Raphael Alves: Imprecise Boundaries with the Leica X1

Raphael Alves was born in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil in 1982. He studied social communication at the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM), photography in Londrina State University (UEL) and visual arts at the National Service of Commercial Education (Senac). He recently graduated with a Master of Arts in photojournalism and documentary photography at the London College of Communication - University of the Arts London. Nowadays, Raphael works as a stringer photographer for Agence France-Presse. He has been working to visually transcribe the anthropological, social, historical  and environmental issues of the region he lives in.

He was recently named the grand prize winner in the X Prime category for Leica Camera and LFI’s “Me and My Leica X Photo Contest.” In this interview, he describes his “Imprecise Boundaries” project that won the award and focuses on the Reconcavo Baiano region of Brazil.

Q: Your project is an essay about the Reconcavo Baiano region, in the Northeast of Brazil. Can you provide us some background information on this project? What was the idea behind it? What are you trying to show?

A: First of all, my intention was to show the human being and life. People are always my main subject. So this project is about the life of those people in that certain region, which I had the opportunity to visit. It is a region whose geopolitical division is not well defined, hence the title “Imprecise Boundaries” for the project. Beyond that, those photographs — such as all photographs I produce — are actually about me, but not in an individualistic manner. It is about the things I could learn from that different ways of living. Things there are so different from the part of Brazil in which I live, but in the end they are ironically all connected. Those are pure, real people who taught me much more than just about the place and ways in which they live. They taught me important (and also imprecise) limits of, for instance, when to shoot and when to put the camera down and just enjoy the moment.

Q: Do you think this describes another more profound and existential “imprecise boundary” between self and other, the observer and the observed, that your art seeks to transcend?

A: I guess so! I think that every kind of relation between observer and observed is permeated by a bond that transcends the five senses. This is the icon that generates emotions, an aesthetic experience for those who look at the images. It is the index that the photographer was there not only with a camera, but with all its cultural apparatus, or what I’d call his/her soul.

Q: What X-System camera did you use to shoot your Me & My Leica X images?

A: I used a Leica X1.

Q: What inspired you to enter the competition?

A: Well, I have some photographs up on the LFI Gallery and I always feel privileged to follow those beautiful images. So I saw the competition and decided to show some more of my work inside this contest.

Q: While your images certainly have a reportage or documentary feel, I think it is fair to call them fine art in the photojournalistic tradition. Many of them are enigmatic and emotional, suggesting possible narratives and capturing people, places and feelings without overly defining them,. In short, they are open-ended, and invite the viewer to enter your world and the world in front of your camera. Do you agree, and what are your thoughts on this?

A: It is just flattering that you understand my photographs like that, because this is just how I intend to relate with the reader of my images.

When I said before that the photographer should work not only with a camera, but with all his/her soul, that’s what makes the picture connect to the image reader. What I seek, then, is to create a message that is not my truth through photographs. I want to generate a dialogue, a debate, a reflection. I hope to establish a communication that is not closed, but that invites the readers to make their own connections and generate their own sense.

Q: The Leica X1 has a high quality, single-focal-length 36 mm-equivalent lens. How do you think shooting with this kind of camera has helped to shape your creative vision, and what are the advantages (other than the obvious ones of small size, quiet operation, and high image quality) of using a camera like this for your kind of work?

A: About the image quality, I think that fixed lenses always give me better results. Also, a focal distance between 28 and 40 mm is my favourite. That is very helpful, because you already know what to expect of the lens. I highlight that as the most important feature of using a camera like the Leica X1.

Q: While the Leica X1 has a rangefinder form factor, it is not technically a rangefinder camera. Do you typically use your X1 in autofocus mode, or do you sometimes focus manually?

A: As I mentioned before, I like to work between 28 mm and 40 mm. In that range the photographer needs to get closer to the subject. From an anthropological point of view, I guess that this makes him/her relate better with the subject, being part of the environment he/she is shooting. This is very important in my work.

When I used the X1, which is not properly a rangefinder, most of the time I left it on the manual focus mode. I still shoot a lot with film, with my M7, and as it is a manual focus camera, I follow the zone focusing system. I did the same with the X1, most of the time. But I also tried the autofocus in some situations and it is great, very precise. The choice between manual or autofocus depends on the situation.

