Interview with Hugo Martins
Shinji Shiozaki: What was the environment like growing up and how does that impact your photography?
Hugo Martins: I'm from São Bernardo do Campo, from the neighborhood called Baeta Neves, a peripheral neighborhood, today not so much, but in my time until at least the mid-2000s it was that. I lived with my father, my mother, and my older sister. References related to the image that I have from that time comes a lot from the relationship with my mother. My mother is the person who does both manual and artistic work in the house. My relationship with the image comes a lot from the photographs inside the house, that shoe box old photographs. If you go to my house, at some point my mother will take this blessed box and say, "Look at Hugo here, look how he was". And then you'll see a little bit of this visual history. My dad was the guy who recorded things. In talking to my parents about it, my mother started to explain their relationship with photography, because, obviously, they couldn't afford a camera, it was a disposable camera. My father is an only child and my grandmother separated from my grandfather very early. So, my grandmother went to São Paulo to work and my father stayed with his aunt in Minas. And there is this whole gap. I don't know if he consciously thinks that, I would need to ask him, but for me it is very clear that the photos I have from my childhood are because he never had these photos, for sure. Certainly photography for me can be an interesting way for me to communicate visually. I ended up going for the authorial, because I also didn't want to do work on demand because I already do this daily at my job. So I said "If photography is something of a mechanical delivery, it's not something I'm interested in". So, I think my relationship with Bahia and with the market were strong in this aspect.
Shinji Shiozaki: How was the process of your book? Where did it go, and where is it going?
Hugo Martins: Odu was a project that came out of a restlessness of mine, precisely in this aspect that I am describing. Like, "I'm there with two hard drives full of images, what am I going to do with that? Just post it on Instagram?" Tomorrow Instagram no longer exists and you have no legacy. During the pandemic I started having more time and I started exploring what I was going to do with the work. I started looking at the archives and I said "it might be a good thing for me to put it out in book format." First because of the historical importance of the São Joaquim Market, here in Salvador is part of the cultural history of Bahia. Since the market in Água de Meninos caught fire, it even had that movie "A Grande Feira," that Glauber Rocha produced. You realize the relationship that this market has with the markets in Africa, so when you look at the São Joaquim market and look at the market in Angola or Nigeria, on the street there, in that flow, you can't tell, if you show the images separately, which is one place and which is the other. So I started to research what people were doing. And you have clippings of works from the market, you don't have several books produced within the context there. So, this caught my attention. I said "That's where I'm going". And then it converged to be a book. Initially I was only going to publish the work, but then, you're already half in the water, you keep going. But beyond that, it was the fact of having a historical memorial legacy of my experience. I always say this to people, I don't pretend to say that Odu is a slice of the São Joaquim market, although I have heard this from people there. But it is much more for me, first of all, not to historically erase myself. I have this concern because I do research on my family, on my father's side, and I find no image, I find nothing, and I have no son. So my concern is, besides all that, to keep myself alive through this work and keep the market alive through this work. I don't know if in ten years they are going to gentrify that whole region and the market will disappear or it will become something else. What happens there today is due to diasporic displacement. The people who came from Africa to the Recôncavo, to Salvador and are generating the economy that way. So, I felt it was important to contribute in this way. Odu was born from this need to have this historical legacy from my experience there, telling the story of Black people in diaspora, generating the economy and sustaining the socio-cultural pillars of Salvador. That's basically it. I did it through crowd-sourcing, so there was a very strong adhesion from people to make the work happen. During the fundraising I managed to beat the goal, I funded the entire project. There were 121 people who collaborated. And it was knocking on doors to be able to circulate the project that the book was available. I did a lot of virtual events to talk about the project. I also got in touch with some foreign platforms, which published articles about the work, which are platforms focused on work by Black people. But photobooks don't make money, and so I didn't do Odu to sell photos at SP Arte. Of course, if there was an invitation, I'm no fool, but I didn't do the book with the market in mind. I did the book thinking about the legacy of memory. I see that sometimes people are a little anxious about making money and Odu goes somewhere else in that respect. It brings knowledge to the people.
"[...] I like everything that does not bring obviousness to the image. For me, a purist image is something that doesn't interest me, even in the context that I come from with art and design."
Shinji Shiozaki: How do you conceptualize your themes as an authorial photographer? How do they happen in your day by day? What are the guidelines that you have for your projects?
Hugo Martins: I have two things that are very strong in my work. One is to work with deviation, I won't say error, but deviation. For example, I like everything that does not bring obviousness to the image. For me, a purist image is something that doesn't interest me, even in the context that I come from with art and design. So, one of the first things I learned in photography was to unlearn and make something that makes sense to me. So when I choose the subject, first I have to create intimacy with the subject, an intimacy good enough for me to bring my sociocultural context to the work. And I have rules regarding aesthetics and color. I don't have projects, for example, in black and white. So I think that a strong premise in my work, on the one hand, is aesthetics. If you take Janela Subconsciente, which was one of the works I sent you, it is a bit like that, you know? It's a work that has a philosophical base of things that I think about, but it's an open exploration of an aesthetic that is interesting to me. And the history part, for example, if I am going to talk about a place or a cultural context for me, I work more slowly and with a long time frame. So, the criterion for me is to understand the context of the project from the point of view of the socio-cultural contribution of that within photography. And today, basically, I want to work with projects involving Black people, that's what I do. Working with photography archives is another choice for expanded photography and experimentation. I have a method to work with, but my criteria for choosing an agenda is more organic.
