Interview with Maíra Erlich
Shinji Shiozaki: Tell me about yourself and the space you grew up in. Who are you? Where did you grow up?
Maíra Erlich: I was born and raised in Recife, where I am now too. I'm going to be 36. Our family is middle class, I always lived in a middle class neighborhood here in Recife. Today I live in the neighborhood where I was born. I studied at an alternative school and then in a Catholic school. But I don't have a religion, I wasn't baptized. My father is Jewish and my mother is Catholic. And today I am an initiate of Umbanda. But I think that this is also a part of who I am, in the understanding of my place in the world. Because, only recently, a few months ago, I understood myself as being half Polish. And I had never really stopped to think about it. So I lived a little bit like that, you know? My family, part Jewish, and I studied in a Catholic school, without really fitting in. I think that in that sense this part was very big. I have an understanding today of how big this part was, of not fitting in in most of the places where I was.
Shinji Shiozaki: What is the first memory you have of photography?
Maíra Erlich: Before I started photography, my mother had a Nikon that she had bought for her honeymoon. I remember her photographing us. We have some nice childhood photos, me and my brother. Then my brother, who is older, got this camera when he started college and took a course.He kept it for a while. And when I went to college, I did a BA in design at the Federal University of Pernambuco, and right in the second period I had a photography elective that I took and that's when it started for me. So, I rescued this camera from my mother that had been passed down to my brother and me. It stayed with me and was my first strong connection with photography. Soon after, I got a digital one and dove deeper. That was in 2006. I was 19 when photography came on full-force. Then I graduated a few years later in design, but then photography took over. So, I'm a former designer.
"Every day that I am there photographing, I know that it is an opportunity for them to have important family photos and that the photos—you don't know what can happen with the passing of time— photos can gain more value, right?"
Shinji Shiozaki: I was reading in your bio on your website that you started with events.
Maíra Erlich: Yeah, I'd dive in and that was it. I want to do the best I can for people and the important history of the families. Every day that I am there photographing, I know that it is an opportunity for them to have important family photos and that the photos—you don't know what can happen with the passing of time— photos can gain more value, right? A mother who died two months later, or things like that. Life goes by and the photos gain more importance. So, I was very dedicated to doing the best I could for that future memory of those families.
Shinji Shiozaki: How was this transition from event photography to journalism to surrealism? How was this aesthetic journey?
Maíra Erlich: So, I started focusing a lot on weddings in 2010. I had done a bit of fashion work, family work, portrait work, some things like that. And then I got into weddings. Wedding photography is something that completely absorbs you, sucks you in, so my life was wedding photography for eight years. I did about 200 weddings and I think it was a great school for me because I photographed most of the weddings in Recife. I also photographed in other states and other countries, but most of them ended up being in Recife. So we were always in the same churches, the same halls, the same environments. I needed some motivation to keep me there, so I kept trying to find what I could see that was different in that same environment. So, I had several phases in wedding photography itself, of discoveries and then experimentations to keep me engaged in that place. After I decided to stop doing weddings, the process of finishing lasted at least three years. When I decided to stop, I still had over 20 weddings to do. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it wasn't weddings. I'd had it. I think I reached the levels every wedding photographer would like to get to. I was winning international awards, speaking at the best events. But that wasn't making me happy anymore, for several reasons, it was body, mind, and creatively too. So, today I carry the effects in my body that were caused by this excess of weddings. I am grateful, because I know it was a great school, but I still needed to learn a lot. I still need to learn a lot, because it is very different to photograph the real world, which is not this world where everyone is beautiful, made up, happy with champagne. I am still entangled in this transition, actually, from marriage to journalism, because wedding photography is still my base. It’s always my base of comparison. I learned what not to do, because there are many things I used to do for weddings that I can't do on the street or with a humble person I just met, right? So, I think my way of photographing has changed in this sense, because the intimacy is different, the construction of intimacy is very different. And, especially, when you bring dignity to people because, sometimes, a photo I took at a wedding could be funny but if I take the same photo today with a different person on the street it would be perverse. So, environments change, relationships change a lot.
