Like many great creations, Giles Price’s body of photographs documenting Olympic construction sites was the result of an accident, in this case a particularly gruesome one.
After leaving school at 16, in 1990 Price joined the Royal Marines to serve in northern Iraq and Kurdistan during the first Gulf war. It could have been the beginning of a long career in the military but four years later he fell ill after ingesting phosphate — a weapons’ component that damaged his intestines so severely he was forced into early retirement.
“How and where it happened I still don’t know,” says Price, now 43, looking out on to Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach, where workers are rushing to erect the volleyball arena ahead of the 2016 Olympics. “We were operating in villages that were completely flattened by Saddam [Hussein], so maybe I touched something there or it was dust brought in by one of the helicopters.”
With the amateur snaps he had taken on the battlefield, he applied to study photography at the University of Derby and went on to work as a commercial and documentary photographer. Those early images from Iraq are now held by the Imperial War Museum in London.
His experience of war has continued to inform his photography, particularly his depiction of the building work in the lead-up to the London Olympics in 2012 and to this summer’s Olympics in Rio. Hanging out of helicopters as he did in the Middle East, Price has spent almost seven years capturing aerial shots of Olympic arenas and other related mega-projects at various stages of completion.
His photographs are striking standalone abstract compositions that supply revealing evidence of the construction process. But they are also records of humanity in extreme circumstances — testament to the Herculean efforts of the workers below as they battle not against the enemy but against the punishing physical environment.
“I wanted to create a legacy for the construction workers who felt like a forgotten army,” says Price, referring to his London series. “They spent seven years building the largest single development in the UK in 150 years and then, when the Olympics came along, everyone was focused on the athletes and celebrities.”
He set off for Brazil in 2014, intending to repeat the project in Rio. However, the realities that he encountered in South America’s first Olympics’ host city — corruption, inequality, broken promises and environmental destruction — instantly added a political dimension to his work, he says.
Initially the idea of taking aerial photos of the construction sites had come from necessity: gaining ground access was near impossible in London, as it proved to be in Rio. In Rio, however, aerial photography became a powerful tool to provide viewers with unfettered access to controversial sites, the details of which were not always readily available — an antidote to the “no comment” and half-truths peddled by the various authorities and companies in charge.
Flicking through the photos on his phone at the beachside café in Copacabana, Price stops at a bird’s-eye view of Rio’s new golf course. According to the authorities, the development is a historic achievement for the city and the sport — it will host the Olympics’ first golf tournament since 1904. But Price’s image shows the project for what it is: a golf course built in the middle of the city’s Marapendi nature reserve, largely to the benefit of a nearby luxury apartment complex.
Similarly, a shot over the Olympic Park clearly documents the removal of Vila Autódromo — a favela, or slum neighbourhood, that was largely demolished to make way for the Games in spite of desperate protests by its residents. Another shot shows a small oil spill in one of the city’s inlets that is invisible from the shore. The promised clean-up of Rio’s Guanabara Bay, where the Olympic sailing competition is due to be held, never happened.
Price has given his Brazilian series the title Morar Olimpíadas (roughly translated asLive the Olympics) — a play on the name of an Olympics favela upgrade programme that is also yet to materialise. While he also documents more positive elements of Rio’s preparations, such as the removal of a large motorway that once ripped through the city’s historic centre, the overall impression is unsettling.
For Rio, Brazil’s former capital, the Olympics were meant to be its 21st-century moment of glory, but over the past couple of years the city has been bombarded by one crisis after another. First came the country’s far-reaching corruption scandalsurrounding the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Then came the country’s deepest and longest recession in history, and then the global health emergency over the mosquito-borne Zika virus that has been linked to horrific birth defects.
In April, part of a cycle lane built for the Olympics collapsed into the sea, killing two men. Last month, Brazil’s tourism minister resigned over graft allegations, a day before Rio declared itself to be in a state of financial emergency as its hospitals ran out of even the most basic supplies. Over the following two weeks, an Australian gold medal-winning Paralympian, Liesl Tesch, was robbed at gunpoint in Rio; mutilated body parts washed up on Copacabana beach next to the Olympic volleyball arena; and, in a particularly bizarre incident, soldiers shot dead their own Olympics mascot, a pet jaguar, in northern Brazil. Eleven workers have died so far during construction work for the Games. In a fitting finale to the list of calamities, Brazil’s suspended president Dilma Rousseff is expected to be formally impeached around the time of the closing ceremony.
However, sipping on a freshly squeezed lemon juice in the sunshine earlier this month, metres away from where the body parts were found on Rio’s most famous beach, Price is typical of most foreign visitors to the city: he loves the place. “Rio is stunning,” he enthuses, “one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.”
When he was planning his first trip, Rio had begun to sound like a warzone — insurance companies charged him exorbitant rates on his equipment because of the city’s high crime rate, while friends and family warned him of various other deadly threats. But the only real difficulty he has encountered since his arrival, he says, is Brazilians’ general inability to speak much English.
As with the football fans who came to Rio for the 2014 World Cup, which was also hampered by protests and scandal, visitors to the Olympics will most likely return home tanned, hung over and thoroughly entertained. Perhaps the Games will even be heralded as the best Olympics ever, just as the World Cup was. Barring any major catastrophe such as a terrorist attack, Brazilians will probably congratulate themselves on delivering a great spectacle and move on.
Price, however, hopes that his aerial photographs will have a more lasting significance: as a witness to the money, homes and lives that were handed over to construct an event that, in the words of the International Olympic Committee, showcases the “best of the human spirit”.
Samantha Pearson is the FT’s Brazil correspondent.
‘Morar Olimpíadas, Rio 2016, Landscapes of transition and partition’, by Giles Price, with an introduction by Jules Boykoff, is published by See Studio, £30. For more details: gilesprice.com