The Lisbon of drugs and prostitution hidden in sight of all
Behind the façades of renovated buildings, unseen by the enchantment of the bourgeoisie with the new Intendente, lies the people of the darkness
For over two months, I walked around Intendente, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Lisbon, that has been stigmatized for decades of prostitution and drug addiction.
I went there looking for this parallel reality, hidden behind the city’s touristic success and the urban renovation.
I met lives that had once dreamed of different goals, before slipping into drug abuse and living on the streets. They took me to their rooms, to their abandoned houses, to the drug hubs. These are the people no one wants to see during their nice walks around the renovated Intendente, drinking aromatic gin and tonic. But these people could be any one of us.
Shortly after seeing her for the first time at the stairwell converted into an injection room, I spotted her walking down the street. Someone standing next to me exclaimed:
– Damn! Soraia looks so skinny. She was so hot when she first arrived here.
– When was that?
– Three months ago, not even.
That same night, at the injection room stairwell where I met her, and photographed her smoking crack, I realized that I wanted her as the central focus for my work. But she wasn’t easy to approach. I saw her again, a few days later, walking hastily down the street to Largo do Intendente, with a friend. I said hello and tried to walk alongside them:
– Can I join you?
– Wherever you’re going.
– We’re going to the room, love.
– That’s ok, I’d like to come along.
– It’s not going to happen. Sorry.
And they kept on walking, crossed the street and met a guy who was waiting. The three of them got in a taxi that speeded down the avenue.
And then after a frustrating day, hanging out for hours at the bars in Rua dos Anjos, drinking, so that I could approach the girls sitting at the counter, looking out for any character of my work and with whom I intended to follow up with. After a whole day of not being able to take pictures, waiting for something to happen, all of the sudden there’s Soraia walking towards me. It was 2 a.m. and she complained about having spent the entire night at Martim Moniz, with no clients. I suggest photographing her in the room.
We go to the nearest guesthouse, with a green door like so many others, and a sign hanging on the wall. Soraia rings the bell, they buzz the door open and we walk up the flight of stairs
that takes us to a dark hallway with a reception desk. Soraia tells me to give them 5 euros for the room. No questions asked, they know why people rent their rooms. A woman’s hand reaches out to grab the money and pass out the key.
– You have an hour, she says.
Soraia leads the way, while I photograph with the adrenaline of knowing that every moment was about to live would be unrepeatable, it was my one chance of capturing it all the right away, knowing the quality of the pictures would depend on my observation skills, decision making and reflexes. I’m drunk, which makes it harder to work – but on the other hand, if I wasn’t drunk, I probably wouldn’t have come.
Soraia also needed some extra help to cope with being there.
– Do you mind if I smoke?
Which she did, after taking her clothes off. Some of her clients smoke with her, when at a room. Smoking helps her not to feel, but that depends on the quality of the drug. When it’s too cut, for example, with flour, the high ends before the client’s sexual desire. On those days, it’s harder to be there.
I never thought I’d be where I am. For years I smuggled drugs, in Spain, and never once did them. I saw women in the state that I am in now, saw all the disgrace that comes with drugs, but never thought I’d fall in.
There was a way to get here. She was born in Portugal, spent her childhood in Spain, was raised by her grandmother. With a rebellious youth and seductive boyfriends, she got involved with a network of drugs and weapons smuggling, and returned to Portugal to escape the Guardia Civil. She had a son who is now being raised by relatives in the outskirts of Lisbon. She belonged a forged weddings business with immigrants from eastern Europe which gave her a few trips to Germany. And lastly, Intendente, where I met her. Always speedy, always rushing somewhere, thinking of her next hit.
On the notepad that Soraia used to prepare the dosage she has just smoked, she keeps poems, lyrics and texts that she writes, to keep her head busy. She writes in Spanish, the language she speaks the best, in which she thinks. She read me her favourite poem, “Viene y va”.
It hasn’t been an hour yet when someone knocks on the door. I hear the receptionist telling us that we have to leave, our time’s up. Soraia gets restless, starts to pack up her pipe and penknife.
