The photographer explains the shapes, politics, and Pichação behind his new book, Atlântico Sul
Congrats on the book, man! It’s printed beautifully…
Thanks! We were really happy with the printing. It’s a gamble, you know, because you do a wet proof and you know what the paper’s going to be like, but you can only fit six images on the piece of paper… and then everything else is a gamble.
Is this the first book you’ve made?
I did a zine, ages ago. I was still in university and it sold a few copies. It was called Finally Famous. It was quite a weird zine.
That’s a good name. What was it about?
It’s a Big Sean song. The zine was like, trying to live a rich lifestyle — like a rapper’s lifestyle — when you’re broke. Shots at the Ferrari store and stuff.
It was just you cruising around living your best life?
A little bit yeah! There was like, one family holiday in the Caribbean, and some essays and stuff. I’ve still got copies of it somewhere. It was quite fun. Man, I’m going on tangents here… so to go back to the printing process [of Atlântico Sul], it’s so hard, because you only really get one chance to [get it right]. And then there’s this acetate cover, like we couldn’t even really test that too much. They had pieces of acetate which they tested, but not in this [green] colour, so the green actually had to be screen printed onto a clear acetate.
You were just problem solving, figuring it out as you went along…
Yeah, Vanessa [Minshull] did all of that. You do all of this stuff and make a physical object, and if there are imperfections there are imperfections, you know what I mean?
Do you feel like there are?
Yeah, tiny ones. Some of them are charming. Like every acetate cover is different, for example. But overall we’re really happy, and it was a learning curve. Originally I thought photography would be really quick and easy compared to filmmaking, and it wasn’t. It took a year. Was the process ad hoc?
It was very organic. We had these interests in architecture in Brazil. Like the ‘eye’ museum in the beginning of the book — we always go there, because my grandmother’s near it. And they have all the Niemeyer drawings there, we always talk about it, so I think that seed was planted in my mind. As we were taking the photos, the through-line started appearing to us. We knew we wanted to explore architecture, and Niemeyer, and these girls, and then we were like, ok we can find a relationship between the shapes very easily in these photos. It evolved organically. When you flick through the book the images all communicate with each other. I think part of the reason it took so long to finish the book was finding a way where the images could speak to each other without feeling too gimmicky, or you weren’t forcing things too strongly.
So it was an editing job, really.
As much as a photography job, for sure.
Where did you find the girls?
Some of them we found on Instagram. This other girl’s a skater, another girl owns the pole studio where we tried to replicate some shapes, and then other girls we got from an agency in Sao Paolo, so it was a wide spread. But it was quite intimate in the way that we did it. There was no production to it or anything. But because [the project] was more about the shapes and the drawings we needed people who were used to being photographed.
I guess you were aware of Niemeyer’s acute interest in sensual forms? Landscape curves, bodies, and so forth?
Absolutely. This is something we’ve been looking at for years and it feels so Brazilian in that sense. You know, nature, and natural shapes. Whether it’s a mountain or the curve of a female body, Niemeyer was equally interested. His drawings are spectacular.
I guess when you’re aware of the reference points of his structures, you’re going to be drawn to pairing certain photos with others, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Exactly. And then you see it in other architects too, you know? But you can’t plan all of it. Even if we had gone out with the intention of doing that, you can’t always get people to move in the right way… we couldn’t replicate it if we tried.
Obviously the sub title is Two Summers In Brazil - did you feel like you needed to nip it in the bud after that? Had you covered enough?
It was two summers because we shot a couple of girls the summer before. But yeah, it started as a really small thing that I wanted to explore and it became a bigger project than I imagined it would be. But I’m trying to spend more time in Brazil, there’s so many interesting things happening over there, and not enough people documenting them. I’m just drawn to it.
It’s an interesting time, politically for sure.
Yeah, and politically there are two kinds of project that I’m interested in. Some projects I want to work on are more overtly political. And then I also want to talk about Brazilian heritage — what’s good and what you can be proud of. Atlântico Sul falls into the latter category. I don’t think it’s a strictly political book.
So some projects will be both good and bad, others will be good, others will be more negative, but I’m interested in all of it. And we want to explore it all, little by little. Politically though, right now, it’s important to be a part of the conversation. I read up on it a lot, I’m clued up on what’s going on over there, I’m not a political scientist. But I know my values, and I know emotionally how things might affect certain people, so if I’m creating anything then I know that it can be a vehicle for political views. Even if it’s not overt, but written within the story, I think it’s still adding to the conversation. So I’m looking forward to doing more work in Brazil.
To bookend that thought, it’s interesting you say it’s not a political book, but then there’s the irony that Niemeyer himself left Brazil during the military dictatorship because he was a communist, and in fact that is probably why the wider world know who he is, like you say. So to create a book like this — which is so rooted in his work — then you are a part of his canon, whether you want to be or not.
