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A Bittersweet Love Letter to Ipanema Beach

“I remember going to the beach as a child and feeling a sense of freedom,” Sandra Cattaneo Adorno, who grew up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s-60s, tells me. “The grown-ups were having a good time together, so they left us children to our adventures and mischiefs. The best part of the week was Sunday, when my mother packed a picnic and we went to the beach for the whole day. We had lots of fun, generally came back sunburned, but very happy.” 

Adorno would depart from Brazil in 1965, but memories of those mischief-filled Sundays at Ipanema followed her wherever she traveled. Eight years ago, at the age of sixty, she would become a photographer, and this newfound passion ultimately brought her back to the sparkling shores where she’d spent her childhood. Águas de Ouro, meaning “waters of gold,” out now from Radius Books, is her tribute to the beach and the people she’s encountered along the way. 

By the time Adorno fully reimmersed herself in the landscape, Ipanema had evolved. While it had formerly served as a fashionable playground for a select few, she discovered that everyone was now welcome to enjoy the beach. “‘Cariocas’ (people born in the state of Rio de Janeiro) coming from all parts of the town are now able to go to the once-exclusive southern beaches thanks to public transport,” she explains. “The people I photograph now are much more diverse, and they create an energy that is much more powerful and interesting than what I remembered as a child. There are many more people and lots more action.” 

Music and laughter have always been a part of life at the beach. “Ipanema can be quite chaotic and noisy,” Adorno says. “I think people behave in an informal, spontaneous way when they are near water, and I enjoy trying to capture that in my photographs.” These days, people come together at Ipanema for barbecues, and you can find surfers dotting the waves at almost any hour of the night and day. “The sound of the waves, though, muffles the noises in a pleasing monotone that always takes the front stage,” the artist says. 

“Unlike other beaches in Rio, which open onto the bay of Guanabara and whose sea is therefore calmer, Ipanema rests on the coast and is exposed to the open Atlantic ocean.” The waves can be unpredictable, and sometimes they get rough. Every day brings something new. “Ipanema is a place that always hides some secrets for me to discover,” Adorno confesses. 

Again and again, the photographer saw children at play in the sun and surf, many around the same age she was when she first explored the beach. The photographs in Águas de Ouro are gilded and resplendent, but in between its sun-dappled pages, you might also find traces of melancholy and heartache. “The saddest encounter I had was with a child who was very scared of everything,” she remembers. “He always looked down, as if he was afraid of interacting with people. 

“The other boys were making fun of him and asking me why I was taking the photo of such an ugly boy. I saw this boy had some scars on his face, but only later, when I edited my photos, did I realize that he had scars all over his body, and he most likely suffered from domestic abuse.” She felt herself caught in what felt like an impossible situation; had she gone to the authorities or confronted his family, she feared the situation would worsen and become more dangerous for him. 

When Adorno was a child, Sundays at Ipanema were a time of freedom and joy. As an adult, she recognizes that the beach often serves as a background for the full tapestry of human emotions, from sorrow to wonder. When she came across moments of pain, she didn’t close her eyes or look the other way. Instead, she took it all in, tasting the bitter with the sweet and turning her head to face the sunshine as it danced across the sand. “For many of the children living in the most deprived areas of the city, coming down to Ipanema feels like the realization of a dream,” she says now. “Maybe I see in their eyes the same curiosity I had as a child to discover the openness of the sea–and to dream about what lies behind it.”

All photos © Sandra Cattaneo Adorno, from Sandra Cattaneo Adorno: Aguás de Ouro (Radius Books).

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