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Lisbon’s Walls: An Interview With Photographer Camilla Watson

Lisbon Student Work
by Rosa Lia June Aug 23, 2013
Rosa Lia is a student in the MatadorU Travel Photography program.

WALLS CAN TELL the story of a place. In an old part of Lisbon, Camilla Watson has turned these stories into photos displayed on the walls of a local courtyard.

After reading about her work in 24 hours in Lisbon, I wanted to know more. I walked up through the weaving alleyway of Beco das Farinhas. Some of the white walls were peeling while others had fresh paint. Multi-colored tinsel dangled across the courtyard and over a broken fountain. Young people walked through, shopping bags in arms, just like the elderly subjects in the photos they passed.

I looked at the black and white photos set on wood or sometimes directly on the wall itself. The title of the exhibition is “A Tribute,” and its pictures portray elderly people playing dominoes, or framed in doorways and windows, or just standing in the middle of the street.

I met Camilla outside her studio in Largo dos Trigueiros. She had shoulder-length dark blonde hair and was wearing a blue floral dress. Inside the studio were huge black and white prints on high walls. Stairs led up to piles of books. We sat on armchairs at the back, where she talked to me about her connection with her community, her ethos on portrait photography, and her next project, centered around Portuguese Fado singers.

RLJ: What inspired “A Tribute?”

CW: The centre of Lisbon, this area here, is very heavily populated with the elderly. And when I’d arrived, all the buildings in this little alleyway here hadn’t been touched for about 100 years. I immediately saw a connection between the elderly and the walls. I felt their spirit was in the walls.

Is that why the photos are on the walls outside?

There are barriers between a gallery — indoor space — and the people who’ve been photographed. Here, everyone’s a part of it. Everyone appreciates it because it’s outdoors.

The people in the photos, they love it. They feel proud to be on the walls, and many more of them want to be on the walls. The tourists love it…I guess because the expression in the photos is between the subjects and me, so they get to be a step closer to the community.

What types of images do you choose for the walls?

I’ve always wanted to be as close to the truth as possible. And that’s not even a conscious thought; that’s just what I’ve always done. There would be no point to doing it unless I was trying to portray someone just as I see them to be. All of the images on the wall here, the people in them, they’ve chosen the ones they’d like on the walls.

It’s just as much about the idea. In fact, photography’s not even that important now. In the last six years especially since I’ve been here, it’s been more about the idea behind the projects. It’s not about “I want to take a really good image.” It’s about a collaboration.

Sometimes I might prefer to put another photo on the wall. Another photo might be a better photograph, but my ego’s not much a part of it any more. I think the project and the idea behind it is more important than what I might consider to be a good photo or what a critic might say.

Then what makes a good photo?

I don’t know anymore. [laughs] I think something that communicates the spirit of a person. Something that moves somebody else, or makes them understand that person better. Anyone could produce something that’s beautiful or graphically perfect, but to actually move somebody is different.

[Camilla gets out postcards of her latest exhibition and pulls out some of the photos with movement to show me the emotion in them.]

I used to worry about things not being in focus or being in movement. I don’t care about that at all now; I actually quite like everything to be in movement.

Tell me more about your latest exhibition. What is “fado?”

It sings really of the love of what they call saudade here, which means “missing,” a kind of longing for something that has been lost or is away. It’s something very austere and tragic, but celebratory at the same time. It’s a kind of the happiness of being sad… It’s very much about the soul of Portugal, about the people here.

Mouraria, this area, is the birthplace of the music — fado — but there’s not a lot of indication to show that. So I produced a proposal to show fadistas who had been born here or who grew up here and placed these images on the walls of this borough.

What are the best places to photograph in Lisbon?

It has to be the old part. Mouraria, where we are now. Because of the hills, the shadows, and also the alleyways and the streets.

Lisbon is a magical place to photograph for lots of reasons. One is the colour of the stone here. It’s a limestone, which is quite a light stone, so you get a lot of natural reflections and good light. Lisbon’s actually situated with the river on one side and the sea on the other, so you get wonderful reflection from that. The air can be quite humid because of the sea and river, which makes a reflection all around you.

You just get a huge challenge in terms of light. It’s kind of difficult to photograph, but it’s also magic. It’s an absolute gift.

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