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Interview with Dalila Coelho

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Shinji Shiozaki: Introduce yourself and tell me about the space you grew up in and majored in photography.

Dalila Coelho: My name is Dalila. I am a photographer from Belo Horizonte. I'm 27 years old. I grew up on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte (BH), in a neighborhood called Serrano, which is a place that looks very much like a country town with very difficult access to the center, to other parts. And this was a place that marked my life trajectory, because my whole life was taking the bus and spending an hour on the bus seeing all the sights of the city until I got where I had to go. I graduated in journalism. I always focused on writing and reporting, and I did internships. When I graduated, I continued freelancing for a magazine that was for the elite of BH and the newsroom was in another city, in Nova Lima, which is a very rich city next to BH. And that marked my trajectory, which was crossing the city, an hour and a half by bus, seeing Nova Lima there on the other side and having to go there to write about restaurants I would never eat, hotels I would never travel to, so that the owners of the magazine could eat and travel for free. When I graduated, I was missing something that brought my identity to my portfolio, because I didn't identify with anything I produced. I did analog photography with very simple cameras, but it was more of a hobby. I wanted to record my trips and my outings with friends in a way that wasn't cell phone photography, a photography that was in another time. One day I was scrolling through Instagram and I came across tanning salons that use tape to make tanlines, which is what kind of started my career in photography. It was very much by chance. It was the middle of the year, it wasn't even summer or anything. I was very enchanted with that and then I saw in the colors of that place something that would match very well with the photography that I was doing with the analog camera, because it was a very saturated place and the film that I used was a very saturated film. I saw there an opportunity to bring the two things together, this desire of mine to work as a reporter, to investigate something, to tell a story that I identify with, that is not something for the elite, and to show these women working, these entrepreneurs, these services done in the periphery for the people of the periphery.

"I saw there an opportunity to bring the two things together, this desire of mine to work as a reporter, to investigate something, to tell a story that I identify with, that is not something for the elite, and to show these women working, these entrepreneurs, these services done in the periphery for the people of the periphery."

Shinji Shiozaki: This project came before Anitta's music video?

Dalila Coelho: No, it was afterwards. 

Shinji Shiozaki: Had you already seen it? 

Dalila Coelho: I already saw it, but one thing is the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro and another thing is this culture of tanning in BH, which doesn't have a beach and is a more conservative city. We don't have this tradition of showing tan lines, which is something that doesn't make so much sense here. And that was it, to see that this came here, that it wasn't just something from beach cities. So, I went after telling this story to investigate the arrival of this culture in Belo Horizonte.

Shinji Shiozaki: Tell me about the project. How did it start? How did it become a book? The Beauty project, of course.

Dalila Coelho: Beleza, the first photobook I published, is kind of a portfolio because it brings together the two photography series I had already done: "It’s Summer All Year," the series about the tanning salons, which was born as a photo story because I wanted to give my own identity to my portfolio. When I finished the report, I couldn't sell it to any platform. Then I started to publish the images and they resonated. I saw that they had expository potential, that they were perhaps more powerful than the actual interviews I did with those women because they showed the emergence of a phenomenon. They showed something happening in BH that those who are not from the periphery and who do not share these gestures do not know. So, I was revealing something to the world. With this project I won the Décio Noviello Photography Award, which is a prize from the Palácio das Artes, which is the most important photography prize in Minas Gerais. It was by chance. I had these photos and I wanted to show them to people. I had never done anything in art, I didn't know anyone in photography, I had no path, no trajectory. I didn't intentionally build a career on it. And then I sent the photos to the Décio Noviello Award and I won. I was very surprised, but it was a kick. It was really great. When it happened, I already had the idea of continuing this research on the aesthetics of the periphery, and not only the aesthetics of the periphery, but also the aesthetics of aesthetics professionals. So, when I was doing my internship in this newsroom in Nova Lima, I used to go through the center of town and I would notice the barbershops in the center. There’s the bustle of the city and at the same time you pass by a little door and there's a guy leaning back getting a shave. And I thought that was incredible and I wanted to photograph that. Then came the opportunity to do during FIFE, which is the International Photography Festival here in BH, a marathon to develop this series, 
"Aesthetic Rituals of the Periphery." I spent a month going to barbershops, beauty salons and nail salons downtown to show these rituals and the beauty salons that people from the periphery frequent downtown. These places are ritualistic spaces for the person to enhance their own image, enhance self-esteem. And also photographing the professionals, which was a focus very much on the hands of those who take care of these people because, when I went to photograph, I noticed that all hands are very beautiful. Barbers usually wear rings and tattoos on their hands, and manicurists also always have their nails very well done. It's that conversation of the hand that does and the hand of the client that I found very beautiful and wanted to photograph all this. And then, when I was making this series, I received the invitation to make the book. Initially it was going to be a book with just the tanning series and I told the editor that I was doing another project that would add to it. So I finished "Aesthetic Rituals" at the end of 2020, and we spent 2021 putting the book together. It was a very nice job working with Pedro Castro, who is a photographer and a journalist, so we conversed on many things. He's the founder of Tona, an independent publishing house in Belo Horizonte, and we spent half a year developing this book, thinking about how to group these images and build a product that would value these professionals, that would value the work of people who work with beauty and show it as art. And that’s it, the idea of the book is to show the beauty of these professionals who take care of the beauty of the peripheral people and how meticulous it is to create a tanline with tape, to take care of a person's skin so that she can get a mark that is just for her to show off and all the details of haircuts, manicures, all of this. Then I put it all together in this book Beleza.

