On the city as we (don’t) know it, TEMA, documentary photography, and “abatanados” disguised as double espressos

On the city as we (don’t) know it, TEMA, documentary photography, and “abatanados” disguised as double espressos

I’ve written about my vision of what overtourism means to Lisbon. 

Yes, it exists. Yes, it has a negative impact. No, tourists aren’t to blame for everything (although doing so it’s much easier). 

In some things, Bruno Castro and I share the same views, although his connection to Lisbon tops mine by 20 years. Using the upcoming issue of TEMA mag as an excuse to interview him seemed like the right opportunity to pick his brain.

As I fast-paced from Terreiro do Paço towards our meeting point, Martinho da Arcada in Praça do Comércio, I took the usual shortcut under the arches of the former ministries, away from the tourist crowds who split their lazy time between the statue of D. José I, Cais das Colunas, and the overpriced cafes.

I struggled not to slip on the recently-mopped sidewalk as employees rushed to set tables and open umbrellas. It was 9.50 on a Friday morning, 10 minutes before our scheduled meeting, and the cafes were still closed.

There were no crowds of tourists for me to avoid, but I’ve done it so many times in the past two years that it’s now routine behavior.

These days, this is the Lisbon I know. A little different from the city I met for the first time in 1996.

My phone pinged with a message when I was deciding where to sit (at that moment, outside seemed more promising than inside; I would regret it a few minutes later): “I’m late because… Metro.” 

Being late because of public transportation has become the standard explanation recently. Lisbon won the European Green Capital 2020 Award. I expectantly wait for the transformation.

Professionally, Bruno has worn many hats, but I admire his work ethics, consistency, and quasi-obsessive habit of doing things a certain way. Be it as a journalist, or while working in the restaurant industry, as an entrepreneur, or as a photographer. 

Not that he needs the character witness-type introduction, but I find this is his more authentic self, to the core. Some people are driven by passion; so is he. But unlike most, he meticulously plans every inch of the path that will lead him to wherever he wants to reach.

We sat at a table that was too close to the street, which caused some interruptions caught on tape. In the grand scheme of things, those interruptions were blessings. 

Easily, this 2-hour long interview and my interviewee could be the central actors of a slow-motion time-lapse film. Everything around us is part of this interview, including the high-working but poorly-trained waiter who served us.

“It’s mid-morning! And full of tourists! How can they’ve already run out of croissants?” Bruno remarks after settling for a pão de leite with ham and cheese instead.

Besides us, everyone else is a tourist ordering overpriced food from a menu tailored to tourists. My espresso priced at €1.20 is an indescribable cup of colored water; I doubt there’s a trace of coffee in there. 

Bruno’s double espresso is, in reality, a abatanado – a sort of watered-down espresso in a larger cup.

“I bet they’ll bill this as a double espresso anyway.” 

(They did.)

Before anything else, what is TEMA?

It’s funny talking about TEMA here.

Is that why you chose Martinho da Arcada for the interview?

In a way, it’s connected.

TEMA is a magazine on documentary photography in its current version but in a very broad way. It’s partly a publication that focuses on introducing the work of amateur documentary photographers. And I mean documentary in general terms, but I’ll get there in a second. The rest of the magazine focuses on a wider number of pieces, be it interviews or written essays, or others linked to the documentary genre but not necessarily related to that issue’s overarching topic.

TEMA started as an initiative by Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica (MEF) to showcase students’ work on the documentary photography course. MEF is a not-for-profit association that promotes the development of photography skills and bases its activity on three major cornerstones.

The strongest and probably least visible cornerstone, so far, is the social projects of integration through art using photography.

Why is it the least visible cornerstone?

Because it has a particular audience and goal. We’ve always been more focused on working on the project than actively communicating it.

Because your goal is to help that group specifically?

Yes, specifically. For example, we’ve been part of PARTIS [a project by the Gulbenkian Foundation on artistic practices for social inclusion] for two editions. We are one of two organizations that have been on PARTIS twice, which is rare because Gulbenkian doesn’t work with the same organization twice. 

Later this year, in September, we’ll be exhibiting at Gulbenkian, and this will probably be the first time one of our projects will have more visibility. It’s a photography project for the blind, where we’ll print textured photos with descriptions on audio guides.

