The restlessness of being Vera Marmelo
The first time I sat down to talk with Vera Marmelo was more than three years ago. I thought it had been longer than that, because, in the meantime, Vera seems to have photographed a whole life already; she thinks that a lot can fit into a three-year span and so that period went by in a blink of an eye. So, what has really changed since then?
“I continue to sleep in the same bed, doing the same things. Working, shooting music shows and reacting to what people ask me. And sometimes all these things amount almost to nothing in my view, until I decide to organize myself”, she says. More than photography in itself, the leitmotif for our conversation was the summary of all that happened, realizing where she has been in order to know where she is now.
2014 – 2017
When we met in 2014, Vera was going through the aftermath of a rough year. She experienced a less good period in the beginning of 2013, which she ironically regards as “the classic you are now 27 years old”. In the meantime, she published her first photographic object – a limited edition poster book with 13 portraits of Portuguese musicians – and this put her under the intense media spotlight. The constant requests to speak on her work prompted in her the need to create a discourse about it, i.e., to scrutinize and organize it in her own head. This energy, which she defines as “relearning to communicate” forced her to leave her own nest. She started to shoot even more and published a book, already in 2014, in partnership with the photographer Luís Martins, for the 20th anniversary of ZDB.
From that moment forward, the fuse was lit and the rest is history. “ZDB [with which she has a close relationship and a place where she often shoots] has an ever-growing programme and I’m also getting interested in more things. I’m starting to be even more present and so I get to know even more people; the city also has a wide cultural offer now. And that is why you have the feeling that you are seeing me more often in the last three years,” Vera explains.
Alongside that, she also changed the way she uses social network platforms. Instagram has ceased to be a personal tool and became a sort of showcase to immediately unfurl the work she does. With a new digital camera that is immediately synchronized with her smartphone, she even shares the first pictures of a concert that has just taken place while she is in the boat on her way home, in Barreiro. “The way I use my iPhone and Instagram, from 2012, when I bought the phone, until now, has changed immensely. There are Instagram followers who are completely unaware that I have such an active blog”, she says.
The blog has been, and continues to be, the place where we can see everything she shoots. In 2016, this platform celebrated 10 years of existence. A round number and one already significant for someone who is only 33 years old, and also something that forced her to delve into the past. That was how the website emerged, something to attempt to understand where she has been spending her time and to mentally sort the relationships she has established in this decade, and not so much to display her work.
The platform is divided into three time periods: 2006 – 2009 / 2010 – 2013 / 2014 – 2016. Each contains the most significant photos taken during that time. To reach that point, 18 full days of work were needed, as well as a couple of hours more after her day job and weekends, and Vera’s accuracy of an engineer (again, her ‘day job’). “With me, everything takes more time than with a normal person, even if I happen to be hyperactive and extremely productive. I still have a ‘nine to five’ job. To review a 10-year file implies to write all the names that I have photographed during those time spans, the number of times that each was photographed, whilst trying to connect them all as if it was a family tree, realizing the importance that these people have had and the visibility and the impact they engraved on my images,” she explains. Bottom line, this archive has two kinds of musicians: those with whom she spends more time and ensures that she is always present to see them, because they are friends, as is the case of Tiago Sousa, founder of the label Merzbau, and Nick Nicotine, Mr. Barreiro Rocks; and those that, during that period of time, produced and played more often, hence justifying the constant presence of the photographer. “Like that watch you always have on your wrist. You cannot even remember it, because it has always been there,” she jokes. In this last category, we find, among others, Orelha Negra, B Fachada, D’Alva and, more recently, Gabriel Ferrandini.
There is also a section dedicated to the photos of the month – the ones of the previous month disappear to give place to the ones of the next.
All in all, it is one of the most encompassing archives of the Portuguese music’s movement during the last 10 years. There are few musicians who Vera has yet to photograph. But her goal is not to go down in history, rather tell stories. She doesn’t want to be an artist, and feels quite comfortable to be in a position where she can document the moment, see her archive grow in size and increase its worth. And this term is only used with the ambition of having the worth commonly attributed a family album. “You cannot forget that you’re not alone. I’m extremely happy when there are more people, more points of view, more chances to have your things safeguarded. If there are more people around, you can rest assured that you’re in the right place and you are doing something that has worth,” she says.