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Shinji Shiozaki: How do you relate to the object you photograph? How does this work of yours and the photographed work?

Dalila Coelho: This was the first project I did professionally, it was in 2019. Now I am developing my third photography project that is more personal. But this relationship is one that I establish more through journalism, which is this thing of going after the source, the character, approaching the person. Until then I was in a documentary place, going after these places, selecting the places that match the aesthetics I wanted to photograph and speaking from this place of, "Look, I am a photographer. I'm doing a paper on tanning salons, on barbershops, on manicures, and I'd like to photograph your work to show in that paper of mine, is that okay?" Only with a specific person from tanning, I ended up creating a relationship, because I was super nervous, super insecure, when I went to propose the work. I was thinking that these women would find it very invasive, wanting to enter the space to photograph, which is a space where women are very comfortable, but also do not want to be looked at from the outside. But the first time I sent a message to Lud, who owns "Lud's Bronze," she turned to me and said, 
"Just yesterday I was asking God that some journalist would want to tell my story. And it was this absurd match because she is a super hard working woman, who herself did the construction work in the place as a bricklayer's helper to build her tanning space, and she wanted to tell this story. I showed up and I didn't have the repercussions she wanted from TV, from being in print. But it became a photo exhibit, it became a book, it was published in several places, and she enjoys following along. We became really good friends.

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Shinji Shiozaki: What is your first memory of photography? Do you remember that affective memory of photography?

Dalila Coelhos: My mother always loved to photograph me and my brothers when we were kids. And I think that the attachment with analog photography comes from that, the film that I used to buy to photograph the birthday, and to take  the film to develop the photos at Carrefour. All this relationship with photography and my mother, the amateur photography to record the important moments of the family. In adolescence, in early adulthood, in the beginning of college, I really wanted to, but I had no motivation to go photographing because I thought it would be either too expensive or too difficult. I had never invested in a digital camera. I had no desire to learn to mess around with those cameras, but in this I rescued analog photography. First I bought a disposable camera to see if I liked it. And then the first camera I got was a camera that I found at home that belonged to my mother, and I took it to take my first pictures.

Shinji Shiozaki: You said you didn't have much interest in photography and now you come out with a book. How is that photographic thinking going?

Dalila Coelhos: Man, it's funny, because I always photograph with film, and before it was something with very, very limited resources. The tanning series I produced in all, the raw one itself has 72 photos. So, it's very few images that I produced. So it's all much more valuable. And it's funny because now I've made contact with a lot of people, I have access to a lot more things and I exchange a lot of help and a lot of collaboration and opinions with people that are very involved in the medium, but I miss that ingenuity to produce and that lack of resources, because I think looking was much more valuable. Now, in this new photography project that I am finishing, I shot I think thirteen rolls of film. Before I photographed three, and now I have many more images. And then it's that thing of having the resources to experiment with a photo with flash, without flash. And then I think the photos lose a little power. So we have to have a much better editorial eye to be able to see what is really the strength of the work in order to make these cuts.

Shinji Shiozaki: How did you consume photography, in the sense of reference? Were you already assiduous in it, or was it kind of in the dark, was it kind of extinct?

Dalila Coelhos: I was, but much less so. In undergraduate studies, I followed the visual track to study. So I studied image theories, I studied aesthetics, I saw Cartier-Bresson, all those things. So, I had the thought of composition, of cutting, of building an image. But it's crazy because a lot of references came later. I always visited many exhibitions, I researched a lot on the internet, Vice was my great reference for the production of photojournalism. But, just like these tanning photographs, they remind me a lot of Martin Parr, but I didn't know him before. When I was ready with the work, I showed it to a friend and he said "gee, it looks a lot like that.”  And then some references came even after production, like Bárbara Wagner's "Brasília Teimosa," which I only got to know when I was already doing the work. But these are things that maybe we bump into, that we see afterwards, but that also enhance what we are doing. Today there is much more study, because today I am finishing my residency, which is the Pampulha Fellowship, and I took photography to another side. I was tired of doing documentary photography, I wanted to do something less "looking from the outside" and insert myself in something to register my own experience. And then I had more time and more resources to research and to develop my project, and then there was a lot more reference study, to go and see everything that Nan Goldin did on registering domestic life, Sophie Calle, and other women. I have been going much deeper into this reference study to understand what I want to do, what corresponds to my aesthetic.