Before that, we had a project with kids in the so-called reform facilities. Our goal is always to do things, not necessarily make them public. Of course, we publish the work and communicate to the community, but it’s not our goal to mediatize it.

The second cornerstone has always been teaching. MEF’s strongest intention has always been to help people develop their photography skills at whatever level they may be. That’s why they started the course in documentary photography, and it’s because of that course, too, that we now have TEMA. 

The first two issues were only available online, as digital magazines, and showcased those students’ portfolios and photographic essays. Then the project grew to embrace other amateur photographers’ work, relevant to whatever topic was selected for that issue. At one moment, I challenged them to have TEMA as a printed magazine, international and bilingual (the magazine is published in Portuguese and English). 

If photography is left in its digital form only, it becomes transient, and we wanted to fight that trend. We also wanted to welcome photographic essays from all over the world instead of focusing on Portuguese reality. The magazine also includes an interview and a piece on a book.

But is it only one single topic per magazine issue?

It’s one single topic, but we try that the issue is broad enough to include different visions. An umbrella topic, if you will. We don’t limit it to a photographic subject. We do want it to be about documentary work, not only in photography.

We avoid highly technical photography, and we avoid current approaches that get easily confused with what happens in the [social] networks, where the trend is “selfies” and “lifestyle.” We never have magazine topics that are about food, or landscapes, or vacations. 

This edition [the third one in print] will be about the post-urban. How are cities evolving, where are they coming from, how can they transform themselves, what is happening. 

The theme of the previous edition was the idea of border or barrier. It was called “The Other Side” precisely to give this vision of something else. We got submissions that depicted the border between Mexico and the United States, for example or a community of recovering drug addicts in rural Australia. 

So, the idea of revealing something that’s on the other side doesn’t necessarily have to do with borders.

The underlying thought that comes with each issue is that each theme is broad enough to accommodate different visions. Take this issue’s post-urban theme. For example, it could lead to essays on gentrification or environmental movements within cities. We are currently accepting photography submissions, and the rest of the magazine is pretty much already closed.

We also have a section on the magazine dedicated to a [social] network with curated photographic work explicitly created for a [social] network like Instagram or other. It’s not Instagram photography; it’s photography created with the logic of the [social] network in mind.

And MEF’s third cornerstone?

The third one is the development of photography in other areas, including cultural events, talks, and film events. We have exhibitions every time we finish a course or a workshop. It’s an even broader area that covers many different things.

And is traveling included in this third cornerstone?

Yes, and we do it differently from anyone else in the market. Most photographic trips are based on a technical side of photography; it’s almost like a photographic guided tour where people are told where to go and what to photograph. 

We base our trips on learning and developing skills, so we bring along one of the documentary photography teachers. And then we try to give people opportunities that they wouldn’t usually have. For example, [when we traveled to] India, we lived with locals in remote villages. Travelers had access to that reality, and they photographed what they felt was their experience of it.

So during the trips, you don’t have a specific topic that everyone must follow?

No, they decide what they want to photograph while improving their skills. People who travel with us aren’t interested in photographing to show their friends later. They want to spend two weeks living in a completely different reality, learn, and photograph. 

That’s why we’ve been pushing the envelope for new destinations and deciding if one is more interesting than the other for documentary photography.

Do you ever organize those trips in Portugal?

So far, most of our trips have been abroad. Firstly, because people show interest in going to places they would usually not go on their own. That’s why we’ve been to India several times, we went to Iran last year, and to Armenia a few months ago. 

Secondly, we’ve done smaller workshops in Portugal, and they also have to be connected to some local event. We want to focus on more extended stays because the best of documentary photography happens in those longer stays, where people connect.

From those destinations, which one would you like to go back and photograph again?

Iran. Three years ago, I organized the trip to Southeast Asia (China and Vietnam), but it’s an area I already know well. I wouldn’t go back to photograph. Iran, though, was a surprise. Because of the people, because of the civilizational maturity. So I plan to go back in two or three years.

One of the advantages of these trips is you start to understand how the countries function so you can decide if you’d be able to visit on your own or not. In Iran, it’s possible, except I might have to leave out Kurdistan this time. It’s not so easy to reach.

Did Iranians speak openly to you?

