by Tiago Dias Dos Santos

Tell us about your approach to photography. We know you only define yourself as a photographer since 2008, how did it all started?

Helder Sousa (HS): My first contact with photography was ten years ago, during high school. I attended the Graphic Arts course at the Soares dos Reis high school, in Porto, and I had the chance to work with the dark room, and with all the steps that it involves. At that time I became truly interested in photography and even wanted to pursue further studies academically but, due to the lack of knowledge on opportunities available, I ended up enrolling in Painting, at the Fines Arts Faculty. After graduating, I started working on a photography studio where I picked up the camera again. I worked mainly on commercial work, weddings and things like that, on all the post production process, as well as video editing. I also worked on cruise ships, on the Douro River, where I sold pictures to the tourists. From that point on I recovered my taste in Photography, and the need to learn more on the subject, not so much in the commercial sense, but on an author’s perspective. I knew I wanted to keep on studying  on a masters degree, so I researched the offers available, and I found the masters at ESMAE. 

© Helder Sousa from ‘Unfinished Projects’ 

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

HS: By 2008 I did all the work required at the studio. While trying to solve the problems presented to me, I was able to develop some post production skills that had become forgotten. At the masters degree everything changed. My worries went from strictly aesthetically matters to more theoretical ones. Everything was in question, I could no longer say I’d like a picture just because. I started to know all the classic photographers, as well as the mandatory essays for any photographer, with more theoretical concerns. Initially I even started doing portraits, but I went on to landscapes, my main object of interest now.

© Helder Sousa from 'Unfinished Projects’ 

Tell us about your educational path. Bachelor Degree in Painting, at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Porto University, and then a Master Degree in Audiovisual Communication, Specialisation in Documental Cinema and Photography at Porto’s Superior School of Music and Performing Arts. What are your best memories of your studies, and what was your relationship with photography at that time? Why the need to change from Painting to Photography?

HS: Analysing at this distance now, I consider it was a very profitable detour. I studied Photography during the bachelor degree but, since I was very involved in the painting world, I wasn’t able to do anything interesting. At that time, the subjects I would approach would be more symbolical and metaphysical. I used mainly imagination and creativity, while little contact with reality. Now I can understand that that contact was what I missed. By a natural order of things, I went back to Photography and it’s where I feel good. I also consider that due to my pragmatic and humble personality, I’m able to develop a better work with the Photography medium, since it deals more with watching the reality around us than with the imaginative aspect that painting requires.

© Helder Sousa from 'Unfinished Projects’ 

What were the courses that you were passionate about and which have remained meaningful for you? Which skills acquired studying Painting do you apply in Photography?

HS: At college, I think the best tool I acquired was learning to “watch”. In the Drawing class, it was very important do develop that skill, because then, the practical part, comes with training. We all know how to write, that being a way of drawing, we just need to practice it. At that time, I acquired that skill, as well as the sense of composition and colour sensitivity with the Painting class. To a painter, a blue isn’t just a blue. There are many shades that can match better or worse in the colour palette that compose a painting.  I also consider that I already possessed some sensitivity regarding composition. It was always a concern of mine, many times developed at an unconscious level, but that made me take the right choice.

Any professor or teacher that has allowed you to better understand your work?

HS: All the teachers that crossed my academic path have had an influence on me, one way or the other. I think that in the MA there were two teachers that influenced me the most, Paulo Catrica and Cláudio Melo. The first, in a more theoretical way,  that made me think and see how photography is thought of nowadays. Being him a photographer himself, with daily practice and with studies in History, he had the skills I needed and he knew how to transmit them well.  Cláudio Melo was very important in a more practical way, with post production and image editing. In a project developed throughout the year, we made dozens of images that needed to be sorted out in editing, a very important part to a photographer. Knowing what stays and what is left out is as important as what you’re photographing.

© Helder Sousa from 'A Fábrica na Cidade’ 

What do you think about teaching methodology in the era of digital and social networking? 

HS: To someone that wishes to be a photographer nowadays, it’s like everything has been made easy. All of us are a potential photographer! We all have a camera in our pockets. However, there’s the need to know what to do with it. We live currently on a sharing hysteria. We fell an urge to share everything. As if, if we don’t do it, we don’t actually exist. Nowadays, what’s not on a social network, doesn’t exist! I think we need to get some distance to current reality so we can understand it better. If you notice, in the way we share everything, it seems like we’ve never been so watchful to reality, but truthfully that’s simply illusory.  We’ll apply a filter on a photography that changes the original colour, makes it more saturated, with more contrast, and all seems good, better looking. But that’s about it. It’s nothing more than a better looking picture, that doesn’t say anything to you, doesn’t tell you any story. There’s no punktum. It might say something, but only to the one that took it, never becoming a plural discourse, always individualistic. 