This almost archaeological work was the foundation that germinated a publication to commemorate the blog’s 10th anniversary. Done in partnership with Desisto, and published on December 12th 2016 (Vera’s birthday), this object was a large-format poster, devoted to the work conducted between 2006 and 2009. On the one hand, it had several small frames and, on the other, two large photographs that, when folding the poster, could be framed, choosing one of them.
The physical relationship with the camera – from film to digital
One of the news, since 2014, is a partnership with Fuji that consists of a series of talks managed by Vera and sponsored by the brand. She has already visited FNAC Madeira and, soon, she will go to Auditório do Edifício de Portugal and ETIC. Entrance is free, upon appointment. The idea is to always talk less about the technical stuff and more about her personal experience and motivations.
Even though the partnership was established after that, we can say it somehow started when she bought the [camera] XT1 and did not want anything else. The intention was to use it as a personal camera, since the one for music shows was too heavy for that purpose. Steadily, she ended up transitioning to the professional side of things and changed the physical relationship she has with the camera and with the act of photographing. “Having in your hands such a small camera made me photograph vertically again, something that I stopped doing so much with a digital camera, and the vertical format delights me greatly in everything: portraits, live music shows. I like to see the shoulders fitted into that format, that physical thing of the vertical. And then you have the invisibility, when you have such a small camera you are even more invisible, you’re in the middle of the crowd and nobody notices you,” she explains.
She also affirms that she started to have great enthusiasm to see “in the dark” and to watch the world through the digital screen. She also had great pleasure in relearning to edit, in finding “her colours” again, because each camera is different.
The medium format film, her favourite in 2014, is still used in portraits, in which the amplitude of the error and the beauty of the film fit like a glove. “You, for instance, may fail to read the light, but at the aesthetic level the film always saves you,” she says.
2017 – until the foreseeable future
Vera Marmelo started shooting as a way to justify her presence in the middle of her musician friends and as a social icebreaker. There was this energy of wanting to show what she was doing, but also the personal motivation to try to have a better understanding of the dynamics of living in society and communicating with one another. Today, she says she is still doing it more as a reaction than anything else, waiting for the moment that everything will make sense, but with the certainty that everything has been pretty good so far. “I cannot complain. I’m very grateful for the idea that a camera allows me to be present in moments where no one else could be. Whether that is a private party, the backstage of a show or a sound check”.
She organized her life to ensure that photography would not be her main source of income. With this decision comes the freedom to only photograph what she is interested in. With this, she says that she does a better job and that this is the quality that makes people go for Vera Marmelo and not “a photographer. It’s a choice that requires few hours of sleep, lots of back pain, holidays dedicated to work and investments made with her own resources. A typical day in the life of Vera Marmelo may demand 17 hours spent outside. For example, on the day we met, in addition to the working hours, if she managed to catch all the shows she had that night, there would be a total of six. Then she would go home to choose and edit the photos, uploading them in the following morning. When she used film, the process was the same: she processed the filmed at night, the photos would be dry by the morning, then they were digitalized and uploaded on the blog.
This speed is a requirement of social media – the shelf life of today’s show only lasts for one day – and of fact that she has a limited time to edit, but it is also a personal trait. There’s this urge in her, this need to be always on the move, even if she doesn’t know her destination that well. “You get used to that [pace] and then you have the expectations, mine and from those around. And I think the world will end tomorrow and I want to be everywhere”.
This “hunger” comes from the same spot that declares “I don’t see myself failing, but I used to suffer more with the anticipation that this is about to end” and is fed, among other things, by the energy of young people. She says that she always strives to be deeply close to the bands that are now taking their first steps, because she sees things through their eyes, always packed with energy. “As long I continue to be comfortable, as long as I consider that my presence is valid, as long as there are stories to tell and as long I continue to think that what I’m shooting is somehow relevant, I will carry on. That moment will come, when I will no longer have the patience or I will see myself out of place. I don’t want to grow old in this rock scene, without understanding that it is ok to simply watch the energy, without engaging with it,” she says.