They did. Iranians have a very clear idea of what the rest of the world thinks of them, and they are also sharply aware of what their reality is like. They are eager to talk to foreigners and set the record straight.

I hear the same thing from everyone I know who’s traveled to Iran.

I’m beginning to think it happens in every country. What we in the West believe in is conditioned by what information we get and how it’s presented to us. When some countries are closed off from the international community, there is no reason for people to want to visit, creating a negative image. 

Iran, for example, is not what people think it is, including from a touristic point of view. Tourism in Iran is growing at an impressive pace, not yet massified, fortunately. It’s not a country that’s hard to reach or hard to stay at, particularly in the cities.

And we have the habit of labeling everyone in the same way. The one question everyone asks me since I came back from Iran is if they’re all Taliban. 

Culturally, even labeling two civilizations, Persian and Arab, as the same thing doesn’t even make sense, but I only realized it after going there. 

We have the habit of looking at that area on the map and see it as a whole, which doesn’t make sense. In the same way, we don’t see Europe or America as a whole.

Going back to TEMA and this issue’s topic: post-urban

At the end of every issue, we publish what the next one will be about. So the last page of the magazine is always a call for submissions for the next one. 

We try to imagine what will be a good topic for discussion. “The Other Side” issue turned out to be a premonition of what was coming. The cover of that issue is a photo taken at the border between Mexico and the U.S. long before the presidential campaign, Trump, and the wall. It’s always a gamble, but we still want to spark a discussion.

[For this issue] we decided we wanted to reflect on what is urban and the city, mainly because we understand it can’t be the same as it was 30, 50, or 100 years ago. That’s impossible. And we don’t want to only talk about pressing topics like gentrification. 

We want to see how photographers will work on this post-urban theme. How do they look to these cities after the cities? I think it will cross paths with many other topics like migration phenomena, maybe tourism or maybe not…

Do you think people will submit essays on tourism or mass tourism or not?

I don’t know. Honestly, we haven’t received any submissions on the topic of tourism yet. We’ve got many submissions that focus on ruins, decomposing materials, not related to living in a city but related to a lifestyle that no longer exists.

That vision is surprising. I expected a more positive approach to post-urban…

So far, we haven’t received any. We get submissions from all over the world, so it’s fascinating to see how that influences their ideas of post-urban too. The post-urban theme is getting fewer submissions than previous ones, though. Maybe because the topic is too close to home. So far, the majority of submissions came from Europe.

(While we’re talking, I keep noticing the flow of people around us and traffic. Lots of traffic. Suddenly, I interrupt him because there are 20 bicycles behind us, perfectly parked, at Martinho da Arcada’s door. Something we would not have seen 5 years ago.)

You see, in Portugal, we see urban as architecture. But in other parts of the world, they see urban as a lifestyle in the city. That’s precisely why there are 20 bikes outside Martinho da Arcada right now. 

Urban is related to mobility, green spaces. I don’t think most people are aware of this, but there are many projects for community gardens right now in Lisbon. 

When it comes to mobility, I think it’s different in different places. 20 years ago, we wouldn’t dream of bicycle networks and bike lanes in Lisbon…

Well, no one in their right mind thought of Lisbon as a bike-friendly city.

Exactly. When the first idea for a bike network came about, everyone said forget about it. It’s not going to work. These days, specialty blogs and Facebook pages measure how many people are cycling through Lisbon every day.

This is what post-urban is. It’s not an apocalyptical vision of what the city will be like in the future. It’s what transformations can happen and how they will start. There are very broad sub-topics here, too, that can be addressed.

Let’s talk about your connection to Lisbon?

I was born and raised in Lisbon and have a solid connection to the city. Well, technically, I lived 160 feet outside of the city limits. I was born in Lisbon’s center, lived until I was two in Campolide, in a street that doesn’t exist anymore. Then, my parents moved to the suburbs, where they could afford a house. 

So, my house was 160 feet from the sign that says Lisbon, and while growing up, my daily routine was to cross that mental barrier and spend time in the city. I, now, live in the center.

What do you think changed in the city as you know it in the last 20 years? What do you see that makes you say, “I’m glad it changed” and “changing was the worst thing that happened”?

I hardly ever say it’s the worst thing.

