This article originally appeared on VICE US
Maria lost her parents at the age of seven. Until she was 80 years old, she and her siblings provided for the family by working from dawn until dusk on their corn plantation near the city of Itabaianinha in the Brazilian state of Sergipe. Maria never grew taller than three feet.
Itabaianinha, Brazilian photographer Luisa Dorr explains, is sometimes called "the city of dwarfs" because of its unusually large population of adults under 1.45 meters (4'9") tall. The city of 40,000 is home to a estimated 70 to 150 dwarfs—they prefer that term over little person—meaning as many as one in 266 residents are short-statured. (For comparison's sake, the rest of Brazil has one dwarf to every 10,000 average-sized people.)
The photojournalist, who spent three days meeting the dwarfs of Itabaianinha, initially had trouble explaining her intentions to the community. Many assumed she, like so many before her, was just another producer trying to break into the comedy television circuit. Some requested money to sit for photographs; Dorr, though not morally opposed to paying subjects, chose not to do so.
The photographer was able to form connections within hours of her arrival. She bonded with one dwarf by purchasing a hot dog from his snack bar and striking up a conversation. She found a man named Sergio on Facebook, and he and his friends showed her around and invited her to attend a local dwarf soccer game.
Itabaianinha is sweltering in March, when the photographer visited. She limited shooting mostly to the hours when the sun wasn't directly overhead, but she gained a real understanding of the hard work of some of these families. Though they might adjust their houses and cars to suit their size, the dwarfs work the same jobs as everyone else.
The type of dwarfism most people in Itabaianinha have is not the most common type found elsewhere in the world; they share a genetic mutation that causes them to be shorter, with the same proportions as average-height people.
The photographer met dwarfs who felt secure and home at their current height. Maria was one of them. She was confident at the size she was, and she didn't wish to be like average-sized people. Still, the dwarf population in Itabaianinha is decreasing, probably due to the increased prevalence of marriages with average-sized people. Most of the remaining dwarfs fall into an older age bracket.
When Dorr visited, she made a point of sharing her pictures with those she met along the way. "It's a poor area in Brazil," she says, "Many of these people never had their photographs printed."
Dorr got news a few months ago that Maria had passed away, at the age of 101. Looking back on the day she spent at Maria's plantation, the photographer writes, "It's a simple family with a beautiful story. Even though they worked so hard their entire life, they were all happy and thankful."
All photographs by Luisa Dorr. You can follow her work here.