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The storytelling potential of the still image – An interview with photographer Eduardo Sousa

How did it all start out of? What inspired you to pursue photography as a profession?

Very early on – in the late seventies, I would be 11, 12 years old maybe – on the old Olympus family (film) camera. The power the medium had to encapsulate stories thrilled me. Holiday and family snaps were passed around, commented, copied, picked for printing, sent or received by mail; I was charmed by the representations of a more or less remote past, collected in sacred albums meant to last forever in the family shelves. The first photos I remember as mine were rather flat candid portraits of my family and friends enjoying themselves in our beach house; I think I tried to go for some balance in the combination of people and their contextual place from the start, although I obviously didn’t conceptualize any of that by then. Film roll and printing were expensive, which made us think quite a bit (sometimes overthink) before pressing the shutter, a preliminary step I was kindly taught by my elders, which I doubt will be fully understood by post-Instagram generations. I also tried with Super 8, only to discover that film demanded a lot more discipline than I had.

I have always traveled a bit since the younger years and kept this fascination for traveling all my life. Then I always went out with some camera, so I got used to carrying one with me. Then the digital era came; I felt out of my waters and stopped for some years. Interest resumed eventually, and in 2014 I decided to buy a mirrorless camera, retaking things from there as an autodidact. I quickly discovered the added flexibility of digital processing and got progressively at ease as hours of experience accumulated. I learned by a slightly obsessive dedication and the permanent open windows of social media, which brings you much talent and comparative work. Being a part of a photo-sharing community is important; it keeps you interacting and thinking about what peers are doing. It sort of gives you extra motivation, too: you probably will not win any prizes in the beginning, but the word of an admired fellow will do just as well and help to push the passion forward. And in those sites, I discovered people actually liked my stuff, so I kept going on until naturally a first decent sales was made.

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I was born in Porto in ’68 and lived here all my life. It’s a cozy, old bourgeois city, a mix of Atlantic and Mediterranean community… a great place for street photography, by the way. It was quite a parochial place during my childhood and much into the 80s –but things started to change quickly with the end of the fascist dictatorship in 1974. I came out of a family of medical doctors – I trained to be one, changed it early on for purer science only to end up working in structured finance. Go wonder. I have the memory of living in a large clan, an extended family and I miss that… happy days. I think I’m a quiet, serene but moody person. I did my studies and ended up working in finance – keeping a relevant career in the business, which forces me to manage time tightly in order to keep regular, quality hours for photography. I spend most of my days managing a balance between the pragmatic, objective and not-so-interesting problems of a simple middle-aged guy and the endless sea of photography.

I did not undergo any formal studies in photography (and look at traditional courses with some suspicion), but I like to think that all the time invested in watching other peoples photos, movies, museums and books should entitle me (or any other of us) with some honors degree!

Who were your early influences?

Being a self-taught person, I don’t immediately recall any particular stronger influence. Well, in all fairness, I can remember an old uncle that insisted on bugging and explaining to me the importance of silence and contemplation. I didn’t care much about his message at first but slowly started to understand what he meant. It’s a fundamental step that gets you ready for the rest.

During my formative years, I was exposed to quite a lot of visual art and was a heavy cinema goer. Somewhat randomly, this led me into developing a taste for film theory and critic – one lucky day, I found I had to myself a whole collection of the Cahiers du Cinema, gaining dust in a school library and heartily read it. First, with some difficulty, then I really got into it, and I think that helped me get a more educated vision. I think I owe a lot to the cinema – I would recognize as emotional references several directors that I always kept close to heart – Kubrick, Fellini, Resnais, Truffaut, Tati, Ford when it comes to content and the essence of the story: the narrative within the image, the mood that comes along with it, the grand message. Scorsese or Allen, for instance, may have brought a bit to my street eye. Lynch or P.T. Anderson has a way with symbolism that hit deep on me. Still others, like Wes Anderson, Almodovar, Wong Kar-Wai, impacted their bit on composition and color psychology. It’s hard to tell. I think all those hours of film just stay in the back of the mind until they resurface when you’re out shooting, and the situation appears. Then there is painting. There’s a lot to learn from painting for a photographer. From Caravaggio and Titian to Turner to Klee to Hockney – their works, the movements they were part of, their compositions, color, light, symbolism, dynamics. And of course, the photographers – Doisneau, Fan Ho, Leiter, Erwitt, I would go on and on. Even cartoon art can be important – do you know those casual Sempé cartoons that concentrate their punch in a single image?

The thing is, the more you get involved with the touch of a master, the more it connects; and the more you let that happen, the more you train your eye. I’m a predator; I keep picking everywhere and am genuinely thankful to all. And I’m still learning, every day, with their works as well as with the photos of the so many talented people I find and follow on the social platforms.

