In conversation with Rodrigo West
In conversation with Rodrigo West
by Kojo Abudu
The Brazilian photographer, now ten years into his practice, discusses his early beginnings in the photographic medium, his socially-conscious documentary work, and the São Paulo art scene.
What was the first photograph you created that you believed was your first ‘artwork’?
I remember the exact moment. Initially, I had been photographing sports and a friend of mine wanted to travel to Bahia, a nearby city. We were walking around and I saw one boy playing with some leaves on the water and I took a portrait. In this moment, I knew I wanted to be a photographer – not a sports photographer anymore. I wanted to show the behaviour of people and everything else about them. The fact that the photograph was later highlighted by The Big Picture, as part of National Geographic’s annual Photo Contest, made this even clearer to me.
How old were you at the time?
It was ten years ago so I was twenty.
What kind of camera were you using at the time?
It was a digital camera, but now I shoot on both film and digital.
Was this also the moment you decided to become a photographer in a more full-time capacity?
Yes. I was a volleyball player in school and after that I went to Switzerland to play with a team. I bought my first camera as a hobby, and I believe it starts that way for most people. On the weekends I started to travel, either by train or bicycle to shoot. When I left volleyball behind two years after, because I injured myself, I started to shoot some friends doing sports, such as kitesurfing. That was my moment. I was also studying photography by myself at home.
It seems to me that you tend to work in a documentary mode. I wonder what attracts you to that kind of photographic approach? Do you view photography as a form of truth-telling?
Yes, of course. I’ve been doing many styles of photography over the last ten years, but documentary photography is my passion for sure – portraits and storytelling in particular. I participated in Photographers Without Borders in June and they work specifically with these kinds of issues. It’s my passion because I want to show everybody people’s lives and the problems of contemporary society. Everybody thinks Brazil is good and perfect. We are a rich country in development but we have a lot of problems. We have a lot of different social layers and I don’t like that. I believe everyone needs to have their basic needs met and I want to show this in Brazil and around the world. When I do this, I feel better and I can empathise with the other issues.
I noticed that in two recent series, Cubahia [ongoing] and Just Maria [ongoing], you documented people in two radically different styles – the former series is shot in an urban landscape in vibrant colours while the latter series is shot in a rural landscape in black and white. Was this juxtaposition intentional? Also, what drew you to making those bodies of work?
These photographic series are part of my history. I made these works because I was a bit lost as a documentarian – I had done some landscapes, cityscapes, sports, and everything really. With the black and white photographs, I believe one can ‘colour’ in the landscapes themselves depending on how they’re feeling.
I remember exactly when I went to Cuba. I had been doing everything in black and white but I renounced this in Cuba (laughs). I just couldn’t do the colours there in black and white. While I was in Cuba, I felt exactly like I was in my hometown – the culture, the gastronomy, the religion, and the architecture were basically the same as in Bahia. I did some research and learned that the Africans who went to Cuba were from the same region as the Africans who went to Bahia. Because of this, they built similar cultural forms, for example, Candomblé and Santería. I wanted to do something but I knew I couldn’t do it in black and white; I had to follow my heart.
When I’m in Brazil, I like to take my car and just go. One time, with a friend of mine, I went to his city and he said to me “let’s go around the city, we have a lot of people living a bit farther out without light or water”. Of course, I knew about this reality in Brazil, and so I agreed to go. I met Maria [hence the series title] and I fell in love with her because she lives without water, light, or sanitation. She has a small house with a big family and I’ve never felt so good in this place as in other places in the world. They have everything, and sometimes, people say they don’t have anything. But they have love, they have kindness, and they share everything. Everything is good, even though they don’t have the basics. I’m going again in December and I want to do something different, like recording her on digital, so it’s not only my point of view.
So is this the first time you’ll be venturing into video work?
That’s exciting. So you grew up in Bahia and now you live in São Paulo?
Yes, I just moved to São Paulo two years ago. I do some jobs there and I met my fiancé there. It’s a big city – lots of galleries. You have everything. Every month I’m in Brazil. I go to Bahia because I love it so much there. My parents still live there.
What is the art scene like in São Paulo, especially given the recent, heightened tensions in Brazilian politics?
I always say to my friends that São Paulo is not Brazil. The reality is that it is very different from other places in Brazil. I don’t like the current president. I believe they’ve tried to build a lot of fake news to hide the important things. I believe artists are doing more and more to confront this, especially within the last five years, which is good.
Are there other artists that have influenced your work?
Yes, my idol is Sebastião Salgado. He is a renown photographer from Brazil. He did a lot of good things for the world and talked about a lot of problems.