A black and white user, Rui Palha mixes geometry with the human figure to create unique images, following the master photographers in street photography, but revealing his unique vision. We caught up with the Portuguese photographer recently and asked him a few questions for you.
Rui Palha is an amateur photographer. He does not want to be more than that, because he is in love with photography. It is a passion he started when he was 14 years old and that has been around ever since.
His heroes are Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson, and you’ll find the influence of those and other masters of photography in Rui’s work. But there’s something unique in his visions, a constant approach to the human figure and a careful positioning of elements within the frame for a geometric equilibrium that will keep you browsing page after page of his portfolio.
Rui Palha images are at the same time documental and oniric, pictures of this world, mainly centered around Lisbon and Portugal urbanscapes, but opening our doors of perception to the suggestion of other worlds. In fact, through Rui’s lens inhabitants of the places photographed discover a new vision of the same streets and squares.
It’s that magic that keeps people going back to his Flickr page and looking for the book, Street Photography, published in 2011 by Palha at his own expense.
I was not sure if I should do this interview with Palha. I am always shy of writing stories that may sound like I am trying to promote my friends. But then, I do not know Palha personally. We’ve only exchanged emails, even if we’re from the same country and region within Portugal.
I just felt, as I’ve done in my other interviews, that I wanted to share with the rest of you a body of work that is technically sound and what is more important for me, has a soul.
Q When did you get interested in photography and how?
Photography is a hobby since I was 14 years of age. I had my own darkroom, but to be honest, what I liked most was to press the shutter in the streets. It was an amazing experience. I was always mesmerized by the movement of people, their expressions, reactions. Trying to capture all that was a fantastic challenge and a way to learn about the world I live in.
In the “photographic world” I live in, people and their uniqueness are the most important elements of my photographs. I use a sentence to transcribe my way to be in photography. “Photography is a very important part of my space… it is to discover, it is to capture giving flow to what the heart feels and sees in a certain moment, it is being in the street, trying, knowing, learning and, essentially, practicing the freedom of being, of living, of thinking.”
Q You’re an amateur, but you have a son that is a commercial photographer. Still you do not do any commercial work. What is your occupation and why do you not work as a professional photographer?
My professional activity is in the IT area, but photography has been a passion all my life. I am retired now, so I can devote all my time to photography. I do not do it commercially because I do not need, in economic terms, to live from it. So I can do what I want and not what others want me to.
Q You’re a black and white photographer? Is it for any special reason? Do you not like color?
Although I’ve used color sometimes, in the past, I prefer black and white. There’s a concept, “no color, no lie,” that I, somehow, agree with. If you look at a black and white picture and feel that the image “tells” you a story without any distracting elements, then it is a good picture. Sometimes a color photo only has appeal because the combination of tones is nice and coherent.
Still, I do like color photography. There are great photojournalists using it wisely. But I do prefer black and white. As someone wrote, and I agree completely, “if color is used you show the color of the garments; if black and white is used you show the ‘color’ of the soul.”
Q People on the street and street life are essential elements of your photography. Which photographers have influenced your work?
Henri Cartier Bresson, Elliot Erwitt and Doisneau, among others, are my “inspiration.” You learn a lot just by looking at their work.
Q There is another constant element in your photography: an architectural perspective, a use of lines to guide the viewer into and around the photograph. How do you organize your images in terms of construction?
I am afraid I can not explain it with words. Although my photography always needs to have the human figure present, the play of light and shadow, the shapes and architectural aspects play an important part into the whole.
Many times I have the image in my head even before I find the place where I can set the stage for what I visualize. If I find such a place by chance, I feel I am lucky. Sometimes, a specific setting awakens my senses and I feel the need to explore the options I have there.
Q What do you use, in terms of camera and lenses, in your photography?
I use either Nikon F90X, Nikon D700/D800 and Fujifilm X100. My usual lenses are primes, 20, 35 and 50mm. Sometimes I’ll use zooms, both the 14-24 and 24-70mm, but rarely, as they’re cumbersome for street photography. My essential daily kit is a camera with a fixed prime lens in the 35mm range. A silent and small camera is very important for this kind of photography.
Q Your pictures suggest you have the patience to wait for things to happen. Some might be the result of being at the right place at the right time, but many suggest you wait for all elements to be in place. How do you define the moment, the light, the angle?