What are the subjects that you enjoy photographing the most? What draws you to a particular scene or subject as a photographer?

Human contrasts and moods, idiosyncrasies in everyday life, its hardships and strains, the randomness of it all, the occasional nonsense, and loneliness are recurrent themes. You’ll find people in most of my frames. I love situations with central subjects where the rest of the frame can modulate subjective interpretations for the viewer, frameworks that can suggest simple stories. This said, I’m an experimentalist at heart: I try to shoot whatever captures my mind or engages the eye and keep exploring. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, I move on.

Also, I try to chase some formal beauty, a certain unity of the whole frame, something that can make the viewer resonate with the shot, create a bridge with him. I want to bring the viewer something that can make his day more interesting or thoughtful, an extra ray of light, something that can be apprehended and enjoyed. In that sense, I’m pretty much a shooter for everyone. Although I can appreciate many photos that are less easily connected with, I believe it’s part of a shooter’s mission to make an effort and avoid falling in postures of isolation or no-dialogue zones. Also, I tend to react badly when I see visual candy or “so-what shots” – meaningless street or shallow landscape photos that don’t bring anything to the table. I try to be the first critic of myself to avoid slipping into those.

What has been your most memorable experience shooting in nature?

Difficult question. Nature is packed with surprises and more often than not embraces you too much; memories are intense and hard to rank. I have the fondest memories of a week I passed in Mana Pools,  the Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe, canoeing and camping in the wild amongst hippos and elephants. It was absolutely magical from day one. Sunsets were unreal. Colors were pure and harmonic. The photos kept coming to the lens, one after the other, effortlessly. Then one day, our small group was passing in a lion zone, by a river, the air was tense as we were expecting to find big cats, but instead, we accidentally crossed and cut off the path between a mother elephant and her calf. Mum was enraged, and we froze on our step; I already had the camera in my hand, so instinctively framed the scene. Then she charged us – it was all very quick – I realized she was coming straight at me, so instead of running, I waited for the longest second I remember living to make sure I got the moment before clicking in and running for my life. It was all good sports – in the end, she was really just warning us and got happy once she saw us fleeing.

What are some of the challenges of shooting on the street?

It all depends on what kind of motif or mood you’re after. If you’re chasing some previous thought decisive moment, patience and camera skills will be needed. If you’re after a contextual portrait, it can be important to know how to be invisible and practice social skills.

But there are a number of common challenges to most street shots: sub-optimal or plain bad lighting and shadows, quickly evolving scene, lack of control over your subjects and scenario. You’re never in a comfort zone, you seldom have much time to absorb it all, and you have to adjust, improvise at all times, and forget about being too technical. It’s a state of constant flux where the mind has to keep focused on the shot, but at the same time, it needs to keep evaluating potential alternatives or conjugations that can be captured the next second. The game calls for observation skills, a permanent state of being on the lookout for the subject, background, match – a maddening dual or triple track vision if you will. You have to compose in the head a lot, shoot instinctively, hunt. It’s a lonely, immensely absorbing, and occasionally rewarding practice.

In the end, it’s a game of balancing your photographic concepts with what reality offers you. Frustration is always around the corner, but that’s a part of the process.

Eduardo Sousa

How do you balance between what you see and making it as dramatic and beautiful like a standalone artwork

I don’t balance that at all; I actively seek some essential standalone power in a scene at all moments. We all keep an instinctive, permanent layer of aesthetic reading of our vision. If you make an effort to access that layer permanently, you end up getting a bit more into it. I got so used to doing that that it sometimes can feel like a curse – I go out to have a pizza and find my mind insisting on looking for drama in every corner of the way. It can be fun, it can be weird, but it’s a constructed part of the self and certainly a trainable characteristic.

What do you want to capture in your photographs? Is it the beauty of the outdoors or something else?

I struggle with that question and tend to avoid it – I’m afraid of narrowing my vision, and I think it is reductionistic, even counterproductive, to overanalyze our work. I like to go out for a walk and discreetly pick anything that comes across the field of view and interests me. I try to keep myself as invisible as possible and avoid elaborate, produced or worse still, staged shots that end up objectifying the subjects.

Then some interest may jump out of some expression, a contrast or juxtaposition, an occasional composition that resonates, or just a visual pleasure immediately derived from a ludic shape, color, texture, contrast. I usually avoid close-ups and prefer open scenes that may come alive by those who appear in them. Looking back on my output, it seems I tend to gravitate, somewhat melancholically, somewhat optimistically, around the urban experience, social or cultural codes and traits. At an inner level, my single themes are just humanity and tenderness – what pulls me is the sheer and shared joy of living, being here to observe the world at face value and candidly shoot it.

How do you see the power of street photography, in particular?