– Don’t open it, please, they can’t find out we smoked inside.
I tell the lady that our time is not up, that it hasn’t been an hour. I didn’t check the time when we walked in, but I’m sure that it hasn’t been an hour. Soraia gets dressed, nervously. Asks me to wait a bit. When I unlock the door, to walk out, the receptionist, another lady and a man are standing there. Pimp, prostitute and client. We exchange eye contact in that order. Hatred, emptiness, shame. “Don’t ever come back!”, yells the receptionist, as Soraia walks by.
A few days later, Soraia took me to the abandoned house in which she slept, located in one of the steepest streets in the neighbourhood. To get in, you must squeeze between the gate’s bars and move a wooden board, used to cover the front door. There are remnants from a construction site that was put on hold, such as boards, buckets and a concrete mixer. Now, this was Soraia’s and ten others’ home. That evening, Soraia was having mixed feelings. She had found a lost crack dosage on the ground, and smoked it in front of me while telling me how one of the squatters, who was in love with her, had asked her to be his girlfriend. She told him she wasn’t interested and he, out of jealously, proceeded to rip up her clothes, all of them, that she kept in a backpack.
This was over a year ago, September 2017. I went passed that house since, and the construction had restarted. Soraia wasn’t there; I don’t know where she’s sleeping now. I don’t even know if she’s still among us.
The fame of bohemian neighbourhood stuck to Intendente around the 60’s. First came the bars, then prostitution. On August 8th, 1977, the newspaper A Capital reported that 1313 prostitutes, between the ages of 16 and 24, had been arrested in Lisbon, in the first semester of that year.
Over the years, the repression on female prostitutes diminished, as they became a part of the local scene. In early 2000’s, there was a state intervention in two of the main drug hubs in Lisbon, which led not to their ending but to their replacement: that’s when the drug scene in Intendente emerged, transferred from other neighbourhoods, naturally linked to the existing problems in the area, like alcoholism and prostitution.
By the end of 2012, the City Hall decided to renovate the neighbourhood. Construction was put in place and police surveillance was reinforced. Over the years the pressure rose, promoted by policies to redesign the city for tourism purposes. Rent increased substantially and residents were pushed away, as the neighbourhood was bought, piece-by-piece, by luxury hotel chains, investment companies and condos. New trendy bars and restaurants, and their respective “hipster” costumers, brought a new look to and a new life to Intendente, but the price to pay was to move the “old” residents to the outskirts of the neighbourhood, further from tourists’ eyes.
Angels and Demons
When I met Erineu he was sitting on the step of a closed bar, focusing on a pipe made out of a bottleneck. He was using a pen’s spring to clean out the crack’s soot he had just smoked and proceeded to cover the pipe with aluminium foil, punch a few holes in it and smoke.
– Doesn’t kick in anymore.
A couple of tourists walk by, looking nervous. They’re headed to Intendente’s square, but the GPS doesn’t have social filters, and the shortest way to get there was not the most pleasant one. They stare at the floor, nothing but disguised glances to satisfy their curiosity about what’s going on. It’s an entire street of junkies trying to get a hit off of anyone doing drugs, and prostitutes waiting for clients. Outside the bars, men and women, strangers to me, gather around. There is a flirty vibe, with codes I have yet to master. Of course they see me as an outsider, some days taking me in as a photographer, others suspecting that I might be a policeman in disguise.
Later that night I ran into Erineu. He was on his way to the next neighbourhood, Mouraria, to buy some drugs, and asks me if I want to join him, warning me that I won’t be able to take any pictures. The streets get narrower and narrower, except for the tiny squares where kids play football, the women talk and the old men drink beer and play cards. Along the way to the dealer, hanging around on every street, there are young people signalling the coming and going of buyers – they’re the ones in charge of warning in case of a police operation.
We get to the dealer. Erineu takes a 10 euro bill out of his pocket and the guy takes a half a centimetre diameter white ball out of his mouth, stuck between his gum and cheek. Walking out, we pass by a small grocery, where Erineu gives out 20 cents and gets a ready-cut aluminium foil. The neighbourhood’s economy adapts to the needs of those who live there.
