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The Brazilian Experiment Part Two

In early June we were in Brazil. I wrote earlier about my cultural experiences in South America’s largest country. This time I am writing about my experience with photography and photographing in Brazil.

Because of the numerous warnings about personal security that I heard of before going to Brazil, I was (rationally or irrationally) worried about what cameras to take with me.  The starting point in my decision making process was, which camera would make me look less like a professional and which camera would not leave me heart broken if it was stolen.  I ended up using my Olympus Stylus 1 (a pro-sumer, fixed-lens camera) instead of a larger and more “serious” interchangeable lens camera.

The Olympus Stylus 1, while not changing lenses, gave me a huge range of options with a built in lens that is the equivalent of 28-300mm zoom with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture. I have been using the Olympus Stylus 1 as my “everyday” camera for a while, meaning the camera I carried most of the time (when I was not formally shooting) for those found photos that pop up out of the blue. While I have been VERY happy with the results, going all the way to Brazil with only that camera (and another fixed-lens camera as a back-up,) felt like a bit of a gamble.

The gamble paid off incredibly well.  Despite my anxiety, I had no personal safety “issues” in Brazil and the Olympus Stylus 1 camera made it there and back in perfect shape. The images (and especially the video) I made while I was in Brazil looks VERY good. That is not just my opinion but it is a reality verified by the photo agencies that distribute my work, who accepted a very high percentage of the work. As the lens goes from 28-300mm with a constant f/2.8, it gives me incredible control over focus and depth of field, something especially important when making videos. While I may not be shooting any formal “jobs” with the Olympus Stylus 1, I will be using it more and more as my “everyday” camera when I don’t want to carry around my more “serious” interchangeable lens cameras.

I also had the honor of speaking during a three-night speaker’s series on photography. I was the opening speaker, my wife, Annu was the closing speaker and Brazilian photographer Ratao Diniz the evening between us. Anyone attending all three night’s presentations encountered the spectrum of photographers work that varied from purely documentary (mine,) to purely personal/autobiographical (Annu’s) and a mixture of the two, with Ratao Diniz’s work.

After each night’s presentation, the crowd of students and local photographers asked questions that were as wise and as thought provoking as any I have ever encountered.  The question sessions ran for an hour, almost as long as the original presentations.

Our Brazilian host, Tom Boechat, wants to build up the intellectual/aesthetic infrastructure for serious photography in the city where he lives in Brazil.  He knows the “gear and snap shot” market is well established there and now he wants to take the thinking part of photography to the next level.  While that will inevitably take some time, I am glad we could be a small part of that and I am hoping to be some part of that in the future.

The most interesting drawback to photographing in the cities in Brazil is the fact that (in my eyes) the Brazil that we saw bears a striking visual similarity to life in the U.S. or most anywhere in the modernized Western world. Having photographed in India, I appreciate it’s photographic opportunities that are just short of amazing. At the same time I am not sure how longer India’s urban uniqueness will last before it ends up homogenized into the modernized western model. Urban Brazil offered many fewer cultural photographic opportunities for me.  Yes, as a pro, I should be able to find powerful images wherever I go and were I on assignment I might have ratcheted up my photographing, but I was not on assignment.   

I would prefer not to have to go ONLY to the less developed areas to get visually compelling images of Brazil’s cultural heritage (as seen in the local life, culture and people’s daily lives.) While I struggled to find that slice of unique local culture in the urban settings, I found it most distinctly in one of my favorite places, through the food.

And so, the most interesting question for me goes something like this:

Yes, Brazil is not as visually exotic as a place like India.  On the one hand, Brazilians have built their country to be the way that they want.  I am obviously imposing my narrow definition of what is visually compelling on Brazil and the Brazilians.  Other photographers, Brazilian and otherwise, have made visually compelling work in that country, so it can be done.  Clearly, I was not in the places, the situations or the mindset to enable me to do that.  

On the other hand, what makes a country, culture or community uniquely compelling to me as photographer (and a cultural explorer) is the uniqueness of the local culture, be that in the dress, food, rituals or communal activities.  Brazil, for better or worse is modernizing in a way that clearly benefits the middle class and expands opportunities for most Brazilians.  On the other hand it is becoming ever more similar to the globally homogeneous culture that globalization and modernization so has successfully has spread across the globe.  What is good for the growing middle class may be bad for photographers. Which is ironic since a growing middle class means a growing population of photographers.

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