I spent most of my flight to São Paulo listening to a man who looked like Matt Damon explain the spiritual healing qualities of ayahuasca.
"When you're in it, your third eye opens, you start to wonder why you need to work a 9-5 job," he said. "Most people never ask those kinds of questions."
I didn't ask about ayahuasca. I didn't ask for any of this. But I listened. He explained that he had quit his job, uprooted his whole life, to move to a place called Alto Paraiso to learn to become a shaman. He scrolled through pictures of idyllic tropical landscapes on his phone. Waterfalls. Clear water. He said it all made him nervous. He wondered if he made the right move. His wife sat next to him, saying nothing for the whole flight. She also, was abandoning her life to help a Matt Damon lookalike achieve enlightenment in Brazil.
"Why am I so anxious?" he said. He hadn't touched his meal, said that he couldn't keep any food down. "I have paradise waiting for me, but all I can do is worry."
"That's the human condition, isn't it?" I offered. "We don't feel like we deserve paradise."
I watched the sun rise over the Amazon Rainforest. Vast swaths of the foliage had turned to angular patches of scorched brown and red earth, divided neatly into cutting zones. Beauty remained even among the forest's wounds. Before he went to sleep, Matt Damon Man expressed how crazy it was that we were flying over the dark forest.
"Think about it, man. There's like, tigers and jaguars and shit down below us. Anacondas, or something. I dunno."
When I saw the forest, all chopped and screwed down there, all I could think of were birds, frogs, orangutans. Animals that watched as we carried their homes away to make office supplies.
Man stakes his claim.
Matt Damon, Shaman Pupil, and I, never shared parting words. I watched him go through customs hand in hand with his wife, off into the unknown.
One of the first things I noticed about São Paulo was the graffiti. Where Bay Area tags appear to be done in one, fluid motion, here everything is angular, almost runic. It's a style that's known as pixo, it's practitioners, pixadores. Among the writing, there are the workings of many talented artists, to the degree where it's impossible to discern between graffiti and commissioned murals.
I talked to paulistano photographer Pedro Mirandolla about life in South America's most populous city, it's vibrant graffiti scene, and places where its natural and urban environments blend together.
How long have you lived in São Paulo?
Pedro Mirandolla: I was born in São Paulo. I've never been outside of Brazil, but I've always wanted to explore urban settings in other countries.
How do you go about scouting the locations?
PM: There are many places that have always interested me since I was a child, passing by the car with my parents. Most of these I discovered as an adult, walking the streets, hoping to find something different, or a spontaneous scene. But Sao Paulo is very large has many parts that I have not trodden.
I'm curious about your photo "Posto Abandonado." How did you find yourself there?
PM: I was walking with some friends who do grafitti. They finished writing on the wall and we entered the station.
Do you make grafitti? Or just your friends?
PM: I don't make grafitti. I've tried a few letters on paper but not much else.
Are those your friends in the piece "ESCOR / DIUM" ?
I like that photo, because it seems like people are very relaxed around what's going on. They're just riding by on their bikes.
PM: Yes, most people are appreciative. Some people don't like it.
Any memorable experiences with passers-by? Any bad ones, with the police or anyone?
PM: Yes, some people like to watch, especially children. I've never had any problems with the police in such cases. Only when we are entering abandoned buildings. Even then, nothing serious. They just ask us to leave. We always make sure to enter with great caution.
What do you find attractive about abandoned places?
PM: A lot of people will see a tall building abandoned, covered with grafitti, or pixo, and ignore it, or just walk by. For me it's an attractive scene. A slouched building with nature taking it's place, in the midst of such a great metropolis as Sao Paulo. Some are abandoned before they're even finished. My taste for abandonment may come from my love of science fiction films.
A lot of photographers and graffiteiros have this in common, we all seek abandoned spaces. I go a lot, and not always with the same group of people.
One of your photo series I find fascinating involves an abandoned school. What's the story there?
PM: Yes, this is a space known by many artists of Sao Paulo. It draws the attention of many people. I've been there four times. The blackboards are all filled with graffiti, the auditorium is flooded, it looks like a scene from an apocalyptic movie, and that attracts me a lot.
But the best part has always been the terrace. It gives this feeling of peace and detachment from the noise and confusion of Sao Paulo. Not to mention the view.
You usually shoot in 35mm film. How did you choose that medium?
PM: My father always used to photograph us with film. Family photos, nothing professional. In addition to bringing me good memories, the colors of film are amazing. The atmosphere of the picture totally changes. 35mm photos are sacred.
It's nice not to see the picture as you take it. Instead you get this anxiety about how it's going to turn out. I like the feeling of waiting to see how the film is going to turn out.
It's funny. We think of ourselves in the city as being separated from nature. Do you think we're crazy, or delusional, for thinking this way?
PM: I think it's very important to maintain green areas in cities. It's ignorance that leads us to kill what keeps us alive. We need the environment to survive the heavy air pollution in our cities. We have plenty of rainforest here in SP, but the city is trying to remove more and more of it.
Do you know why?
PM: I'm not sure. These things aren't reported frequently.
Thanks for talking with me.
PM: Yeah, thanks!
The forest stakes her claim.