"So, one thing I understood from some reflection is that, ultimately, the main theme that interests me and that has always permeated all my work is the family."
Shinji Shiozaki: How do themes work in your head? Does it happen on a daily basis or is it thought out? How are you photographing? What is the guideline for your projects?
Maíra Erlich: So, one thing I understood from some reflection is that, ultimately, the main theme that interests me and that has always permeated all my work is the family. For me it is very different to photograph a family or to photograph a Bolsonaro rally. Of course it will be different. What I will see, what will draw my attention, the way I will photograph there. So, I still have learned a lot about this, to understand what journalism is, what is the photo that tells the story of that agenda there, what would be the main photo?
I am still learning and every job that I have done has been very challenging because of that, because each thing is very new. Now it's the first time I've done the same assignment repeatedly. Like, I did the Lula and Bolsonaro rally, and then I did another Lula rally. So, like, "Great, I already understand more or less what it is that I have to do here." But not the first one. The first one is like, "Oh my God, it's the first time I'm doing it. So, every assignment that I've had is still a first and that has brought me a lot of reflection and learning. The first thing is
"What does the editor expect? Which photo ends up getting published the most?" Sometimes I pass a photo that I think is great and he doesn't even select it to put in the system. All of this has been a learning process. But there’s also a lot of power... I think it was yesterday, or the day before yesterday, a my photo in a Bloomberg article, a photo of Lula that I took in Belém, with the headline that Lula is about to win in the first round according to the polls. And then, looking at my photo illustrating that article, I'm thinking, "My God, I used to take wedding photos. And of course, for those people those photos were the most important photos. But now my photo can go out to the world and tell the story of Brazil, a part of Brazil's history. So this relationship has also been great to see, right? I have no control either. Like, this work I've been doing for Bloomberg is with an agency, so it's sold by Getty Images, too. And then, there's a photo that I took at a meeting between Lula and Indigenous leaders, a photo of an Indigenous person, a shaman that, was in El País in a story about endangered Indigenous languages. I googled my name to see what has appeared again in the last month, to see what photos are being used. But at the same time, when I was doing weddings, I liked that my photos could also come out of that bubble. So, I used to take photos that I took at weddings to therapy and show why I did it that way, because that's what interested me. And I started to see myself, my fears, my traumas, my things, in my wedding photos. And I also tried to raise these questions when I gave a lecture, for example. So, sometimes, I would take a photo from a wedding and ask each person to interpret that photo. And each one interprets it as it is. Each one interprets how each person is. Each person sees something different in it. And so this was very cool for me, too. To be able to see the different interpretations of a wedding photograph.
Shinji Shiozaki: There are people who say that the photographer has to be invisible, others who don't. What is your process? Do you prefer to be a part of it and engage with the person you photograph, or do you prefer not to go in too much and make a voyeuristic image?
Maíra Erlich: I think this has changed a lot in my photography, which is also why I stopped doing street photography. Because I think there are two aspects of invisibility. There is invisibility when you are not really being seen, a paparazzi kind of thing. So I used to photograph pretending that I wasn't photographing. For example, I'm pointing the camera here, while I look to the side and pretend that I'm not taking that picture. I used to do that and today I think it's horrible. But, there is another kind of invisibility, which I think is what I brought more in wedding photography, the invisibility through intimacy. So, the person is so comfortable with me there that they don't even care that I'm there. And I think that connection is much more honest. And I think this is much more visible in the result of the images. Like, I'm inside the woman's house, I'm not pretending that I'm not there. I am there, but I want my presence to make her comfortable to the point that the images reflect that. So, that was something that changed a lot. This connection with people in this transition of areas. So it's about coming to a person's house with a camera in your backpack and talking to them for an hour or so. Then asking permission, asking if they want some photos, too. It's another relationship, completely different, because that woman didn't hire me to be there. She is not paying me. And many times I even share part of my fee with these people, because these are situations that, well, it's hard not to do anything. So, this is something that has changed a lot in my relationship, is the connection with these people. How do we connect, right? Because she didn't look for me. I am invading her space. I don't want to be a nuisance. But I think so far it has been nice. I was able to connect well with people and I think I got good results in terms of connection and photos.