"Odu was the process of me understanding myself as a Black man in Salvador, being from the southeast, producing photography in Bahia."
Shinji Shiozaki: Do you search for understanding within Black culture through your photography? Like, does it function as a search for your own understanding? Or does it function as an attempt to make people understand?
Hugo Martins: I think that today this unfolds more towards the other. But, for example, when I produced everything that I have, I have more than fifteen thousand images here from the market. Looking at this archive and understanding that it serves some purpose, it was from the moment I began to understand what it was like to deal with all those people in there, who were mostly, essentially, Black, and I understood myself as a Black guy in this environment. Because I was photographing, but I started to make friends with people. I started to see an acceptance of myself as an aesthetic, not only as a photographer. I go there to buy things for myself, too. I started to understand the work through the relationship with the people inside. I only understood that this could be a book much later during the pandemic. Odu was the process of me understanding myself as a Black man in Salvador, being from the southeast, producing photography in Bahia. And what I would need to do in order not to infringe on these people, which was something I see a lot there. The guy goes there, does a portrait of the person and says, "this is my friend.” But if I go over there and I say, "Do you know so-and-so?" The guy goes, "No." So, if you notice, Odu doesn't have many posed portraits. In fact, there aren't any, because it's not about me having my friends that I photograph, because I have few friends there. It's a workplace, it's not a place to go clubbing. And that's how I related to the space. From the moment I understood that, and that this was what I could offer, that's what I worked on. So I never had the intention of, “Now Black people are going to understand what the São Joaquim market is, and white people too. And the São Joaquim market will be a success.” But I know that it is a documentary legacy of this place, that if you pull up the IMS today, you will find Odu there and you will understand what the São Joaquim market is from my point of view. But I don't have that pretension. I don't think I can explain the value of the Black man from my images alone. I need to put myself as a body there, too. And Odu was very much this. A lot of people didn't understand what I was doing until they heard me talk about the work. I think it is romanticizing, you say that your work will make people, from then on, have a better understanding about a given subject. I think photography is too ephemeral for that. But I know that if in fifty years time this book is around, it will mark a space-time of what happened at the market, because of the images or because the market no longer exists. So, I don't even think about that for now.
Shinji Shiozaki: Does that vision transfer your own understanding to the people who read your book?
Hugo Martins: Yes, I think so. I think that people have an understanding of the fair from the work. One of the guys I have the closest friendship with, Valdecir, is also in the book, in the acknowledgement. I asked him, "So, what do you think as someone who works here, who knows what the market is. Does the book show what the market is?" Then he said, "Hugo, I open this book, call my son and tell him: this is your father's work. This is what your father does.” For me, the response was wonderful. And I'm sure that someone who sees, from my own experience, someone who goes to the fair with Odu, will have a map of where to go there. And from understanding, too, people giving me feedback like, "I'm even feeling the heat from the hall. I can even smell things." So, I think that this feedback gives me an idea that people are understanding the work, in a certain way.
"And I'm sure that someone who sees, from my own experience, someone who goes to the fair with Odu, will have a map of where to go there."
Shinji Shiozaki: Tell me about the Sword of Iansã in your project on meaning.
Hugo Martins: I spent a year in the studio and I wanted to produce a portrait. But I didn't want to just do the technique, for example, I'll learn everything and I'll get some random people. At the time I was in a studio. And I started to exchange ideas with some practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions and ask them how they saw themselves within the diasporic, religious context. And then I started to have the idea of taking them to the studio. How would that work? Before going to the studio, I would go to São Joaquim, I would buy any elements or things that they felt they connected with more. It could be any element or symbolism related to religions of African origin. And then we'd go to the studio. When we got there, I would start to ask about people's relationship with the elements; what they understood to be more relevant for them in terms of protection, in terms of health. And then, with all those elements there, people chose what they wanted to work on. So, for example, in the case of this one, of the Sword of Ogum, one day a friend of mine and her son did it. And he is not so much in the context, but she worships where I do. And talking to him, he identified himself there. And it was really cool because, and I think this contributed a lot to these portraits, he started to become very immersed. And I was kind of giving him some guidelines on things that would work better aesthetically. So he took the sword and we started to hold it in various ways until this image came out. For me, the symbolism there was very explicit protection, resistance, and really the belief that people have that element, the sword of St. George, the sword of Ogum, the sword of Iansã relates to the energy of movement, to the energy of struggle, especially the younger crowd. The youth identify themselves very much with Ogum, because he is the Orixá of War. There is a dance dynamic that also has movements that are related to this and they end up relating to this element. First there’s a conversation to understand the contexts and where people come from in relation to the elements, and then we create the narratives. But the sword itself, in this specific portrait, for me, and whenever I write any text people identify with it a lot, is very much the question of protection, struggle and resistance. It's three things, so much so that I had named that image "Resistance."