I always try to understand and control the light and how it affects each element within the frame, until the right moment happens, transforming what could be a normal picture into something special. The search for the ideal framing is always present, but you have to act quickly, in a fraction of a second, to get everything in the right place, for a creative result.
Q Atmospheric conditions also seem to play an important role in your photography. Especially in your pictures with rain. They suggest you go outside when most photographers go back home. Is that so?
It is a very personal question. Rainy days are days like many others but I must admit that I’ve a kind of obsession with rain: when everybody goes home I feel the urge to go out. Rain gives me an additional element of light that you can not find in other days, and it attracts me. So I tend to have a special place for my photographs done under “wet” conditions.
Q People are a main subject in your photographs. Do you photograph them without asking or do you approach them?
People are really what attracts me, without them my pictures would never exist. I like dark sombre ambiances. I am always attracted to them, but I also like the light and joy, as far as there are people around.
People, independently of the place in the world, are the richest element you can have in a street photograph, and they’re also the best “school” you can have. I enjoy talking with them, learn from them, try to show the good side there is always inside people.
I have a good relation with the people I photograph. I like to listen to them and it is the best way to get them comfortable when facing the camera. And I always try to give them pictures afterwards. That creates a bond, a trust, sometimes even friendship.
Q What is, in the end, photography to you? What are you trying to say to people?
Probably to show the passion and respect I have for both people and Photography. I tell myself there is something of a sociological goal on my “work” on the streets.
Q You published a book in 2011, Street Photography, at your own expenses. Did you not find a publisher interested in your work, even though you’re a photographer widely known internationally? The prize received for the book from the Portuguese Authors Society did not help sales in your own country?
I never had an invitation from any publisher in Portugal. I must admit I never really asked for it, though. I published the book Street Photography because my children, wife and friends put pressure on me to do it. The prize I received did nothing in terms of the book sales, in fact they even dropped, in Portugal after I received it. But interest from other countries has grown.
The book was launched at a commercial library in Portugal, Livraria Barata, and was sold there for nearly one year, but then my sons, to whom I offered the book, decided to sell it only through the Web. We have both print and digital editions.
Q We live in an era when photography is everywhere, but there are also lots of restrictions to its use, and photographing people as also become problematic sometimes. How do you deal with these questions?
In factm], it’s getting more difficult to be a street photographer, and we’ve a lot of forbidden places in Portugal and also in Lisbon, where I photograph most of the time. But I have found that often, especially with people I photograph, an honest exchange of words works. And you also have to be a bit cheeky sometimes.
Q The web is an easy way to show your work to the world. Your presence on Flickr is the base for a huge list of comments and followers. Has any of that translated into offers for exhibitions, books, etc.?
The Internet has been a way to be seen by more and more people, and it has led to being invited to international exhibitions, street photography workshops and publication in magazines and some book projects together with other authors.
It is also a way to see lots of photographs from other photographers from around the world. As I am attracted to that, I guess other people are attracted to see my photographs in Flickr.
Q Do you have any projects for the future?
Besides being incessantly searching after THE PHOTOGRAPH that will say it all, I am involved with some social projects in difficult areas in Lisbon. I am always after people that are authentic, and I keep learning a lot with the common citizen on the street. This is an ongoing project and it always has the sociological aspect I already mentioned.
Some Street Photography Tips From Rui Palha
Rui Palha does not believe it is possible to “teach” street photography. The photographer says he is constantly learning on the streets, with people, life itself. Still he points some suggestions that he thinks work:
Get close to your subject, make them the central point of your framing.
Street photography is all about being aware of what is happening around you. Keep your eyes open, look for interesting connections between elements. Be “inside” what you’re photographing, react to emotions and drama, watch people, their actions and interactions.
Be casual with your camera, keep it away from your face.
Try to not look as a photographer, keep your camera away from your face if possible. But remember that trying to hide the camera and take pictures sneakingly can make people suspicious of you. Act naturally.
Do not carry lots of gear
Having less gear makes it easy to move around. Be ready before things happen. Have the camera ready to shoot all the time.
Like and listen
Like people and respect them. Listen to people, they’re true lessons of life. Try to understand people, their thoughts, movements, feelings and soul.
Be bold and courageous
Try to be close to those you photograph. This way it will be easier to feel their soul. And vice-versa.