Interview with Hugo Ganhão: 4500 – Photographic Essay
Related to Umbigo online’s November cover, we present 500 – Ensaio Fotográfico by Hugo Ganhão, who was at Centro Multimeios de Espinho between July and September 2021. The photographs show us the city of Espinho, where Ganhão grew up. But his scrutinizing eye reveals to us, through unique plasticity, the details, corners, shadows, people and contrasts of a fishing and vacationing area during the pandemic.
Hugo Ganhão, born in Porto, although he grew up and lived in Espinho, has always had a connection with the beach and the sea. This relationship made him interested in photography. After finishing his course at ESAP, he left for Paris and collaborated with the photographer Giacomo Bretzel.
Ganhão is currently developing a documental effort, portraying the city where he grew up, with 4500 – Photographic Essay being an example.
Although the title designates a specific address, Espinho – on the northern coast of Portugal, known initially as a fishing area and then as a seaside destination – has modernised, even if we still find traces of the dichotomies of the past, in particular the relationship of a community that viewed the sea as work, then as leisure, and which is currently in an uncertain state. In 4500, Ganhão goes beyond the geographical territory, capturing “individual struggles, specific challenges, and dynamics of those who live, create and shape the surrounding space. (…) Images that show points of escape to an alternative reality, like the rabbit hole where Alice found the backside of the reflection”, as Marco Coutinho shows in the text that supports the exhibition.
In his photographs, Ganhão shows the daily life of luminous, plastic and landscape contrasts, symbolic details but also strongly expressive portraits.
Ana Martins – 4500 – Photographic Essay presents a specific perspective of Espinho in the pandemic. How did this yearning to capture the city in such circumstances arise?
Hugo Ganhão – It all started without any specific purpose. I did some photo sessions during the pandemic, at a time of harsh winter, around Christmas 2020. Although I’m from Espinho, I live in Porto and I don’t visit the city very often. So, I wandered around with the camera and recorded several things that stimulated ideas and made me feel that there was relevance in creating a project. The method was always somewhat slow. At a certain point, I also felt that what I was registering, such as isolation, loneliness and a decrepit environment, was pertinent. The process of registering images ended in mid-June. Then I started the compilation, curation and selection of the images to understand what I wanted to do with the project. Later, I contacted institutions in Espinho dedicated to supporting arts and culture, which were receptive. It was a snowball, one thing led to another, with things coming to fruition.
AM – How did you organize the work to show certain traits of the territory?
HG – It was a process that took some time. As I was photographing, I also did an almost sensorial triage. Documenting the city under my own yoke was always a somewhat naïve attitude. There was no clarification a priori, I let myself go by the images that I was creating. I also showed the photographs to Joana Mieiro, who helped with the curatorship. Sometimes a photographer is very involved in the project and finds it difficult to distance himself from it. I was careful to ask the opinion of some people, who I know can make an informed assessment, to understand the path I wanted to follow.
AM – What was your intention in choosing the title of the exhibition?
HG – 4500 is the Espinho postcode. Having lived there all my life, it is a number that comes up recurrently to me to describe the city. I thought it could be an interesting way to quickly reach people, involve the community and attract the inhabitants of Espinho to seek out this project.
AM – What did you intend with this exhibition?
HG – One of my goals was to raise awareness of the city. Sometimes this current abandonment, especially in small, coastal and fishing towns, is reflected in the people. This lack of esteem shows that communities don’t believe that these localities have anything to add. I started to develop the work around this observation and Espinho faces some abandonment, a reflection of the community’s disbelief in the way it interacts and asserts itself. This issue is much broader. I believe that this does not only happen in this territory but basically everywhere. In these communities, there is a great impoverishment and lack of work. Often, I think it’s difficult to counteract this negative perception, especially with the pandemic, which has worsened social inequalities. I think there is a lack of investment not only by politicians but also by people, who don’t try to make the community richer and more solid. This project is a wake-up call, which raises awareness, especially mine, although I have already reflected on the subject. Frequently, it is only when ideas are materialized that one understands certain themes better. I no longer live in Espinho, so I’m not as involved in its social fabric. But this distance made me realize that there is a reality that has not been so well achieved.
AM – What do you think about the different photographic records of the pandemic and the relevance of your work in showing this reality, especially that of Espinho?
HG – During the lockdown, people turned quite inwards. Given what I encountered in this process, it was curious to see an exploration of the Self, of what goes on inside the home, not only in a documentary sense but also artistically. What attracted me during this period was to counter that spirit. I am a person who likes to walk in the city. That is what took me to the street, always trying to compile images that matched my expectations. This counter-cycle was very challenging during the first lockdown, where we were forced to stay at home ad aeternum. During that time, I saw very significant projects, like 14 – A/2020, edited by Miguel Refresco and Rui Pinheiro from The Cave Photography, where I saw photographs taken at home, as an exploration of space and the self. But I couldn’t follow that course, as I find it very difficult to stay inside and make confined artwork. I’ve always tried to row against the tide. I forced myself to photograph in the streets, while going through a photographic process of some alienation, as I was almost giving up my artistic practice. It was a major challenge to go outside, pick up the camera again and resume my activity. Sometimes the hardest thing is to take the first step, then everything starts to get oiled up. Basically, this process began to feed the pleasure of photography in me again, causing a negative impulse. This past year, my focus has been on documentary work. After all, this was quite a cathartic experience, to be active again and take pleasure in doing what was already in a very dark spot.
AM – Before making a documentary record, your biography indicates that you worked on several photographic strands. How did your interest in this new way of exploring your artistic exercise come about and how was this reflected in 4500 – Photographic Essay?
HG – I wanted to distance myself from the sort of photography I have done for years. I have worked with different typologies and I feel that, in many of them, I couldn’t convey the authenticity that I envisioned. For instance, this documental aspect, which is somewhat neo-realistic as it points towards a record of real life, the mundane and thoughtless situations. The creative process is something quite personal. It’s either intensely lived or else it’s useless! This kind of photography makes me more dedicated. But, in relation to my artistic and commercial practice, everything can change. Right now, my focus is on documentary photography, recording life and showing reality as I see it.
AM – Will there be continuity for the work you are developing in 4500 – Photographic Essay?
HG – My idea is to continue the project, although I have done it voluntarily, without any significant support. I would really like to continue doing 4500 but this time more focused on people. Before, I had been centred on space, although I also have portraits, albeit according to a candid camera style, based on distance. Now, I would like to give voice to people, invite those who want to be involved in the project and portray them. To understand their vision of the space, the community and the city they are in. To get closer to them, with the awareness that they are posing, in a more careful context and with studio lighting. I would also like to get to know them better, their testimonies and experiences, precisely to involve them, because that’s crucial in these initiatives. Later, I would like to make a publication, together with an exhibition. I’m sure that this project will continue, but I don’t know the timeframe. I don’t want to force it, as it takes time to get closer to the community. It will have to be natural, it will take work, as I may run the risk of losing the genuineness I want to transmit.