Filipe Branquinho: To Keep Photographing the Story of the People…

Filipe Branquinho is a multi-talented artist living and working in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique, where a long-standing tradition of photography exists. After studying architecture at University, he decided to devote his work completely to photography. Through his ongoing documentary project, “Occupations,” which is presented here, we follow his steps into Maputo’s different locations and meet its inhabitants at work, who are the core of this series. Part of this work will be exhibited in Lisbon, next June, in the gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Q:  Filipe, what is your background?

A: I did all of my studies in Mozambican schools and started an architecture degree in 1997, in the only public university in the country. However, in 2002, I was granted a scholarship to continue my architecture studies in Brazil, and even though I had to start from the beginning, I saw it as a new challenge and decided to accept it.

While studying architecture in Brazil, I found out, through the art classes, that there was a darkroom and a big studio on the university campus. I decided to make use of this to improve my photographic skills. At that time, I was using a 35mm Fuji with a 50mm lens. This was the time for me that I knew I had to become a photographer. I started to spend more time photographing and reading photography books to improve my knowledge, until the day I decided to stop architecture and dedicate all of my time to photography and illustration as an autodidact.

On my return to Mozambique in 2006, I tried to work as a photographer. Since I had no experience in the area and digital photography was a new thing for me, it became very difficult. As a result, I went back to work in the architecture office where I was working before leaving my country. I stayed there a few more years while I kept studying and developing my personal photographic work and doing some exhibitions until I finally got the opportunity to work as a advertising photographer. This was quite a boost and gave me the chance to make some money to live and, most important, to invest in professional equipment.

Currently, I’m working as a photographer and an artist using photography and illustration to express myself.

Q: I’ve read that you belong to a family of photojournalists and I know that in Mozambique there is an established tradition of it. Can you talk a little bit about this and how did their works influence yours or your conception of photography?

My father was a journalist, a photography enthusiast and friend to many artists so, luckily, I grew up amongst many well-known Mozambican photojournalists such as Ricardo Rangel, Kok Nam, José Cabral and many others.

I remember that in the 1980s and 1990s a couple of friends and I visited our “uncle’s” exhibitions (in Mozambique it is very common to call our parents’ friends ”uncle” and/or “aunt” ). There were plenty of shows in those days and their quality was outstanding, both thematically and technically. At that time, I was not really there to enjoy the photographs, but more to enjoy the cocktail cookies, but I can say that my contact and fascination with photography started very soon.

At that time, my friends and I spent lot of time in our “uncles’” darkrooms, learning and experimenting, as well as taking and developing Polaroid and black and white photos.

Mozambican photojournalists went through many different episodes of the local history. In a very short period of time they saw colonialism, the Independence (in 1975), post-colonialism, socialism, communism, civil war, democracy and today’s dynamic capitalism. But, the main subject of their photos was always the people and injustice that they faced in their daily lives.

Even if I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to the aesthetic aspects of a photograph (composition, color, light, etc.) and try to make my work very close to fine art photography, the human condition is always there. I think that this might be the main influence of the Mozambican photographic school: to photograph the story of the people and their places.

Q: You’re working on a long-term project, “Occupations,” which is a fresco of the city of Maputo today, seen through the prism of its working people and their environments. How did you start this project and what was the idea behind it?

A: “Occupations” is a project that I started at the beginning of 2011, after an invitation to present my work in a collective exhibition entitled “Temporary Occupations 2011” that took place in Maputo (1).

The first idea was to photograph the urban working people in their environments and to move away from the cliché of rural Africa. At the beginning, my subjects were public service employees, but I quickly realized that there were other interesting professions to photograph. So, I began to work on different professions that fit the social group such as athletes, firemen, domestic workers, etc. However, I also included homeless people, kids, guards, etc. This made me understand that I was not only photographing professions but, mostly, I was trying to capture how and where these people occupied their time and the environment surrounding them. The title “Occupation’s” has a double meaning: it is simultaneously the people and what they do for work, and the scenario where it takes place.

Q: Some photographs have been taken in the street and some in interiors. Many people photographed are guards. How do you work for this project? And how do you choose your subjects and places?

A: I walk around Maputo everyday, watching urban life, diversity of scenarios and people and their activities. Even though I have a predefined list of occupations that I would like to photograph, I’m always open to the surprises of daily life. They are the best! And even if I don’t have my camera with me, I always register that moment in my mind. The idea is not to photograph any occupation in town, but those where the scenario and dialogue has an implicit synergy with the person occupying it and vice-versa.

Those who have spent time in Maputo know that its streets are completely filled with guards and security people. So, photographing those occupations that are right outside our door was almost inevitable and a very pleasant way to start the project. To go deeper in this subject, I had to start entering into places and discovering their inner life.

Q: You conceived an open-air projection of this work in Maputo. Why did you choose Julius Nyerere’s avenue?

A: This was during the show “Temporary Occupations 2011” that I mentioned before. Elisa Santos, who was the curator, proposed that artists should intervene and expose their work in very unusual places for the exhibition. I chose to exhibit on the front window of the Mozambican Association of Photography located on Julius Nyerere Avenue. I chose this place because of its link to the Mozambican photographic tradition and also because it’s located in one of Maputo’s main avenues where tourists, business men, politicians and the working class pass everyday. This contrast was a necessary condition for the presentation of this work.

Considering that exhibition spaces are not always very appealing to the social group I worked with, I wanted my intervention to be public, so that those I photographed and their families and friends had the opportunity to enjoy the exhibition. So, I chose to do a retro-projection in a large window. In this way, the photographs could be seen by everyone passing in the street.

In front of the projection, I put some stools that I bought from various guards that I photographed around the city. I did this so that people could sit in the street outside the association to see the slide-show, but mostly, I wanted to invert roles and make those stools, that guards around the city sit in daily in front of the buildings and houses, be sat in by their bosses and employers. This allowed them to feel, even if only for a minute, what it feels like to be in the skin of a guard.

This installation lasted two weeks and the projection started at 6 p.m. and would continue throughout the night until 6 a.m. the next morning, to coincide with working hours.

Q: What kind of equipment do you employ for this work?

A: I am my own crew, so I don’t have any assistants or use additional light. I take advantage of the existing, available light. I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and three lenses: a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L manual focus, a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM auto focus and a Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE manual focus lens for a Canon mount.

I like to walk around with the camera on my shoulder because there are times when people notice I’m carrying it and they ask for a photograph . . .

Thank you, Filipe!

-Leica Internet Team

To view more of Filipe’s work, visit www.wherewerewe.posterous.com.

(1) To have a global idea of this show, see: www.buala.org.