Documenting the marginalised Portuguese community fighting for livable housing

Documenting the marginalised Portuguese community fighting for livable housing
After a chance covid-era assignment sent him to Lisbon’s Bairro da Jamaica, photographer José Sarmeto Matos spent years documenting the families campaigning towards hospitable homes.

In June 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic reached one of its sharpest peaks, photographer José Sarmeto Matos received an assignment for Bloomberg.  He was tasked with photographing the community of the Bairro da Jamaica, a neighbourhood situated in the Seixal region of Lisbon, at the far reaches of the greater metropolitan area. It was a sensitive job and he originally had his doubts over whether to take it.

“The story was how much more the pandemic was affecting minorities, specifically in the context of housing,” Matos recalls. “When I got the job I was not sure about going because there’s a portrait in the media of underprivileged communities – who suffer from racism and housing inequality – that can usually be negative.”

With about 700 inhabitants – predominantly made up of migrants from former Portuguese colonies Angola, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé – the Bairro da Jamaica was a housing complex and community who lived in abandoned, unfinished buildings from the 1970s, and makeshift structures extended onto them. Historically, the area was known mostly to outsiders for stories of crime, but at that moment the dominant narratives tended to focus on new cases of COVID-19 appearing in the community, with most living in unsanitary conditions and unable to work from home and isolate.

He had originally planned to take pictures for three hours, but after visiting the neighbourhood and meeting people who lived there, he realised the external perceptions were far from reality, and that he needed to challenge them. “The assignment became a much bigger story – it opened a lot of doors and I found them super welcoming,” he says. “I thought that maybe I would like to continue something with them, because I thought the way these people are portrayed usually was not in-depth – it is always about one big headline like a police raid, and it makes [cycles of] criminalisation and marginalisation repeat.”

Choosing to return, it led Matos to make his 2021 documentary and now newly self-published photobook JAMAIKA, which documents the community’s fight and campaign for a decent standard of housing, within the context of a pandemic, tough economic conditions and a background of racism. Taken over threee years, he gained intimate access while striking up close friendships with people in the community.

The book highlights the tough conditions that the people of the Bairro da Jamaica lived in. Families were often cramped into small rooms, with many surrounded by mouldy walls and dangerous wiring. But having been invited into people’s homes, and getting to spend extended periods of time with his sitters, Matos’s pictures highlight the human stories of the community – families sharing food in their makeshift dining spaces, friends dancing in living rooms together, and children playing excitedly with their toys.

One picture captures a mother helping her son do his homework on the bed, while at the opposite end her daughter lies under the duvet, her face lit by a phone screen. “For those three, their bed is their sofa, [which] is their dining table and where the study place is and playing space is,” Matos says. “That moment was remarkable because if they looked at me and reacted that moment was gone.”

Despite the hardships faced by those living in the community, the conclusion of JAMAIKA, and the story of its namesake neighbourhood, is a rare happy ending. After the community campaigned for years for acceptable accommodation, in 2022 they were relocated to a nearby, improved housing project by the local authorities. Side by side with many of his shots in the Bairro da Jamaica, are the same families entering their new homes for the first time, with all their joy captured in the pictures.

“As soon as I heard the community was about to finish, I [went] to continue the project, knowing that the end was about to happen. I wanted to [document] the memory of not just the community and 30 years of history, but also what comes next. That’s why I actively kept going to the community.

“I think we live in a society of dividing things into good and bad, and we live in a binary code – there’s no in between and there’s no thought process of understanding why,” Matos continues. “When I went there I tried to go with [fewer] ideas conceived, and also to create relationships with people. I am a storyteller, but I am also a human being, I’m a person, I’m there to listen and engage.”

JAMAIKA by José Sarmeto Matos is available to purchase from his website

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