5 & 3/4 Questions
1. Describe yourself and your work.
I would say I am a human in love with other humans. I feel drawn to other peoples’ life stories. Through photo documentary and personal projects, photography has always allowed me to interact with people and, through that, make meaning of my own story. I don’t try to be “invisible,” as I believe that it’s not possible to enter a situation in someone’s life with a camera and not transform that reality in some way. My images are therefore very much a consequence of my encounters with my subjects—if anything, only a brief record of what has happened. This is especially true of my personal projects where, together, we transform and play, cry, and laugh. But there is space for silence and reflection too.
Some of my personal projects are about the individual in public spaces, while others explore the private and intimate space of an individual. In both cases, mirrors, objects, outings, and clothes are some of my “materials” of choice when looking for lyricism and subjectivity, when looking for the self. For my self. Focusing on simple but universal ideas that can mean a lot to people, my work, public or private, hopes to touch notions of identity, belonging, memory, and dreams—hopes to delve into what it is to be an individual of our times, in the United Kingdom, in Brazil, or elsewhere.
2. How did you get started?
Curiosity and a passion for telling stories were my first drives. I studied fine art and photography as a degree in London in the late 1990s. I was into performance art. However, halfway through the course I discovered the photography department, with its lovely studios and old-fashioned darkrooms. I can say I spent most of the time left in my course—at least two years—bathed in red light and smelling the chemical fumes. I love the fact that I learned photography in the analog era. I then got a small grant and borrowed a Pentax K1000 from uni to go back to Brazil and photograph girls on the streets—a reality I had been brought up with, as having kids on the streets is a decades-long issue in my country of birth. However, I was passionate about telling their stories in a different way, not as a conventional photojournalist with black-and-white photos of their poverty. Inspired by them, I ended up doing something they could not do freely given that they lived in such rough areas and needed to be tomboys to hide from male attraction: we explored their femininity. That work, which started so organically and with such basic equipment, became a book with a traveling exhibition and won prizes such as an Ian Parry Award. I was also given my first proper camera by Nikon UK and was sent around the world as a photojournalist for the Sunday Times Magazine and other British and international publications. In those first years, I still worked with film and remember coming home with the slightly scary feeling of not knowing for sure if I had the cracking five to ten pictures needed for a great magazine feature.
3. What piece of work best represents you and why?
So hard to say, as the work that I am currently doing always represents me best in the now. As a photojournalist, being with Amazonian tribes really moved me. But every personal project is a reflection of who I am, and especially who I was then. I use photography to understand and make meaning of the phases I am going through, while inviting my subjects to do the same. So I have explored femininity with girls on the streets of Brazil as a way to explore my own femininity (Brazilian Street Girls). I have worked with groups of asylum seekers, inviting them to cross invisible boundaries of the big city, while I myself was trying to negotiate what those boundaries were for me as a foreigner in an unknown metropolis (London Real Postcards). I explore with other mothers the marks brought to us by maternity (Birth Marks). By inviting women to revisit an old garment worn once, decades ago (The Wedding Dress), I get a glimpse of what is to come for me regarding getting old. But I also look into the past—my family’s female lineage is being “investigated” with my project about my Portuguese grandmother (Dear Ana).
4. What are you into currently?
Life is intense when you are a working mother of three. But I always have a few projects on the go, as I would not know how to do any different. So my current personal work is about my grandmother; it started with a Fuji-sponsored residency in Portugal earlier in the year. Ana, my granny, went to Brazil as a child and never returned to her motherland. While dying from Alzheimer’s, she believed she had friends in her place of birth, so I went to find those imaginary friends and invited them to write her a postcard. The work has been transformational in a very personal level, and I have even discovered relatives I never knew we had.
Professionally I can no longer travel as a photojournalist for the long periods I used to. So I tend to do more U.K.-based editorial work. I also work as an “associate artist” of a great organization called All Change Arts. Together, we create participatory engaged art projects with diverse groups that range from young mums to elderly people. They partner different genres of artists up so we can together create multimedia work and not compromise on production values. For example, I am currently working with a poet performer on one project and with dancers from a renowned dance company on another one. This cross-genre approach has been really stimulating for participants and artists alike.
I am also developing some studio work around women and self-perception with another female photographer, Mireya Gonzales.
5. What are three things you’ve learned that young creatives should know?
I am still learning about everything, but if I had to give suggestions they would be:
In personal, or even commercial, projects, follow your heart and gut. In the end, the honesty of your work will always shine through. It sounds like a cliché, but I see so many younger creatives trying to rationalize their approach to adapt to what they think the “market wants” (curators, agencies, and so on). I know we all want our work to be “commercially viable,” but as a result I see a super-homogenization of images while everyone is having to shout louder on social media, with work that can look (and feel) the same as the next guy on Instagram.
Don’t work for free, a problem very frequent with passionate photographers.
Push yourself technically but then forget a little about it, as all of that can get in a way of a good human-to-human interaction.
December 12, 2017
Portrait of Leticia Valverdes: Mireya Gonzalez
All other photos: Leticia Valverdes