Interview: Pedro Silveira

From the series Ephmerides of the Genesis © Pedro Silveira

By Jessica Hubbard Marr

Following LOOKbetween 2014, I had the rare opportunity to dig even deeper into a project through an interview with Pedro Silveira (b. 1983), the dynamic young photographer from Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Silveira shared a portion of his on-going series, Ephmerides of the Genesis, during the multi-media projections at the festival. He describes his project as "a non-linear narrative that runs across the threshold between the document and imagination, about the social oppression that African descendants suffer since times of the beginning of the colonization in Brazil."

From the series Ephmerides of the Genesis © Pedro Silveira

Jessica Hubbard Marr: To begin, where do you live and what do you do?

Pedro Silveira: I live in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state, in Brazil. I used to be a staff member at a newspaper there for four years. Since 2010, I have been a freelance photographer covering assignments for newspapers and magazines; I have also been developing other projects starting from these images, using photography and video. Since 2012, I have been trying to spend more time engaged in my own projects. For me they have been the most important, because they keep me going in a way that I really believe in.

JHM: Growing up in Belo Horizonte, what resources or access did you have to photography?

PS: Belo Horizonte does not have very many exhibitions, and there are not very many good galleries or museums, only a few. It's hard to receive a really good exhibition in Belo Horizonte. Additionally, the universities do not have departments specifically dedicated to photography. There is not much attention given to the photography field here. Although I was born in Belo Horizonte, I grew up in a small city called Oliveira, 150km away, where nothing related to photography happens.

JHM: Before formally studying photography at Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais (PUC Minas), what role did photography have in your life? What about it resonated with you?

PS: When I was a child, I used to do some videos of family parties, with cameras that my father gave me. But I discovered still photography at the university. I hadn't studied photography formally. I studied Social Communications, a major focused more in graduating journalists; the classes included B&W photography lab and a newspaper lab, so I decided to dedicate my major to learning about photography, and tried to establish connections between the subjects of my interest.

From the series Ephmerides of the Genesis © Pedro Silveira

JHM: You worked as a photojournalist for many years, why did you decide to change your direction and return to graduate school for visual arts? How has this experience influenced your photographic practice?

PS: After graduating in Communications and being sure that photography was the tool in which I could best express myself, I decided to spend some time working at a daily newspaper. For four years I experienced all types of coverage and among it all, social issues motivated me the most. After a while, I realized that newspapers in Brazil are not interested in going deep on topics related to human rights.

Subsequently, I decided to quit the job in order to gain the freedom needed to chase my own questions. Especially because the mainstream media here is directly linked to capital, which explains their lack of interest in further reflections on these issues that most provoke me.

Then I decided to attend a post-graduate program at Guignard School of Arts, where it became clear for me that my biggest motivation is not to find answers, only raising more questions. I changed my approach in photographing, trying to be less objective as in the practice of journalism, and to give more space for and attention to subjectivity. I develop my projects powered by my own will.

JHM: Since 2011, you have been working on the ongoing series, Ephmerides of the Genesis, with the Quilombola community1 in Bahia. How did the project originate and what was the driving force behind it?

PS: The project is being undertaken in a Quilombola community (the remnant of escaped slaves) in Bahia, the Brazilian state with the largest number of Blacks. Photography works here in the sense of reconstructing a part of the cultural history of these groups, but also in wanting to raise other questions about social oppression in the formation of Brazil.

Brazil is a country mostly formed by Black people, but the oppression of African descent is historical. A recently published survey revealed that Afro-Brazilians have a lower expectation of life than whites, due to higher homicide rates. In some states, life expectancy is up to four years apart.

The idea of the project originated in 2009, when I took a trip through the region of Chapada Diamantina, in Bahia, and met the community. The most intriguing aspect for me was this community formed by Black families was so close to another community 100% formed by Portuguese descendants, living in completely different social conditions, and both have not changed.

The project is in progress, and until now I have dedicated time to understanding primarily the Quilombo community; I recently won a grant, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of Brazil, to finish the project. At the end, it will be a non-linear narrative that runs across the threshold, between the document and imagination, about the socio-cultural miscegenation where possibly the Afro-Brazilian emerged, and at the same time approaching the struggle for rights and symbolic violence which we still face in Brazil in the twenty-first century.

From the series Ephmerides of the Genesis © Pedro Silveira

JHM: The thematic thread between the photographs is a subtle absence of specificity - of physical environment but most notably, of the human face. How conscious was this strategy and how does it convey the overall theme of the series?

PS: When I started the project, the feel here was to do something new for me, that in parallel with the post-graduate program should find different forms to tell something, far away from objectivity. So I started to try different strategies that for me, at that time, went against my experience as a photojournalist.

