Did you know that Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in the Americas?  In 1882, when photographer Marc Ferrez took his photograph Slaves at a Coffee Yard in a Farm, Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, Brazil was divided between those advocating for the abolition of slavery and those who sought to maintain this inhumane and brutal system of production. Ferrez’s photograph shows enslaved laborers in the Paraíba Valley coffee industry, yet his photograph does not denounce slavery. Rather, it conceals slavery’s violence through visual strategies that help maintain racist social hierarchies.
A panoramic view of enslaved labor
Slaves at a Coffee Yard in a Farm, Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo is part of a larger series of photographs that Ferrez took between 1882 and 1885. The 65 images that form the series were commissioned by the Center of Agriculture and Commerce (Centro da Lavoura e do Comércio, or CLC) in 1881. The photographs privilege panoramic views that convey a sense of harmony and order. The photographer looks from afar and does not face the sitters directly. This distances the subjects of the picture from the viewer, conveying a sense of control over those who are depicted in the photograph.
In this photograph, a sense of order is implied by the geometries of the composition. Angular slopes of hills echo the diagonal lines of workers in the foreground. Enslaved men and women form a grid while they carry baskets or raking coffee beans in the coffee-drying yard.
In the lower left corner, Ferrez captured the overseer (in a black jacket), who directs the workers. They obey his orders. The entire composition appears perfectly constructed, with basket-carrying enslaved women facing the camera.
Some scholars have even suggested that it is a mise-en-scène (staged image) and point out that the enslaved workers’ crisp, clean white clothing contrasts with the manual labor they are forced to do.  The clothing they wore for Ferrez’s photograph perhaps was not their everyday work clothing, but their “Sunday’s best.” In the background, we see small children running as if playing and having fun. This type of scene was intended to give the sense of harmonious family life and helped minimize the perception that the enslaved workers were treated badly, even though their bare feet were still visible and they had to provide care for their families while at work (as seen in the woman holding a small child with her hands in the background).
In the middle-ground, Ferrez captures plantation architecture that fuses harmoniously with the mountain landscape in the background. This is no coincidence. Ferrez was recognized as a dedicated and skilled Brazilian landscape photographer (see examples below). The intentional incorporation of landscape into his photographs (including this one) conveys a sense of harmony between nature and a civilized society. In this sense, photography played a role in maintaining the slave-owners’ power which was not only physically and symbolically conveyed, but also disseminated through visual aids such as this picture. Ferrez represents coffee plantations as a prevailing, orderly, and natural system of production. He furthers the point of view that enslaved labor was critical for Brazil’s economic success. Slaves at a Coffee Yard highlights the tensions and contradictions between the brutal and inhumane slavery system and Brazil’s economic development that was based on slave labor.
Slavery, coffee, and photography
Historians calculate that around 4 million Africans were kidnapped in their native countries and forcibly transported to Brazil beginning in the 16th century.  The magnitude of the slave trade in Brazil had no comparison in the Americas.  Brazil’s state and economy were built upon the labor of millions of enslaved Africans and their descendants. At the time Ferrez took Slaves at a Coffee Yard in a Farm, Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, strong abolitionist campaigns, international pressures, and the accounts of escaped enslaved workers challenged the repressive system of enslavement. And yet, in the 1880s, the Paraíba Valley had the highest concentration of enslaved people in Brazil. 
Simultaneously, the coffee industry expanded and consolidated the Empire of Brazil. Coffee became one of its main exports. This industry particularly grew in the 1840s, and the Paraíba Valley became one of the most important coffee plantation regions. The development of this industry not only promoted slave labor, but also depended on it.
Ferrez’s photographs do not question the slavery system. Rather they present a complete absence of violence. The commissioning of these photographs by the CLC was a propagandistic effort aimed at increasing Brazil’s coffee exports. The pictures were first shown at international Universal Exhibitions, then circulated in several formats, including postcards and magic lantern shows targeted to both local and international audiences. According to historian Mariana de Aguiar Ferreira Muaze, some of these images were shown at an exhibition in Beauvais, France, in 1885, but they also circulated as souvenir pictures for collectors and curious people.  Ultimately, the photographs helped the CLC promote the slaved-based coffee industry (pictured here as harmonious and violence-free labor) at a moment when slavery was being questioned extensively.