"And I need to do my best always so that my name can grow, and new opportunities arise, and to be able to tell that story in the best way, too, especially knowing that each article I do is an opportunity to tell a story from my point of view, and that, depending on the article, it can cause some kind of transformation in the world."
Shinji Shiozaki: Do stories move you? Do you take them in and keep them for a long time? How do you work with that connection to people?
Maíra Erlich: Yes, totally. Just like I got involved in the weddings, I totally I give myself up for each story. And I need to do my best always so that my name can grow, and new opportunities arise, and to be able to tell that story in the best way, too, especially knowing that each article I do is an opportunity to tell a story from my point of view, and that, depending on the article, it can cause some kind of transformation in the world. I left a place where the story was always the same to now telling important stories about our country, our time, our world. So, all of this is an opportunity to impact someone, because the first thing people will see are the images and then they will read the text.
Shinji Shiozaki: Do you worry about not putting too much of your particular viewpoint? How does this symbolism within an image work, politically?
Maíra Erlich: I think it is impossible not to put it in, because it is the way you see things. Every photograph for me is an opinion, it's a chance you have to say something without words. So there are ways of photographing. If you look, on the same day, I did rally for Lula and one for Bolsonaro. Of course they were photographed in different ways, because the environments are different, people are different, the way those people are acting is different. And my emotions there are also different. So there is no way I can pretend through the image that it is the same, right? So, I don't know. I hope so, there are many things that are totally impartial because registers the moment there. But sometimes, what I choose to focus on, or in what way I choose, even what I choose to deliver or not, all of that is opinion, too. I understand that journalism needs to be impartial, but we are totally biased as people. So, maybe I’m being totally unethical, I don't know. But I think that there comes a time when we can't pretend that we are not people, too, that we have opinions and it is very intrinsic in us the way we see ourselves. You can't expect me to go to an event like this and photograph certain people in an astral divergence from reality.
"But, for the most part, I go through life and if it hits me, I photograph it, and only afterwards do I try to understand what it was. So it's never very planned, no."
Shinji Shiozaki: How do you think about these personal projects? Are they like a journey? Or, do you get interested in the theme and go? How do you think about the images? Do you research the reference before, or do you arrive at the place and see? How does the modus operandi of creating photos work? Not the journalistic photos, because I think photojournalism has the issue of the slant. But the question is kind of personal, for yourself.
Maíra Erlich: I think that for me to choose, to execute that click, that thing has to change me in some way. The way I experience certain places is through photography. So, that was cool for me, too. And to understand that many of the photos I had taken in Bahia was connected to the theme of water, so everything had a lot to do with water. But my personal projects end up involving more of that other theme I mentioned, which is family. So, I have a project today that is dragging on, I should have finished it a long time ago. I don’t share it much because I still don't understand 100% what it is, so I don't want to publish it. But I have this project that is about the elderly, and it ended up being about my grandmother. Anyway, I'm still understanding what this relationship is, but it's totally connected to my grandmother and the family. But it's the themes that interest me, culture and family. So when something comes up, I think it's great because these are the themes that permeate me. But, for the most part, I go through life and if it hits me, I photograph it, and only afterwards do I try to understand what it was. So it's never very planned, no.
Shinji Shiozaki: I know that a lot of your work is going to Getty Images, to publications. But do you think about collecting, exhibiting, printing? How do you think about finishing the photo?