You have a point there. It’s hard to be apolitical because every decision is political. And I think about this book and what the images say, and for me some things were out of my comfort zone from what I usually do, but then relating it back to within the context of the book, they work.
But if you decontextualise it — say, if you put a tightly cropped image of a body on Instagram — it might send a different message. And through that I kind of learned of the limitations of social media in that respect. Really the book is a physical experience, and you’ve got to feel it and go through the pages to understand how the images are talking to each other. If you can’t do that you’re gonna see some images but not understand the story of the book.
And that raises the question of how the book is going to live after the launch. We only printed two hundred and fifty copies, so really only that many people are going to see it for what it is. Other people are going to have a limited view of it based on seeing two or three photos on Instagram, or whatever.
That’s an interesting point to make, because you sent me some stills this morning before I’d seen the book, and my first reaction was that I wasn’t looking at a typical ‘sun-drenched’ depiction of Brazil, and I also wasn’t viewing the gritty Favela side — which are the two predominant depictions in the word’s eyes, I guess. But to your point about social media, if I had seen, say, your image of the pole dancers in isolation, then I probably would have made a more clichéd Brazilian connection.
Exactly. And it’s really tough because so much of what people consume is through Instagram. And that’s not really a good platform for sharing a book that has an idea. And now I’ve come to the point where I’ve stopped doing online promotion for it. Like, it’s there, you can get the general idea, but really you need to go find it and take a look at it. And that’s it, you know? There’s something quite nice about the fact that you have to look through it — it requires attention.
You’ve kind of just answered this next question, but what do you think are the challenges of publishing a book right now?
I think there are a lot of titles out there. And then there’s this challenge that I’ve just spoken about — trying to convey the complexities of a book online. But having done [a book] now, the difficulty is that it’s so much more logical to spend that one year taking nice but disparate photographs that would suit an online thing and get more traction (if that’s what you want), than making a book where there’s a niche audience. But that’s where I want to be, personally. If you’re looking at the numbers, it’s counterintuitive to do a book.
Would you ever serialise the release process? Like back in the day novelists would release chapters of their books over time, in Playboy and The New Yorker, and what not.
I never thought about that with photos. But I’ve thought about it with films. One of the things I want to shoot in Brazil is a series of short films shot in love motels. I’m interested by the kind of characters you find in there, it’s a leveller of Brazilian society… whether you’re a kid having sex for the first time, or someone who has a mistress, (or mister), and goes there for privacy purposes, or someone who lives at home with their parents, or just people who want to spice up their love life… all these different kinds of people go there. You think of Brazil like the Testino version, like sex, sex, sex, but really when you get over there it happens a lot in private places. It’s not so out there. And that is interesting, where in a country with so much skin you still have to go somewhere hidden to do all of this stuff. Most people I know in Brazil will have been to a love motel a few times. And aside from that, the design of these places are spectacular — the rooms are all themed. I find it really fascinating, perhaps because I’ve never had that rite of passage.
Maybe because I’m away from it I can see it all more clearly. Sometimes when you’re in Brazil, in a country with a dire political situation, where it can be unsafe, you can idealise the ‘first world’, and you can end up forgetting what’s interesting about where you’re from. I think that going back and forth has made me more Brazilian. It’s made me more aware of the things that are really cool over there, that I’d like to document, and share with the world.
Speaking of that, can you tell me about the illustrations in the book?
I did a piece for Dazed ages ago. I met this guy who makes these drawings, and he documents this whole scene, pichação, (which means ‘tag’), but it isn’t really graffiti, it’s different. People climb up the buildings and tag it, but it’s quite hieroglyphic — the aesthetic evolved from heavy metal records in the eighties. By the nineties it was really, really big, and by the early two-thousands, Djan came along; he’s one of the biggest guys, but he was one of the first people to start looking at it from a bigger picture point of view and to actually start documenting it — he has like fifteen or twenty years worth of archives. I met him through the Dazed article and kept in touch with him. I’ve digitised a lot of his archives, these amazing collages and documentary footage. Anyways as he was documenting it he was also educating himself on other movements that are similar to this. Pichação is different from graffiti, which is artistic expression. Essentially it’s a way for people who have been swept under the rug — politically, or geographically — from the wealthier areas. So by going into these wealthier areas and tagging the buildings they’re like, ‘you can put us further away, but you can’t hide the fact that we’re here’. So it’s a social movement. In Brazil there’s a cosmic divide between rich and poor, but you don’t always notice that in certain areas. By them going into those areas and doing it, it’s a reminder.
This has very much influenced my idea of architecture in Brazil, being so close to this guy and knowing what he does. When I was working on the book it felt a bit dishonest to make it about architecture in Brazil without talking about the defacement of architecture in Brazil, which is something that happens a lot over there. It was just important to show this contrast, and not just the beauty of Brazil.
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