The CLC’s selection of Marc Ferrez as the photographer was intentional. Born in Brazil in 1843 to French parents, Ferrez became Brazil’s most well-known photographer. He studied in Paris and returned to Brazil around 1863. Ferrez established himself as a successful urban landscape photographer and opened his own studio in 1865 in Rio de Janeiro. Emperor Dom Pedro II became a personal benefactor of Ferrez’s photography.  After a fire destroyed his studio eight years later, Ferrez began photographing rural landscapes, including plantations, using a panoramic camera. He also joined several government projects, such as the expedition of the Brazilian Geological Commission, which photographed the railway’s construction between 1880 and 1890. Ferrez documented the rapid development of urban spaces, the exuberance of Brazil’s natural scenery and resources, and its rapid modernization, from a pro-government point of view.
Returning the gaze
Ferrez intentionally concealed the brutal and inhumane conditions of slavery, and took advantage of panoramic views and full depth of field to create visually harmonious compositions devoid of social conflict. His photographs took advantage of the horizontal format and presented his subjects in sharp focus. However, the subjects Ferrez photographed found a way to resist the photographer’s visual construction by defiantly gazing back at the camera. This daring act humanizes their tragic histories and dares us to consider their plights. In this sense, one could argue that although Slaves at a Coffee Yard in a Farm, Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo downplays the brutal treatment of enslaved peoples, it also acts as a testimony to both its reality and tragedy.
 Brazil would not abolish slavery until May 13, 1888. It was the last country in the Western world to do so. The Brazilian Report, “Slavery in Brazil,” Wilson Center (May 13, 2020). Accessed Sept. 16, 2021.
 Ynaê Santos Lopes, “Marc Ferrez: Território e Imagem,” Instituto Moreilla Salles, Accessed October 4, 2021.
 Herbert Klein and Francisco Vidal Luna, Slavery in Brazil (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 14.
 While slavery was introduced to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas in the 16th century, this brutal institution was established in what would later become the U.S. approximately a century later. Brazil’s slavery system was the most long-lasting in the Americas. In the 17th century, Northeastern Brazil became the principal destination of the slave trade, largely due to the sugar cane plantations and sugar production demanded by Europeans. Although there were more enslaved individuals in Mexico and Peru by the end of the 16th century, thereafter Brazil became the leading African slave importer in the New World, a position it would maintain for 250 years. For more information on comparative histories of slavery in the Americas see: Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
 For more information: Rafael de Bivar Marquese, “African Diaspora, Slavery, and the Paraiba Valley Coffee Plantation Landscape: Nineteenth-Century Brazil,” Review 31, no. 2 (2008): pp. 195–216. The concentration of enslaved persons in the Paraíba Valley was particularly striking when compared to other parts of the Americas. While Cuban coffee plantations had an average of 40 enslaved workers per estate, the numbers in the Paraíba Valley rose to 80 or 100, and many had even 200 or 400 enslaved people working in a single estate. See Marta Macedo, “Coffee on the Move: Technology, Labour and Race in the Making of a Transatlantic Plantation System,” Mobilities 16, no. 2 (2021): pp. 262–272.
 Mariana de Aguiar Ferreira Muaze, “Violence Appeased: Slavery and Coffee Raising in the Photography of Marc Ferrez (1882–1885),” Revista Brasileira de Historia 37, no. 74 (January-April 2017), pp. 9–10.
 “Marc Ferrez,” The J. Paul Getty Museum. Accessed Sept. 16, 2021.
Natalia Brizuela, Fotografia e Império. Paisagens para um Brasil moderno (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras / Instituto Moreira Salle, 2012).
Mariana de Aguiar Ferreira Muaze, “Violence Appeased: Slavery and Coffee Raising in the Photography of Marc Ferrez (1882-1885),” Revista Brasileira de Historia 37, no. 74 (January-April 2017): pp. 1–30.
Rafael de Bivar Marquese, “African Diaspora, Slavery, and the Paraiba Valley Coffee Plantation Landscape: Nineteenth-Century Brazil,” Review 31, no. 2 (2008): pp. 195–216.