Street photography is extremely effective in the way it can generate and convey poetic sparks out of our daily brutish scenarios. In that sense, I find it an extremely important art form as it can give us some redemption from the usually desensitizing urban spaces. People forget to see the beauty and the life around them so many times. A connecting street photograph touches and moves its viewer in a process that brings his humanity from within. It’s not a universal language for sure – not everyone feels or reads a shot the same way for sure – but it can put every viewer questioning poetry hidden in plain sight and leave some very biting remarks on the fabric of our daily life.

Adding to this, there is an enormous versatility to the language in the way it can channel and blend social documentary, humor, storytelling, photojournalism, even surrealism. It’s an exciting, immensely rewarding field, and it can be done pretty much anywhere.

Are you always keeping an eye out for what’s new on the camera market?

Not really. I keep myself updated and am quite a geek too, loving to read all the details when new stuff (bodies, lenses…) appears. But I see the camera as a secondary tool to the inner vision, and actually am quite minimalistic with my kit. The mind is the camera; the rest is an extension of it. For street shooting, most cameras today will do a decent job in almost any situation; one should focus on the frames that are passing us by, not on gear. This is actually an important point because I know people that think they will not be able to shoot satisfactory shots because they don’t have the right equipment. And that’s a false question. The camera, whatever it is, will shine if you manage to strike the right concept and frame. The wiser thing is to get shooting with whatever you have at hand – having one camera, one lens, and growing with it.

What’s the post-production process like?

That’s a long, complex part of the game; I take a lot of pleasure from it and do a bit of that almost every day. It’s my secret garden at night, an opportunity to revisit files and memories. Nowadays, I go out and shoot what always seems an absurd number of shots; I got used to clicking immediately when some new idea crosses my mind. So the first step is picking up the shots I want to keep and discard the rest; this takes serious time. I rarely take definitive options, but I keep the selection as intuitive, non-analytical as possible. Then I take each shot as a separate project – I don’t do structured series. I’ll do some post-composition/crop work – I usually frame a bit larger than the final cut, and it’s not unusual to change the tack of the initial shot with the cropping option—the dive into the fine details, color tweaks, contrast, shadows, brightness. Sometimes I duplicate to BW layers and mix them with slight weights to induce some specific mood. Others have to deal with in zonal clarity/details. It useless to have a formula, each frame has its specifics, and I like to treat them a bit like one does with a drawing, taking a second and third look before closing, titling and presenting it. I believe in the expression value of processing, but I don’t like digital art or excessive effects, which I feel as unnecessarily aggressive, just as I’d rather pick a subtler Memphis blues over some metal rock to listen while doing all this. The curious thing is that in the end, I always feel I went along some unrepeatable single path.

Eduardo Sousa – Weh Island, Indonesia

Where do you want to take your photography career?

It’s tricky to enter into career-mode thinking when the mind is a dilettante one. Plus, I’m afraid that career ambitions can be conducive to concessions I don’t want nor need to make. I’ll just limit myself to do what I like, some humble, disconnected objectives – an Ethiopian expedition, a collection of contextual portraits, some collections built around single human moods, a more serious street photography book… those are simple ideas that keep hovering around my desk, and I hope I will fulfill at least some of them before my battery ends. If fame strikes, I’ll take the cash, disappear in the Himalayas and live happily there for a while shooting in one village after another.

What’s the most difficult part of what you do and what advice would you give to up and coming photographers?

Scanning and deciding when to let yourself go and click the next shot is probably the trickiest part and a skill that can not be learned over a single lifetime. It requires a taste for continued improvisation, patience, some optimism, a bit of a gambling mood in order to connect the elements in a good moment. There has to be a steady level of self-confidence for that. Hesitate, and you lost it.

For less experienced photographers, I’d recommend four things: First, don’t get too technical over things; keep your camera with you at all times, go along clicking and soon the photo gods will offer you a chance. With time you will refine the technique; for now, make sure you get a moment, a genuine mood. Secondly, many beginners want to explore the human side of a scene but are anxious, shy or fear being challenged when shooting other people. If it happens to you, it’s important to realize that we’re all relatives of some kind and let go of that negative impulse: train yourself and believe in your inner charm; most people reciprocate the curiosity and will be delighted once you gesture them or open up the situation with an honest smile. Third, look for new subjects and enlarge your repertoire: shoot large open swathes of the sky, architecture shots, relatives portraits, stray cats, people crossing the street, simple shadows, reflections, patterns. Then look at those images for a bit. Do you like them? Could you have made them differently? Doing this will give you sets of mental images and skills which will come useful one day when you accidentally come back to a situation where you meet a similar subject. Last but not least, love your subject and be kind.

Where can our readers find you online?

I keep a daily posting routine and am approachable on Instagram (@edtsousa) and 500px ( and more occasionally in some other similar groups. Get in touch!