This is one way that naturally appeared [to me], when I was trying to go beyond the photojournalism aesthetic and figure out something more subjective, which could work with some gaps [in the work]. Following this form, the narrative calls the spectator's imagination. Furthermore, I didn't want to show a specific person's face, such as in classic portraits, but something that could lead the viewer to a larger identity of a people that suffered a symbolic violence since the beginning of the colonization of Brazil that started five hundred years ago.

JHM: Why do you think it is important to work at the intersection of documentary and the imagination? How does this engage both the subjects of the photographs and the viewers of the photographs? Does it make the work more democratic?

PS: Yes, maybe the work is more democratic in this perspective. The most important for me is that we photographers will never offer the "real," this concept is very complicated to understand. The most beautiful thing in photography is that each one can offer their "real" and this is wonderful. For me, in this work, the mostly important is to be in the threshold, between the document and imagination.

From the series Ephmerides of the Genesis © Pedro Silveira

JHM: What is your intention for the work? How/where will you employ the series when it is complete?

PS: I have to finish it this year [because of the grant]. At the end, some images will come out as installations in rural zones, near farm roads far away from big cities, and near to the communities. The idea is to appropriate some structures used to show advertisements and build others to show [the series], but all is still in process. And I'll do a kind of catalog or magazine, and of course it would be amazing if one day it became a small book.

JHM: Can you describe your other ongoing project, Aresta Corner, that is based in your native city of Belo Horizonte? How do you plan to develop it?

PS: In the last two years, around 5% of the homeless people have been murdered in Belo Horizonte, a capital in the Southeast of Brazil that is located in the main commercial and industrial axis of the country. The majority live off of the collection of recyclable trash. They build their homes and feed their bodies with what Brazilians discharge. Stains and marks of the battle for survival are everywhere.

Instead of finding a solution to the problem, the government seems to choose perverse solutions. The Justice forbade the city hall to arrest or confiscate the few belongings the homeless carry. However, [the city] continues to fill the lower part of viaducts with earth, install sharp stones to avoid having nomad warriors in the street and having to deal with their public image.

Maybe there is an invisible war ongoing at the streets.

From the series Aresta Corner © Pedro Silveira

JHM: You are currently in New York with the Magnum Foundation's Photography and Human Rights Program at NYU. What has your experience been like?

PS: Incredible. Starting with the teachers - Fred Ritchin, Susan Meiselas and Ed Kashi - it is a group that will offer us decades of experience of theory and practice in the field. And my fellow colleagues are from Bosnia, China, Egypt, Iran and Syria…it has been an intense exchange of culture and experience. I'm so glad to be here in this selected group. In the class we are 16 students, from 11 different countries, and it makes the discussions so rich.

JHM: You also recently attended the LOOKbetween event in Charlottesville, VA. What did you take away from both your colleagues' work and the mentorship of the educators?

PS: That we have a lot to do with photography. The most important thing for me is to see that photography keeps doors open to any kind of serious work, and the field needs more and more good multimedia projects.

JHM: To finish up, what are some of the main differences and some similarities you notice between photography in Brazil and in the United States?

PS: This is a difficult question. We live in a globalized world, and photography projects are running on the Internet. Sometimes a project done in Peru looks like another shoot in another place in Asia, for example. But for me, now, I think that US photography gives so much attention to classic portraits, and I think that in Brazil photographers are going in a different way. But it is only my first impression.

Jessica Hubbard Marr is a specialist in photographic imagery with a focus on Latin America, an interest that developed thanks to many nights in the Manuel Alvarez Bravo/IAGO library in Oaxaca over the years. As a result, she subsequently received her M.A. in The History and Theory of Photography at Sotheby's Institute of Art/University of Manchester in London in 2011; Marr previously earned her B.A. in English from Kenyon College in 2005. Prior to working in the photography field, Marr worked with the non-profit, 'Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art' from 2008-2010, as both a photographer and cultural liaison. 

Since 2010, she has worked for TransGlobe Publishing in London, researching and writing about contemporary art and photography in locations ranging from Brazil to the Middle East. In 2012, Marr was appointed to the Global Nominations Panel for the Prix Pictect Photography Prize as a specialist in Latin American Photography. Her original essay, "A Glimpse into Enduring Moments" was featured in the catalogue of photographer Nadja Massun's solo exhibition, Alice in the Land of Zapata, at the Hungarian House of Photography in Budapest in 2012.

Marr resides in the US after spending the past 6 years studying and working abroad in Oaxaca, Quito, London and Mexico City. She credits these experiences to both expanding and deepening her appreciation for and knowledge about the photographic medium across cultures. 

She works as an independent photography consultant, researcher, writer, editor, and art advisor for both art/photography professionals and practitioners between Mexico, New York and London. 

Marr's photographic work has been published internationally in a variety of art and literary journals. Her first published photograph was taken in Oaxaca in 2008. 

1The community is Quilombo, the members of the community, Quilombos.

From the series Aresta Corner © Pedro Silveira