"The feedback I got was very positive, which is that of people seeing the sensitivity in recording diverse bodies at ease with themselves. And that was it. I think I had a certain fear, but in the end the result was really positive."

Shinji Shiozaki: I wanted to ask you also, you were talking about the tanning project. I think there is always this fear of, especially in documentary, like, "there are scantily clad people there, I don't know if they want to expose themselves or not.” How do you measure that exposure versus the desire to make a photo?

Dalila Coelhos: So, everything was discussed before producing the images. I talk to the owners of the spaces for a while, explaining the idea. Then I schedule a day for me to go. Then they'll talk to the clients, and explain that there will be a reporter. There was all this conversation before and I think I always try to build a very respectful relationship with whoever I'm photographing, to understand if the person is comfortable with the image I'm producing, if they want me to produce this image. But also in a way that doesn't interfere with the image itself, that doesn't make it less spontaneous than I want it to be. So, I was very anxious when I went to exhibit this work for fear of this conservatism that will say that it is a picture of naked women. But we make a cut for these images not to expose the faces of the women photographed and not to show any nudity, like, it's all covered up with tape, but it's covered up. The feedback I got was very positive, which is that of people seeing the sensitivity in recording diverse bodies at ease with themselves. And that was it. I think I had a certain fear, but in the end the result was really positive.

Shinji Shiozaki: Did any feedback come in that was off your radar, like, did any reviews come in, good or bad, that you weren't expecting?

Dalila Coelhos: Whenever these, especially these photos of the tanning, are published in big portals, like Trip, TPM, IMS, there's a lot of comments like "Gee, so many people producing so many beautiful things and you're going to give visibility to this?” And also a lot of people saying "skin cancer is a real health problem and this is dangerous". "Tanning like this is bad for your health." So there are always these kinds of comments. But that's it, there is nothing we can do about it.

"I took my first photos with a really cheap camera, which was what I could afford at the time. It was a $20 camera that I wanted, something at the disposable camera level, but that I wouldn't have to throw away. And that's what I got. It was my best work to date."

Shinji Shiozaki: And how did you decide on equipment and choices like that? What were the equipment that you used and the method?

Dalila Coelhos: I always photograph with a point and shoot camera. I think the look is much more important than the technique and, I don't know, I think this is the path I want to follow. I took my first photos with a really cheap camera, which was what I could afford at the time. It was a $20 camera that I wanted, something at the disposable camera level, but that I wouldn't have to throw away. And that's what I got. It was my best work to date. But then with time I got more resources. Today I have three cameras that I take turns with. Normally I shoot with two cameras, one black and white and one color, to vary the film. I have one more camera with a zoom, but all automatic. And a camera with the best lens, which is Miju, and there the lens is great. I like to switch them up. I have many photographer friends, we keep exchanging cameras. I already got a remote control camera with a friend to test, and I'm experimenting, but always with a practical compact camera, that gives me enough freedom to produce.

Shinji Shiozaki: How did you get to the photobook, because there is always this question of the final product being in articles or as a collection?

Dalila Coelhos: I had never thought about it. I did not consume photobooks. I received an invitation from Pedro, because he had just published the book "15:30" by the photographer Isis Medeiros, which is a fantastic book about the attack in Mariana. And then he invited me because he had published this book and he wanted the second book to be mine, with my photos. And so, I thought it was a great idea, because it's a great way to have more photos around than selling a print. Because a print, the person will buy one, they won't buy several. With the book they can really dive into what I produced and I thought it was a fantastic idea. I started to get interested, to study books, to buy books, to go to libraries that have photobooks to really understand the object. But then I had fixed ideas, I visualized how I wanted the cover, I visualized that I wanted something very robust to enhance what's inside. And that's what I insisted on from the beginning, which was I wanted the hard cover, I wanted the hot stamp, I wanted the serif font, all that stuff. And the result came, and I think the cover was very important for the book to have the repercussions it had. I think that creating beautiful material is also essential.

Shinji Shiozaki: And how do you think your photo represents Brazil?

Dalila Coelhos: I’m not sure, but I feel that I am in an iconography of what is Brazil in the 21st century, with Instagram and registering peripheries, because it is something that people do in their own image with social media and following. Especially in the tanning and nail salons, I see that there is this spectacle of doing and showing in the story and designing the tan line, showing that you are doing nails. All these social status symbols that you have to adapt. And I think that's it. I think it is registering a phenomenon with a BH slant, because I end up returning my production to here, but it is present in all corners of Brazil as well.

Interview by Shinji Shiozaki for the Digital Brazil Project.

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