So you think it’s evolution, it’s natural for things to change?

I think I’m pretty rational. I think some changes weren’t natural nor positive. Still, I don’t immediately see them as the worst thing that happened to the city. I don’t think there isn’t an event in the past 20 or 30 years that makes me say it changed the city entirely, and it wasn’t worth it.

Do you think some people are too emotional about it when they say it’s chaos every day? Is the city awful now?

That’s a very Mediterranean way to face life, and complaining is also a very Portuguese thing. We are permanently complaining. 

For example, mobility isn’t the best in Lisbon, but it isn’t the worst in the world. Not even the worst in Europe. But we’re always complaining about how traffic is the worst it’s ever been when it’s not. Traffic in cities like Nairobi, São Paulo, Hong Kong is hundreds of times worse than here, and they don’t even have a subway network. We tend to hyperbolize the good and the bad of what we have.

We are also constantly saying we have the best city in the world to live in or that we have the best country. We do, but not for the reasons every Portuguese says. Yes, Lisbon has the river, and so do hundreds of other cities in the world; some use it well, some don’t. 

Then we rave about the great weather, okay, cool. But you can find great weather anywhere else in the Mediterranean. When it comes to food, I do think we are many steps above other countries. But this is an area where I have trouble separating my emotional side from my rational one…

About food?

Food and other cultural traits. When we are from a place with which we have an emotional connection, it’s hard. Some things are obvious. For example, there aren’t high-quality fish in other countries like there is in Portugal. And I can state that as a fact after eating fish in dozens of other countries. But am I being rational or emotional? That’s harder to tell. Tastes are subjective.

Going back to Lisbon changes, I don’t think there’s been a life-changing event as impactful as the 1755 Great Earthquake. 

There have been some advancements in mobility but maybe not the ones we hoped for. We would all like to have a subway network that reached the far west side of the city, which we don’t have yet. 

But this [tendency to compare ourselves with the rest of the world] is a cultural trait, the same trait Eça de Queirós wrote about in the 19th Century. We tend to compare Lisbon to Paris, or London, or Vienna.

That’s something we haven’t been able to overcome yet…

We haven’t. Eça called it provincialism, which makes us compare our subway network to Paris, for example. We invested in a subway network for the first time in the 1950s, and we haven’t developed it as it should. Is it the best in the world? No. Is it the worst in the world? No. Are there things that improved? Yes, there are. 

I remember when the Metro didn’t have five lines. If we look at the bike path example, there weren’t any five years ago. Lisbon doesn’t have a lot of mobility issues for its size, and that’s a good thing. Most cities can’t say the same.

Some things changed for the better; others didn’t. For example, we have many more cultural events in Lisbon than we had 30 years ago. However, we have fewer cinemas now than we had in the 1990s. I’m talking about mainstream cinemas, not the niche ones.

Why do you think that happens?

The market changed, and in Portugal, it changes at a much faster pace than elsewhere. In the 1990s, when the first mobile phones came out, Portugal had more mobile phones than Finland! And Finland had Nokia! 

This inability to self-regulate (or regulate) leads to difficulties in living in the city. Lisbon hit a rough patch when local businesses shut down. Of course, now people blame gentrification, but if it weren’t for gentrification, many places would still be in ruins.

Most of the people who talk about gentrification don’t live in those neighborhoods that are gentrified.

It’s a love and hate relationship. Our bipolar attitude towards things hasn’t changed, and that’s what worries me. Suddenly tourism is booming, and we’ve been winning I don’t know how many awards in the past three years and we’ve made the cover of every travel magazine. 

And people don’t seem to realize that this boom comes in waves, trends. In two or three years, the hot destination will be somewhere else. We are shortsighted, and, like Eça de Queirós would point out, we gloat too much about how great we are.

We’re good at seeing a trend, but we’re bad at regulating things quickly. We take too long, and when we do act, it’s by force. It’s happening now with short-term rentals. We saw what happened in Barcelona and Venice, and we knew Lisbon would be next. But instead of stopping it, and I think politicians weren’t brave enough to control the rehabilitation of real estate for tourism, we just let it grow into this wild west of short-term rentals.

We want it all, but not quite, so we don’t know what we want. That’s when regulation is needed, to settle that middle ground, that balance. That is the attitude I think hasn’t changed yet.