© Helder Sousa, book 'Topografias a Norte’

Here is where school comes in, so we don’t fall on that hysteria and be simply one more. I can help us to create tools that allows us to know better what we’re really interest in exploring. It helps us build a critical thought that will allow us to choose the better solution. Photography is precisely that, selecting the best option. The camera does the rest, but the before and after is as important as the click.  It’s obvious that theweb brought us a world that made sharing easy and, as a consequence, disclosure to new photographers. It made a lot of processes easy, but it also brought difficulty on distinguishing the best things being produced. We have to pay more attention!  

About your work now. How would you described your personal research in general? 

HS: At this time, I’m developing many works related to the city territory. With my MA project, Unfinished Projects, I approached a particular question of the city, and I felt the need do open the spectrum and analyse the city in a more global way. My concerns are always about the question of the urban landscape, the urban expansion, of progress - as something that grows in a positive way - , to a sense of disorder. Behind all this, there’s always a connection to the Human component, as a being that inhabits a planet, that builds a territory, and that is always in constant expansion, as if it was an sociological or even anthropological look. Either because of economical or other matters, there’s this need of development, of “growth”, that based on the use of reason, makes us justify all of our actions. I think that photography can have a very important part in that aspect, because it ends up freezing a certain moment and allows a better analysis and perception of these matters.

© Helder Sousa from 'A Line Made By Man’ 

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?

HS: I can say that, during my MA, I was converted to analog. I developed my project in large format and, if I could, I would only work that way. Since at this time that’s not possible, I’ve working with digital, using tilt-shift lenses that simulate the camera movements large format cameras allow. Regarding formats, I like to work in the square ones, may it be 4x5, 6x7 or 6x8. I I have the desire to produce a square format project that I never used.

Tell us about 'Unfinished Projects'...

HS: This project results from another one that I made during my MA. I had found out some buildings that were unfinished and decided to photograph them. Later, I started to realise there wasn’t just one or two in this situation, but a lot of them inside the county I live in. I started doing a survey of all the buildings I could find, with a digital camera, to try to understand if there were enough of them to do a project about. Indeed there were, and I started to develop the idea. A very important step in this was being persuaded by my teacher Cláudio Melo to shoot this project in large format. That changed everything. I realised a new potentiality of Photography that I didn’t know about. The way large format makes it possible to compose an image allows us a relation to the subject to be shot completely different that with a digital camera. It even relates a little bit to painting, and the camera obscura Vermeer used.

© Helder Sousa from 'Unfinished Projects’

I ended up developing the project in series, where each one resulted in an identifiable area. I restricted myself geographically to Valongo county, and to residential buildings that had been abandoned. The fact that they were in this condition was a big question mark for me. It was that that drew me on those buildings. I couldn’t understand it’s origin. In the research work, that resulted in the master thesis, I was able to conclude that a number of factors contributed to that. There was an over construction that, in a moment of inversion of economy - and money acquisition by banks - it ended up causing bankruptcy of many construction companies that had to abandon their buildings, and deliver them to banks. And here is where the problem resides. Is in the best interest of banks that nothing is resolved at this time. On one hand, to finish a building, they would have to spend money that they don’t have right now, on the other hand, if they want to demolish it, they also would have to entail expenses. While this remains like this, they can argue they have a rated asset, being that asset a concrete skeleton! It’s a very perverse situation.

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way? 

HS: Since I don’t many contemporary photographers, I can’t recall one that might have influenced me. I search mainly theoretical influences. But, to recall some examples, one of the big influences that allowed me to find a way was, without a doubt, the ones from the exhibit New Topographics, A Man Altered Landscape: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Sthephen Shore. This group of photographers influenced and still does many contemporary photographers. In a formal way, I think that my work relates a lot with the so called School of Düsseldorf: Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Struth and Thomas Russ. Although it’s not so visible, I feel that I’m also very affected by two italian photographers, Gabriele Basilico and Luigi Ghirri.

© Helder Sousa from 'Unfinished Projects - Addendum’ 

Three books of photography that you recommend?

HS: Quoting a classic, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, still very current. Joan Fontcuberta are always very interesting, as El Beso de Judas. Lastly, o Land Matters from Liz Wells, that presents the way how landscape has been represented and/or undeveloped.

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

HS: The last one I saw was Porto Poetic and although it was directed to architects, I found it to be very interesting. Architecture is always very present in my projects, and I try to see and read everything related. 

© Rita Burmester, Opening of the exhibition 'Porto Poetic’ at Triennale di Milano, September 2013 

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

HS: I’m currently developing two projects, simultaneously. The first has to do with housing in Porto, and a phenomenon that has been  developing and is more and more noticeable in the city, the walled buildings. The second project has a concept/title that is city-territory, where I approach different urban landscape. It’s still undeveloped so I don’t know what will be the outcome. I also decided to give continuity to my MA project, but in a broader sense. There are no geographical or typological restrictions. It will be called Unfinished Projects – Addendum, and it will be an open work, where new images will be added. For the future, I’ve been recently contacted by the architectural office ADOC and the architect Miguel Eufrásia, that will be representing Portugal in the Biennale Architettura 2014. They’ll be showing some images of Unfinished Projects and some new ones. I hope it will help me open some doors and that it’ll be an opportunity to do some new projects.


Helder Sousa