Shinji Shiozaki: And looking at your projects in panorama, as a whole, I see that the lights that you observe are very different from each other.
Hugo Martins: Yes
Shinji Shiozaki: You have the market series, which is a documentary project, and then you have the studio. You also have some that are more blurry, more experimental. How do you observe light? Is it by design? How do you think about light?
Hugo Martins: I take advantage of what is available. I think that's why there is a lot of difference. You'll notice that the color might not change much, but the light influences my way of producing. For example, I'm starting to use more flash in my work for quality reasons. Like, there are dark areas that you can't get to and highlight what you want, and the flash helps. But it's flash as a complement to the light, not as a style. In general, I go for what the environment offers. So, for example, those blurry images you mentioned, that's how it presents itself there. So, you have the closed space with the translucent window there that I take advantage of. But, at the same time, I have what comes reflected from the water, because you are on the ferry, so, depending on how the sun is beating down, the water will beat the light inwards in a different way. But if I were to summarize, I go on what is available first and then I try to bring the colors to that light that is available there. And even in post-production, sometimes I light some areas that are not where I want them. Then I invert the relationship, for example. And that's where the thing of not having purism comes in. I put the ISO way up there if I want a light that I'm not going to reach. I change the exposure and everything else, because for me I have to reach what is in my head and not a more conventional technical quality. So, for example, I like to work with blurred light, as long as it brings me something that aesthetically works for the project. I can't look at three projects and say I'm going to work on the same light aesthetic. Color yes, a lot, probably. But the light, no.
"And that's it, in the history of photography in Brazil, it has always been elitist. It was never popularized. And now that people are getting more empowered to work, especially film, documentary and cinema people, I think it's important for the newcomers not to be too heavy on the amount of equipment.."
Shinji Shiozaki: And what is the relationship with equipment? How do you work, how do you go out on the street? When do you pick it up? Talk about your relationship with equipment.
Hugo Martins: I am very technical with photography, but my work doesn't necessarily show purism because I like to subvert. I have old cameras, from the forties onwards. I have a Leica IIIc that's from 1941. So I know that when I put the film in there I'm going to have that look, right? I have a twin lens from Yashica, that 124G, which is already another thing, it's a medium format. And then I like to use expired film in it, because I know that I will gain another type of aesthetic for what we propose, which is to subvert it. And I have a Hasselblad that is in the same format, medium format, but I approach it with greater purism. So, when I use it, I use a light meter, tripod, and all that stuff. Then in digital I have, for example, that Fuji that is for the street, so it's works everywhere. I even used it a lot at the market, in Odu. Many images I made with it because it gives me greater mobility, greater flexibility to work and deliver a lot of things. And then I have the heavy ones, like, if I'm going to do commissioned work, then I'm serious. Then I go with what I have to go with, because otherwise you don't deliver, and then you lose the client. If I'm going to do street, I go to the dump. I take some expired film or some brands that are kind of B-sides and I go to the street. Because what matters to me is what's going to come out, the aesthetic result of the film, especially the color. For example, there are colored films that at the end of the afternoon, when the sun is down and there is that big orange color, you get a color that I have never seen before in my life. It is only film that gives this result, there is no way to emulate it in digital, there is no way. And that's it, in the history of photography in Brazil, it has always been elitist. It was never popularized. And now that people are getting more empowered to work, especially film, documentary and cinema people, I think it's important for the newcomers not to be too heavy on the amount of equipment. For example, I had a photography class on photometry and I left the class without learning anything. And I only picked up the technique when I went to the street. So, sometimes you close a door for some people, because they say, "It's expensive. If I don't have such equipment, I can't even go along.” Or, "No, it's too mathematical, I'm more of an arts guy." And at the end of the day it's how you're going to adapt the equipment to your needs. So, I can use a Hasselblad that's heavy hardware to take a picture that you'll look at and you'll think it's a cell phone picture. But that's what I want to get out of the equipment at that moment. So, if I were to say one thing, like you said, for people who are arriving, master the equipment, master all the media that you want to use, from cell phone to full frame mirrorless camera, and then you see what you do. Because I've spent a lot of money on stuff that is useless, and then you subvert it, you create your style and you understand. Like, I will use this here for this, this for that, for something else and so on. My speech is much more about not putting this as something primordial for the person, the woman or the man, to be a photographer, or to understand himself as an artist. I had this thought a lot in my evolution process. Like, is this photography here?
Shinji Shiozaki: How do you think your photos represent Brazil?
Hugo Martins: I speak from my affirmation as a Black man. So for everything I do in photography, I am thinking about this. Taking just this approach, I don't think it's even how my work represents Brazil, but how I try to understand Brazil from the work I do. I think it's the opposite. I don't understand, especially in the Brazil we live in today. I try much more to understand my relationship with my concerns based on my relationship with Brazil, here in Bahia, and it is a specific snippet, than to be able to show what Brazil is.
Interview by Shinji Shiozaki for the Digital Brazil Project.