Do you think it will ever change?

I find it hard to believe, and I don’t see it. When we hear that a local business is shutting down, people immediately say it’s a shame. But if you ask the same people when was the last time they went there, they say they don’t because it’s expensive.

But doesn’t that depend on what you consider expensive?

To me, it has nothing to do with being expensive. It’s how you’re connected to the city. If you have no emotional connection with the city, you won’t support local businesses. You won’t go out of your way, even if it’s just once a year, to buy salted codfish at Rua do Arsenal.

That’s something I think existed in our parents’ generation and is now completely gone.

Ok, now you’re a hipster!

It’s not a hipster. I think my parents’ generation followed certain traditions. I saw that happen with Pastelaria Suiça closing down, with many people admitting for the first time that they stopped going because service was terrible and it was too expensive. Still, it was part of their Christmas tradition. Once a year, they’d shop in Chiado, buy a pack of roasted chestnuts, and would go to Suíça for a cup of hot chocolate.

I understand, but that’s not enough to sustain a business.

It’s true, but even those small traditions are now lost because you stopped having an emotional connection with the city. Are those businesses coming back? Yes, a little, but based on a hipster mentality, not because people rediscovered a connection to the city. And that hipster mentality of going to certain places because they’re cool will sustain a business for how long?

And do you think that programs like Lojas com História solve that problem?

When the program began, under a different name, there was no genuine concern with protecting or preserving a place. It was all marketing fluff. 

Only now (mid-2018), we see some real actions to protect and preserve those businesses after dozens of them were demolished, closed, or sold. That’s one of the problems.

The second problem is what made a business be part of the Lojas com História list was age, not the ability to sustain a business.

Like the case of the Aillaud & Lello bookstore?

Yes. It’s about businesses being able to reinvent themselves. There was a tough time, no doubt about it. Traditional bookstores couldn’t compete with big chains like Fnac and didn’t understand they had to reinvent themselves, become niche bookstores.

There was a time when businesses were preserved because they had been around for a long time. No one looked into their business model’s sustainability. That’s a very Portuguese way of doing things.

And local business associations like the one in Guerra Junqueiro [Avenue]? Do those work?

In that case, specifically, it doesn’t work. It’s a completely dead zone. It used to be very important a long time ago, but it didn’t learn how to reinvent itself. 

Years ago, it was a high-end street to shop, expensive too. They are not interested in changing, either. Hence, they keep up the same attitude towards prices, saying, “this is Guerra Junqueiro; that’s how it is.” The inability to keep up with the market killed that street.

It’s the same attitude towards short-term rentals and gentrification that people in the business side of things don’t understand it needs to be regulated.

The Portuguese are suspicious by nature, and we have this love and hate relationship with progress. On the one hand, Expo 98 was excellent and made the city more modern. On the other hand, improving mobility to senior citizens in the historic center means all hell will break loose because you can’t ruin its authenticity. We have trouble accepting the middle ground, the balance.

So you have no hope things will change?

I think it’s a cultural trait.

And that’s a good thing?

It’s good as a cultural trait; it’s not good if it’s irrational. I know very few countries that have reached a balance. Maybe the only country I saw as balanced, as a tourist, was Sweden. They have a balance between germanic rationality and Mediterranean laidbackness. 

Once you spend a lot of time outside the country, you begin to rationalize these things as I have.

I think we have great cultural traits like being uncomplicated. I’m a big critic of the Portuguese, and I often say we’re annoying in day-to-day things. Like buying bread, or a pastel de nata, or an espresso. We’re picky, and we take it to the extreme, spending long minutes before settling for a loaf of bread. But then, work-wise, we can execute complicated projects faster than a German or a Swiss. I don’t think tourists get to see that.

It’s tough for me to take in because we’re losing specific spaces in the city. I post [on Facebook] a lot about things that are disappearing, and we’re not preserving them. And that’s not a job for tourists; it’s our job.

You’re reaching a point I wanted you to get to…

Someone told me they couldn’t preserve certain places because they couldn’t afford to make a living in the center of the city. I don’t think that’s true. Like it was 40 or so years ago, I don’t see a local business around every corner of the neighborhood. 