Maíra Erlich: It depends a lot on each thing that is photographed. So, there will be photos that will die on Instagram. There will be photos that will be published. My project, the one I'm doing, I want it to become a book, but I can always change my mind. And I still don't have much clarity about collecting. Sometimes some people ask me for photos to buy and then I go and sell a photo and so on. But, as I don't divulge it, it ends up that only those who really want it come and ask me. So, I don't have this very clear yet. But, for now, this is my idea, to keep making projects that are relevant in some way. And Claudio Feijó says something very nice, which is that the photo doesn't end the moment you take it. First you capture the image, then you make decisions about it, decisions of choosing the photo and choosing how to treat that photo, and how to crop it and so on. Choosing what the medium is going to be, the format you're going to display it in, whether it's on Instagram, whether it's on a device and so on. And lastly, is when you hand the photo over to the world, and from that point on, you're going to completely lose responsibility for where that photo goes. And that photo becomes the world and it can turn into a million things. It can become a meme. That thing that I talked about too, each person can interpret it differently and each person will see the photo as each person is. And you lose total ownership of it.
"And that photo becomes the world and it can turn into a million things."
Shinji Shiozaki: I saw this essay from Bahia and the others you sent, the one in the fog. I thought you had this school, in quotes, of street photography, of Martin Parr.
Maíra Erlich: I had a lot of references that changed over time. So, Martin Parr was for a time, yes. But then there was this time, for example, of Manoel de Barros, that I tried to bring a bit of surrealism. I think surrealism comes from that. Now it's starting to connect things a little, because Manoel de Barros' poetry is very surrealist, very much trying to transform things into others, to give other functions to the same things, right? So, this story of the fish head, for example, is totally Manoel de Barros. I had never stopped to think about it. But in the show, I also used Manoel de Barros a lot. I don't know if you've seen the photos I took in this program, but we needed to establish a relationship between men and animals in a Jockey Club. I photographed the horses in such a way that you look at them and think they are people. So I think that's what it is. And this is an element that interests me. It's bringing a gaze, that the person sees a photo and is like, "Whoa, but what's going on? I've never seen it that way." So, if I can get a person to spend a little bit more time looking at my photo, and not just go through it quickly. That's one thing that's always interested me, hooking people into my image through a certain curiosity. Or that it's surreal, or that it's fantastic. But it's something that's quite difficult to achieve in a result that has that effect.
Shinji Shiozaki: You have to spend a lot of time on the street, and a lot of time with a camera in your hand.
Maíra Erlich: But it's very crazy because the image builds up in my head. There was one, I think I even sent it, of the fog, which is a little boy on a swing. And that day was very crazy, because we went to Paranapiacaba for the festival there. And I had already been there once before. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, that mist comes up and turns that town, that scenery, into a very crazy thing. And I had really hyped it to my friends, "Let's go to the festival in Paranapiacaba, there will be the fog, it will be great". Then we got there, on the second day, and there was no fog. And the girls were already upset. Then, later we were in a cafe, and when I looked outside, it was the foggiest fog. And everybody ran out without even paying the coffee bill. And everybody, the girls, I don't know, were naked in the fog. Everyone started on their own journeys.
Shinji Shiozaki: But what time was that?
Maíra Erlich: I think it was late afternoon. And I looked out on the playground and there was this little boy swinging. I said, "Oh, my God." Then I looked at the people, nobody was seeing what I was seeing, you know? So I went and took the picture. Then, after the boy left, I went there and I swung the swing by myself and I also took a picture of the swing without the boy. And then, when I published it, I published these two, one after the other. And then, gee, there were so many comments because it was open for people's interpretation. Like, people who were mothers were saying, "My God, what happened to the boy?" Desperate that the boy had disappeared. Others were saying, "The boy's been kidnapped." Everybody starts going on a journey. But it was something I didn't think about when I went to do it without the boy, I just did it. So this is something that interests me, these various interpretations, of bringing this kind of fantasy. But, really, the kind of photography that I have been doing today, I don't think I have much room for that. But sometimes I feel like it. I think this happens more when I'm more relaxed. So, as I've been doing these assignments still a bit tense, maybe I haven't managed to reach that place of relaxation to the point of seeing things more differently. But I hope it will be enough for me to be able to unite, because I think that, I don't know. I feel that I have several types of photographs and they all come together through me, because I think that each one of them says a little of who I am, what I think, what I am afraid of, the things that have happened to me or that have not happened.
Interview by Shinji Shiozaki for the Digital Brazil Project.