Solitude in the big city An Olaf Willoughby interview with Rui Palha

This month’s Olaf Willoughby interview is with Rui Palha, a Lisbon based photographer. Voted by two separate websites in 2015 as one of the top street photographers in the world, Rui captures the sense of solitude and isolation we can all sometimes feel in a big city.


To start can you give me an overview of your project, its title and what is its main theme?

To be honest I always have several projects in hand. The longest standing and the theme for this interview is the street photography I make every day here in Lisbon. I call it, “Solitude in the big city”.

Lisbon is a great metropolis. But it can be a harsh environment for people without families or in difficult economic conditions. Also the community networks found in smaller places don´t work here. Individualism is far more evident and is reflected in the behavior of the people. I like to stroll the city interacting with those I see and capturing their moments. In some cases I follow their lives and share their concerns and achievements.

There is a strong common thread running through my other projects too. “The Soul of Porto”, the second largest city in Portugal is where I try to capture the warm spirit of the inhabitants. In Porto I don’t see the loneliness I find in Lisbon. Another project is, ”Growing up with dignity”. This is based in neighborhoods around Lisbon labelled as ‘problematic’. I have followed these people for several years and have many strong friendships.

And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?

Over time walking through the streets of Lisbon I have discovered locations which work for my project; tunnels, underground areas, dark places, empty spaces where someone stands alone. Isolated in the middle of a huge space, ‘imprisoned’ by the weight of the big buildings. Even in densely populated places; gardens, taverns, clubs, coffee shops I see solitary people, having a coffee or a beer. Often they are open to speak with someone and even be photographed. I’m happy to listen. Usually I return to give them a copy of their photographs. This is a rewarding experience for both of us.

For me street photography is a solitary task. I always do it alone and never in groups. I don´t use big cameras, never use a flash and try to be part of the environment. I am often invited to be with more people. When we meet, they are surprised to find out that I did not bring my camera. I tell them I have to concentrate and not talk when I photograph.

Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?

This project, as with all my projects, is purely for pleasure. I don’t have and never will have any commercial purpose in mind. This way I only do what I like and not what other people want me to do. Photography, for me, is a passion, never a burden. However I was very pleasantly surprised when, five years ago I published a book called, “Street photography by Rui Palha”. This was a limited edition which received the award of the Best Work of Photography of the year.

What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash….etc.

I only photograph in B&W and I agree with Ted Grant, “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”.

I always try to get a meaningful composition in street photography in order to contextualize the subject. Some people tend to photograph everything that moves without any worry about composition, I call them “street shooters” rather than street photographers. The moment itself is very important, as well as the measure of light, the composition and the aesthetic sense to convey to the viewer every detail of the bigger picture.

I have never used flash. I feel that using flash in the street is a kind of violation of privacy and it can be seen as a lack of respect. For this reason I don’t appreciate the recent style of “street flash”.

What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?

This is a never ending project – as long as I’m alive and healthy enough! Regarding success I’m not the right person to judge. Perhaps it can be measured by the feedback I get from those that follow my work on social networks or exhibitions, where I feel I have managed to touch some people. Frankly, I´m never entirely satisfied with my work. My search for perfection makes me wake up in the morning and go out in the search of the perfect picture.

Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?

Yes, of course. I see lots of photographs each day from different photographers. I can’t deny that Henry Cartier-Bresson had a big influence on the way I see the world, as well as Sebastião Salgado and James Nachtwey. All of them, each in their own way have influenced me a lot.

Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?

Of course, I will be learning until my last day. It’s the only way we can grow, not only in Photography, but in life too. My advantage is my absolute freedom when it comes to subject, pace and deadline. This removes most road blocks. It also gives me the leeway to be sensitive socially and to behave ethically, both of which are fundamental to street photography.

Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?

I use the camera mostly in manual, sometimes in aperture priority and I prefer prime lenses. Mainly the 28 and 35mm but sometimes also the 18 and 21 mm. For the post processing I use Lightroom, just to import the DNG RAW files. Then I export these fotos in JPEG to a basic processing program, an old version of PaintShopPro. Here I play with an interesting plug-in, b/w Styler. It emulates a traditional darkroom, my old school. I always keep this stage very simple and I don’t take more than 2 or 3 minutes with each photograph. When I take the picture I always the aim to show the final result without any cropping and most of my photos are as shot in terms crop.

What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?

For me the Leica cameras are a perfect tool for street photography. They are compact, discreet and of unsurpassed image quality. I use a Leica Q, a Leica M Typ 240 and I used a Leica M-D Typ 262 which Leica lend me to test during some time.

The Leica Q is great for situations where you need to focus quickly or there isn’t time enough to change the hyperfocal range. The Leica M is a fantastic camera, allowing the use of different focal lengths with unbeatable image quality. I think I must refer that I loved to use the new Leica M-D, I felt I was transported to the good old days when I only used film.

About Rui Palha and the Leica Meet:

“Photography is a very important part of my space… it is to discover, it is to capture, to give flow to what the heart feels and sees in a certain moment, it is being in the street, experiencing, understanding, learning and, essentially, practicing the freedom of being, of living, of thinking…” Rui Palha

The Leica Meet is a great opportunity to see the work of other Leica users and to share my own images. The work that Olaf, Stephen, Gavin and Eileen are doing is a great credit to the Leica world.

Winner of the “Best Work of Photography” – prize Authors 2011 SPA/RTP in the category of Visual Arts, February 2011. One of the most 20 influential Street photographers 2015 according to Street Hunters readers. One of the Top Ten Street Photographers in the world, 2015 TopTen website.

To know more about Rui Palha’s work, please visit his official website and follow him on Facebook, Flickr and Instagram

About Olaf Willoughby:

Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to almost 10,000 members. Olaf co-teaches workshops with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College, Leica New York and London plus Brooklyn.

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: olaffwilloughby@gmail.com or www.olafwilloughby.com

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12 comments

  • Fantastic photographer and interview… it is always great to know a little bit more about Rui Palha and his projects… just looking at his photos we can learn a lot, his work is an inspiration for those of us that like black and white and street photography.

    • Thank you dear Fatima. All of us can learn a lot with each other. At least I am always learning with your work too.

  • What a wonderful interview, Olaf! A beautiful story that provides so much context to Rui Palha’s stunning street photography. Thank you, Olaf, and thank you Rui, for doing street photography with such sensitivity and respect for people, especially for those in a fragile situation.

    • Thank you Jose Antonio. Olaf was, in a certain way, the responsable for this interview. He was a great “driver” and conducted so well this conversation.
      I am grateful to you, too, because you had been a true friend and, somehow, responsable for my new “Leica World”…

  • I’m very fortunate to be friends with Rui and in my opinion he’s one of the best in this genre, from all times, dead or alive!
    Go Rui!!! 🙂

  • Rui, your pictures touch the soul .. they all tell a whole story .. not just street photography, but storytelling in my opinion .. great to read here more about you .. good luck!

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