As we walk back, now a little faster down the street of Benformoso, a stern looking Romanian, acquaintance of Erineu, joins us along. We walk in a random building, walk up the stairs until there’s no light from the street and sit down. Erineu starts preparing the crack on the aluminium foil, while the Romanian stares.
That was the day I met Soraia. She joined us, sitting a few steps upwards, prepared her pipe and took a hit, closed her eyes with the head hanging back against the wall. Fifteen minutes later, she said goodbye and left with the Romanian guy.
I stayed with Erineu, who kept on lighting up whatever was left of the small white ball he had bought less than an hour ago. Soraia crosses paths with a guy on her way out.
The guy yells Erineu’s name, but seeing me holding my camera, walks up firmly in my direction.
– Who are you?
– I’m a photographer, I’m making a project…
– Turn your back against the wall! Police!
He flashes his badge at me and, speaking into his lapel, calls for backup.
-What do you have in your pocket?, he asks me
-My house keys…
-Take it all out!
I showed him my keys, phone and a few coins.
– Is that your phone?
– Of course.
– Turn it off and back on.
After I do it, he gives it all back to me.
– Go away, I don’t want to see you again.
– But I can photograph, I’m not doing anything illegal.
– Did you hear what I said? Get the fuck out of here. You can’t take this, it’s for your own good. Go photograph something else, I don’t want to see you here.
I walk home, offended and humiliated, playing it all back in my head. “So that’s how an undercover policeman looks like, would’ve never thought: khaki shorts, flip flops, white shirt and suspenders. And I left Erineu in that fucking situation. I’ll come back tomorrow to look for him.”
On the street, the usual fuss. Oriental smells make you want to come in every restaurant; the groceries packed with fresh fruit are working ‘till late, the bars have the doors opened, and the sounds of sensual African music flood the street. Just another night, like any other.
I came back the next day and found Erineu.
– Erineu! Are you ok?
– Yes. All good.
– No problems last night?
– That guy on the stairwell. Who’s that?
– Ah… No. All good.
– Who is he?
– It’s all good.
Looked like Bo Derek
There’s a miracle of euphoria one looks for in alcohol. We drink to become that optimistic persona, who amplifies accomplishments and dreams, and let go of the sadness. What we say might not be entirely true, but it is told, more often than not, with great generosity and with the best intentions in mind. It might not pass as thorough fact checking, but if who’s talking is happy doing it, it’s up to the party buddies to listen to and believe in it, as much as they can.
Anabela had it all – just to see it all go away. She lived, in her younger days, the privileges of being part of the upper class, surrounded by luxury in a poor country just waking up from a 48 year old dictatorship. She told me all about the rides in the convertible, by the river, sailing in the Mediterranean Sea, a Bo Derek look alike body, the high end cocaine at the socialite parties. And then, the fall. A divorce, getting kicked out of the family with a fancy surname, the loss of privileges, the shackle of an expensive vice she could no longer afford. And at the end of it, here we are, sitting at a bar, drinking whisky non-stop, surrounded by sketchy people, sharing our intimate philosophies like we’re Kant and Hegel. The euphoria of alcohol make us feel greater than we really are.
One thing I know for sure: Anabela moves around on the streets like she knows something we don’t. Many times I’ve seen her chatting cheerfully, around her habitués, using a subtle but superior tone, breaking the chat off to intervene in some messy situation that’s taking place nearby. She tells me, while flexing her muscles despite her 50 years old, how she knows martial arts since back she was a kid.
Several weeks after meeting her, I told Anabela, over beers, about the suspenders guy and how I had seen him again. It was night-time when that same guy from the stairwell, the one with the khaki shorts, flip flops, white shirt, called me out. He had his back leaned up against a wall, arms crossed, surrounded by junkies like electrons to an atom. One of them leaned down to pick a cigarette off the floor and he kicked it away, scaring the junkie.
– Hey, you! Come here
I walked up against my will.