There used to be two or three tascas and maybe a family restaurant where I used to go every Sunday with my parents, and now you don’t see that many. That’s true. But this means your level of interest in the city has to be higher, and that’s where I think we’re failing.

If I know a place in the city like Casa Cid, that’s been open for more than 100 years and where I can eat lunch for €4.50, it has nothing to do with affordability. But because the place is at Cais do Sodré, and it’s too far for me, or I don’t have a parking space, or I don’t feel like taking the Metro, then that’s the real reason why I don’t go. To me, that means you’re not that interested in the city.

This cultural trait of convenience, self-indulgence already has a negative impact. The new generation will know a completely different city, that’s inevitable. But they will lose a city you won’t be able to bring back, and that worries me. 

The city we have now is not authentic. Many of the businesses we see now that were only created for tourists or hipsters, not locals, won’t be here in five, seven, or eight years. They’re not sustainable.

I’m often misunderstood because of this. I don’t want the authentic businesses to stay as they are and never improve. But they don’t have reasons to improve or reinvent themselves if we stop going there.

Do you have a good example of a business that has positively reinvented itself?

It’s complicated. I have a close relationship with the food industry, and it’s hard to think of places that made it work. Maybe the businesses I can think of are those who could maintain themselves because of some quirkiness but not necessarily reinvent themselves.

[Tasca] Zé dos Cornos is a good example. They don’t cater to the tourists, but they are located in a good area with a steady customer flow. If they were in other neighborhoods like Campo de Ourique or Alvalade, they wouldn’t have made it.

[Some businesses] survive because they are saved by side projects, like the Imperial in Campo de Ourique. It’s a tasca in a neighborhood that’s not meant for tascas. A few years ago, this restaurant probably didn’t have more than two customers for lunch every day; one of them was me. 

Then someone published a book listing their personal selection of the best tascas in Lisbon, and Imperial was one of them. It got more visibility and brought in more customers—local customers, not tourists.

But that was a stroke of luck, not transformation.

It was luck, but it was also because it’s an authentic business. If the person running the business isn’t nice and genuine, then it doesn’t work.

That spontaneity that you used to see in Lisbon is almost gone. 

The typical Portuguese that runs businesses now is thinking about marketing and branding. That’s not the city. That’s a project of a non-resident, and that’s a problem. 

The locals hardly visit these types of businesses, like that sardine shop in Rossio. Locals won’t go now nor later when it goes out of business, and they change it into something else. The locals don’t forget that easily.

Changes were too quick and in a short period.

Yes, and I find that hard to take. I never thought that I would witness so many differences in the city before turning 40. In 20 years, things have changed a lot and fast. And some things have to do with the market evolution, of course.

(We’re interrupted by the honk of a taxi and the bell of tram 28E. On the street, a young man on a Segway is begging the traffic to stop to give way to three tourists on Segways. He’s a tourist guide. Segways in the historic center of the city are one of Lisboan’s pet peeves of the last five years. This event, however, of a guide stopping traffic instead of using the zebra crossing, is a first for both of us.)

Is a place like “the triangle” a good or a bad example?

I see it as a good example. It’s within walking distance from Chiado, but it’s not part of the typical tourist route. The number of tourists who actually walk down the street from Chiado to “the triangle” is still low. 

The number of locals is even lower. Why? Because locals always saw it as the “rest” of Chiado. Three years ago, 90% of the shops were closed, and suddenly there are many projects worthy of attention by people who came to the city to create something. Like Companhia Portugueza do Chá. 

Sebastian is a fascinating person, and the project is extraordinary. Still, the primary customer of this type of project is hipsters. You only see other kinds of customers later. The bottom line is, who has the strength to keep up a project like this? Because it’s a long path with a lot of emotional strain. 

It’s like the Imperial in Campo de Ourique. Mr. João [the owner] was there every day, treating each customer with the same care and attention even when business wasn’t that great. That takes a toll on you, and not everyone has the strength to keep that up.

Unfortunately, locals only show interest in local businesses when they have a will to live in the city when they feel connected. Most people don’t have it. People just walk that extra mile for a business when it’s hipster or when it’s trending. It’s not because they care.

Photo submissions for TEMA’s issue on post-urban are open until July 30th, 2018. If you are not a photographer but know one, please share this post with them.

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