I first met Vera in Bairro Alto about five years ago in one of her exhibits. Her portraits showed people from the inside out (stripped but not vulnerable), that natural and clear. This, to me, is Vera’s signature.
I remember a tall girl, with brown hair and the sweetest smile, slightly avoiding the spotlight, who gently pointed us in the direction of her work hanging on bare walls. Her warmth was contagious and I didn’t feel she was pushing us to her photos; I felt compelled to look closer.
Minutes after she sat at the cafe table she shoots a “what do you want to know?” I enjoy asking open questions like “tell me how it began”, they can lead to anywhere. And it did. With an attitude of “things just kinda happened”, Vera talks about the offbeat music scene with passion and admiration. She considers a bonus to be able to photograph it from up close, often from the backstage and during rehearsals. With ten years of experience in the field, she has a tight group of loyal followers and friends, including the musicians she admires. I hadn’t yet met an “online influencer” (although I know she will dismiss the title with a warm smile and a shrug of shoulders) that did it so effortlessly — she claims people follow her by the people she’s connected to, but I don’t buy it. Her personality is what pulls them in.
I had scribbled on my notebook “is it music and people or is it people and music”. I was convinced, by browsing through her work, that one of those two had to be her photography main subject. I was wrong.
“I just click”, she tells me. “I’m around friends I like, seeing things I like, and I just click and share. That’s all.” This laid back take on her art is not fabricated, I assure you. Vera is everything but the artist who perpetuates the self-image of being anti-artist. She won’t mind if you’ll call her a hipster, but that’s what people call artists these days who are kind of “off”. I don’t think a label for her work has been created yet.
I was eager to talk about her photography, but Vera kept finding a way to dodge the topic since the beginning and I quickly realized it was because her photography is an extension of others’ work (their music, their performance, their committal to their art), and not at all about her final product. I had been looking at this backwards. “This isn’t my job. I’m not a photographer, I’m an engineer.” This passion that you see on her photos? That’s the same passion with which she talks about the music projects of her friends.
She tells me she was no more than the “kid” who wanted to get closer to the musicians she admired. Not as talented as they were to make music, her instrument of choice was an unsophisticated (but effective) digital camera that she used at the time to take photos of concerts and share them on what was then “the” social media, MySpace. Vera became a household name for these musicians and ended up as an official photographer for music spaces like ZDB and for festivals like Barreiro Rocks and Out.Fest. I use the word “official” with a grain of salt. Official usually means photographing from a certain angle, requested by the agent or the artists. Vera’s photography flows because she is basically having fun, whether she’s capturing backstage moments or focusing on the crowd. There is nothing staged about it, and even the occasional commissioned session is still beautifully ingenuous.
Those were the days before social media promotion or social media marketing campaigns. The independent music scene revolved around “word of mouth” publicity — if people liked your work, they would share it with friends. A rough prelude of what happens today, but in a much more organic, selfless way — it wasn’t about who you were or how large your following was; it was about how many people you could reach with the music you enjoyed listening to. This is what Vera still does today, in the same organic and selfless way. Some would jump at her for not taking advantage of it (I know I pestered her with a couple of “why nots” during our conversation), but she masters contentment like I had never seen before.
She shares stories of some of the important game changers in the Portuguese independent music industry with a mix of awe and gratitude — for their work, for the chance to be close, for the chance to share it with the world — Tiago Guillul founder of Flor Caveira (one of the first independent labels to sign up bands that sang only in Portuguese, when the trend at that time, c. 1999, was to sing in English — a less commercial approach to music as a product and more as art), Portuguese pianist and composer Tiago Sousa founder of MerzBau (a netlabel that between 2005 and 2009 supported and promoted new music talents, and was responsible for launching Portuguese known artists like B Fachada and Noiserv) and ZDB or Galeria Zé dos Bois (a nonprofit organization and art center created in 1994 with a mission towards research of visual and performing arts, film, and music, that also doubles as concert venue — it’s more of an extension of the whole project, instead of just another purpose for the space).
It’s funny how lately I’ve been meeting people from all walks of life that reject making a profit out of their art, and focus a lot more on secondary income streams (like a steady job, freelance work, occasional paid promotional gig). It’s a fine, fine line between the reason of “selling” and the feeling of “selling out”. Part of our conversation slid into that topic when she mentioned a photo she took of Vhils had been published on Forbes magazine, for their 30 under 30 Art & Style list. “He needed a photo and asked me if it was ok to use that one. I said it was fine!” My eyes may have popped out of my sockets when I heard “Forbes”, but Vera couldn’t care less about credit. When I said I believed “it could be more about valuing your work and your influence, rather than just attaching a price label to it”, Vera replied “that would mean killing the dream”.
I don’t know if she is going to do this for the next 50 years (she says probably not) but as long as her friends create music, there will be Vera Marmelo’s photography. You can follow Vera’s work on her page here.