– Didn’t I tell you to never photograph here again?
– Get lost man! You can’t take this shit. I can tell by the look in your eyes. You don’t belong here and you’ll end up getting yourself killed. I don’t want to see you again.
I walked away, pissed of. “Who the fuck is this guy?!”
– I hadn’t told you because I didn’t know who you were. He’s a guy that has businesses in the neighbourhood. He shows up from time to time and disappears when he gets into trouble. He lived in Canada, so they call him “the American”. He told me all about that night when he pretended to be a cop, he was laughing really hard at how scared you got. He also said he would take your camera away if he saw you again, but I doubt he meant it.
Despite her skills, it’s by selling her body that Anabela makes enough to feel free. At least that’s how she describes prostitution. She doesn’t accept any client, and she even has regulars that have her number and call her up to spend weekends together. Once, she tells me, she was with one of them for over 10 hours, because he had taken Viagra. She had to ask him to stop, her jaw hurt. A few days ago, she says, she had a married client who recorded on camera everything to show his wife.
Anabela says she makes as much as 400 euros on those scheduled weekends. I, as her drinking buddy, do my best to listen and believe every word. But, after a few months hanging over here, I learned that prostitutes charge depending on their age, demand and desperation for cash before the day is over. I saw teenage girls, fresh to the neighbourhood, charging 25 euros. The women that had their lives marked on their faces and bodies charged 20. This was on good days, because it could go as low as 15 or 10 euros, once the crack cold turkey started to hit. One afternoon, while talking with Anabela, a friend of hers stormed in, annoyed and offended, because a guy had tried to get her for 7,50 euros.
– No condom!
She said no. But it was still 6 p.m. and we don’t know how that night ended.
For a million
There’s a beginning to everything and for everyone. No woman is born a hooker. No woman becomes a hooker before someone pays them to. I had been asked once, by someone trying to convince me of how natural it is to get into prostitution:
– If someone paid you a million euros to have sex with them, just once, would you do it?
One million euros fixes anyone’s life. But that’s nonsense when you get back to real life. To get to a million euros, a woman who charges 20 euros each time, must do it 50.000 times. If she gets five clients a day, it would take her 27 years with no days off. Viene y va. Come and go.
And so I ask, to make it fair:
– If someone paid you a million euros each time you had sex with someone, but you had to do it five times a day, every day, for 27 years. Would you do it?
The first woman I photographed in a rented room at Intendente was leaning up against a wall drinking sherry when I met her. She was black and beautiful, curvy body, purple lipstick, straighten hair in a ponytail and earrings shaped like wings. She was wearing a black skirt and a white t-shirt.
A few meters away there was a grocery store, where I bought a sherry. I offered it to her as a way to break the ice. She told me she hadn’t come to Intendente to go to the rooms that day, she just wanted to have a drink and see her friends.
– I want nothing more than to photograph you and chat. I want to learn more about this world. Half an hour.
She accepted. 15 euros, plus 5 for the room.
When we walked into the room, I asked her to sit down. I wanted to know about her, to talk for a while before starting the photo shoot. I felt the need to tell her that it was important for me that this experience wasn’t unpleasant to her. She didn’t react to my Judaeo-Christian hypocritical moment. She told me that she used to work two jobs but had lost one of them. Money was tight and she came very close to losing the house where she lived with her son, so she succumbed to this life. Once. And once again. To repress the disgust it made her feel, she drank cheap whisky they sold by the cup around the neighbourhood. It’s very likely that the day will come when someone asks her if she wants to smoke crack, because it helps you forget. If that day comes, when she accepts that offer, paying for the house will probably drop to second on her priorities list.
But that woman, whom I hope has found a well enough paid job to help her keep the house and in which she doesn’t need to drink to feel numb, is not the woman in these photographs. The girl in this photos is 19 years old and, for family matters, left her home. With no means of survival, she ended up in Intendente.
When I walked in the guesthouse with her, there was another woman stepping out.
– Oh, you’re working too? I had seen you around but wasn’t sure. You’re so young…
– Yes, I started a week ago.