Q: There is an image that has a powerful graphic impact — a moving figure silhouetted against a magnificent sunset with dark boats in the turbulent water and dark clouds scudding across the sky. Evidently it was shot at a slow shutter speed, but what’s going on here and can you provide some of the tech data for this image?

A: It is a photo of a young man playing football at the beach. It was twilight and I saw him so concentrated with the ball. He was playing it as if it was part of him. This is very typical in Brazil, as you may know. However, his moment of joy seemed as transient as the clouds. That looked very poetic to me and I was fortunate to get that shot.

About the slow shutter speed, I don’t like using flash. I prefer to work with what nature gives me. And the 1/40 sec speed (f/3.5 ISO 400) ended up giving me a result in which the silhouette looks like a cloud itself. That is what I like about this photograph.

Q: There is something humorous and kind of sad about the image showing a young man nodding off, with a provocative array of images plastered on the wall in the background. Part of the power of this image is the disparity between his sleepy disinterest and the brazen quality of the pictures behind him. But the excellent technical quality also helps make the point. What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release and what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO did you use to get such outstanding sharpness and detail?

A: First, thank you for the compliments at this image. I just found it very funny to see him sleeping in front of those pictures. This is actually a barbershop and he is the one who runs it. I guess he was taking a nap. As he has all those pictures on the wall, I think he might dream about those girls. The scene represented that in my opinion. That was shot with 1/6 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 100.

Q: This image is so simple, graphically compelling and conveys a sense of place and an entire mode of human existence so effectively. Certainly the unconventional composition, with the boy’s eyes peering out from under the rude table he’s holding over his head, and the bottom of his face cut off, contribute to its power. Do you agree, and what do you think you achieved with this image?

A: The little boy was so cute. This wooden artifact is a seat he carries everywhere. But the photograph is beyond those things. I think the dust road behind him is what creates the narrative, maybe showing what he, as a child, still has to roam. About “his face cut off” this is related to the way I shoot. As I said, I like to be close, and if that means cutting off, it means that I am shooting also what my eyes are able to see at the moment. I agree that this makes the image stronger, but mainly because his eyes have a lot to tell.

Q: This image is a graphic tour de force and a masterful composition that suggests the oppression of circumstance, striving, and a kind of transcendence, though what it actually shows is probably a much more everyday occurrence. The detail — the crude reinforced mud or clay wall, the barbed wire — is exquisite, and certainly takes it to another level, but the constellation of meanings is practically infinite. What, if anything specific, were you trying to communicate with this amazing image?

A: Again you make a very rich reading of the image. And that is fantastic because when a message is released in the universe of communication, its interpretation does not belong to the sender. I don’t know if consciously I was trying to communicate something specific. I just found it so beautiful that, though he was standing like that against the wall of his house, his eyes were on another plane, maybe seeing a wider horizon. That moment was just unbearable and I had to release the shutter.

Q: What are some of the recent assignments you’ve executed for Agence France-Presse? Do they entail working in challenging environments or conflict zones, and how do you think your work up until now has prepared you for such assignments?

A: I work as a stringer and it is quite new. They contacted me first because of the World Cup (Manaus – the city I live in – is one of the host cities for the FIFA World Cup). So here I have been shooting assignments more related to that. But they are also interested in conflict areas and certainly in the environmental issues. So I guess that soon I’ll be able to provide them images with those contents.

Also, when I worked for local papers I went on every kind of assignment. I shot a chef’s kitchen, a crime scene, police officers in dangerous action, environmental issues, sports, elections, concerts, festivals, etc. And in between that, I always carried on my personal projects and even photography as a hobby.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so, and do you plan to explore any other genres?

A: First I hope to improve my work, my way of communicating. I haven’t got a plan of what to explore, but I am sure I’ll still be interested in people and the way they live and relate. Now, I am working on the relation that people in my region have with the waterways (here we are surrounded by the mighty rivers of the Amazon basin). Maybe, that will become a book and some exhibitions. I hope it goes well. But why not experiment with other things? Let’s see what will come.

Thank you for your time, Raphael!

- Leica Internet Team

Learn more about Raphael on his website.