Congress, or is it not going well? Is it a victory for the government or a defeat? My task is to photograph that.
What happens when he signs that document? What does it mean that he is signing that document? Signing the paper is just a record that he was there. And the role of photojournalism is not just to say “this existed” but to translate what it was and what it meant. Maybe it wasn’t like this in the past, but today, with so many tools and our agility with images and how they travel, photojournalism is much more than a simple scene record; it is an interpretation of the scene. Good photojournalism manages to capture, in a single image, an aesthetic and informative atmosphere. So, if you have those three things, it’s perfect.
“The mask is a faggot thing,” Bolsonaro said in front of visitors. “I’m not an undertaker.” Photograph by Gabriela Biló, design by Pedro Inoue.
Do you feel pressured by influential individuals, or do you think they try to manipulate you? How do you deal with that?
Personally, I can’t say that I feel pressured or that I feel intimidated. I am a worker, a foot soldier of the “fourth estate.” Only on two occasions have I been personally attacked, but that happened because I represented the press in those cases. Nobody would have chased me if I weren’t photographing for Folha or Estadão.
This tactic is going after journalists to discredit them and attack the press. It’s a classic behavior of any government, whether left or right. Everyone does it, some more aggressively than others, but everyone does it. When people attack me personally, I understand that it’s part of that movement to attack the press, not necessarily me personally. It’s more about what I represent.
Both photojournalism and institutional politics have historically been spaces dominated by men. Is it a challenge to be a female photojournalist in Brasília?
It’s a challenge not only in Brasília but anywhere in the world. And not just in journalism but in general. Being a woman is challenging, especially when a profession is male-dominated. Whenever I share my experiences, women in different professions tell me they experience the same thing. So, in reality, the problem is patriarchy and sexism in general.
In my experience as a journalist, you are more easily discredited and become an easier target. You are called arrogant, combative, or angry if someone tries to correct your work and you disagree. If I were a man, I would be considered decisive, assertive, and confident in myself and my work. But because I am a woman, I am labeled as arrogant.
Photographs by Gabriela Biló, design by Pedro Inoue.
These days, a guy came up to me to talk about one of my photos from June 2013, saying, “You only show violence. That’s how the mainstream media portrayed June 2013 and how they wanted you to see it.” But in June 2013, I was learning how to take photos. I had no connection to the mainstream media. I didn’t have that media-focused perspective. But this guy said that, and I told him, “Look, you’re wrong,” and he responded, “No, maybe you weren’t in the media, but there’s clear bias there.”
I barely knew how to adjust the camera’s shutter speed then. It was the first time I was out on the streets taking photos. I had never photographed at night and didn’t understand the mainstream media. But I can say that it was very violent. The protests in June 2013 had many injured people, two blinded individuals, and two deaths. That, to me, is violence. I was beaten by the police in 2013, so, of course, my photos reflect that. I was there in the midst of it. I told him, “I don’t know where you were if you were on Twitter bothering people, but if you think that June 2013 wasn’t violent, clearly you weren’t there.”
Now I have to listen to a guy who popped out of nowhere on my page talking about my intentions when photographing ten years ago. It’s absurd, simply absurd. And then he said, “Wow, you’re playing the sexism card. Clearly, you don’t know how to take criticism; you’re being arrogant.”
As for your work and your energy, how much do you invest in social media, and how do you use it to change the world, as you mentioned before?
It’s not much. My energy is primarily focused on photography, and social media is part of that. I use social media to share what I’ve learned because withholding knowledge won’t make me better than anyone else, nor will it make anyone better than me. I firmly believe in the democratization of information. Many people say that photojournalism is dying, but I think it will only survive if there is representation because people will no longer identify with the images being produced. It will die due to a lack of connection. And the only way to achieve that identification is through representation.
White men predominantly carry out photojournalism. Therefore, the more women, transgender individuals, Black, Asian, and Indigenous individuals we have, the more it will be consumed and the stronger it will become. It’s a matter of survival to share these spaces and allow them to be occupied by people who don’t fit the current standards.
May we never forget. There is no way to forgive the unforgivable. Photography by Gabriela Biló, design by Pedro Inoue.
The book begins and ends with episodes of violence and vandalism, and it also has photos of Lula both at the beginning and the end. Are you saying that we’re returning to square one, that history repeats itself? Have you thought about that during the editing process?
The first photo is of Lula crying, and the last is of the justice statue being washed, so there’s communication there. The penultimate page shows the book’s title, “The Truth Will Set You Free,” with a photo of the Brazilian flag with people and Lula in an almost messianic pose below that. In other words, now we have a new messiah, right? I am against having politicians as pets, which is extremely dangerous for a country.
But this book also speaks a lot about polarity. It starts at one extreme and ends at another. It critiques this polarization and how having a new messiah is repeating mistakes because the new messiah is the same mistake we made before. So, despite having this redemption, this moment when we almost suffered a coup and were close to having a military dictatorship in Brazil, in three years, there will be elections again. And then what? Is history over now? It’s a critical ending about our mistakes that can lead to repeating history. It’s a temporary redemption.