Photographer’s profile – Mauricio Abreu

When did you first become interested in photography and what sparked your interest?

I started my love affair with photography while studying at university. I was fascinated with the work of Paul Strand through books and magazines that my Father owned. I learned to work in black and white photography with an old Fuji enlarger that was in my family home. I prepared my chemicals and spent a lot of my free time photographing with a Nikkormat with a very good lens, the Nikkor 50mm f1.4, belonging to my Father. My “laboratory” was in the loft of my family house.  In the 1970s this was the old way to begin the practice of photography.   I was 17 years old.

What did you do in your life before becoming a photographer?

I graduated in Electrical Engineering at the University of Lisbon and I worked as an engineer for 5 years, but the passion for photography was inside me and was too strong. During those five years as an engineer I made several photographic exhibitions and, when I was 29 years old, I decided to dedicate my life to photography. It was a hard decision because I had already one of my two sons and I had to make a living, but my wife was extraordinary and backed me. It was the second best decision of my life (the first one was to marry my wife).

Torre de Belem (Belem Tower), in the Tagus river, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 16th century in Portuguese Manueline Style at twilight. It was designed by the architect Francisco de Arruda. Lisbon, Portugal

Documenting the cultural life of your native Portugal has become a major part of your life’s work as a photographer – what keeps drawing you to it?

In my twenties I read a lot.  Thee Portuguese writers Miguel Torga, Fernando Namora, and Orlando Ribeiro had a profound influence on my appreciation of Portuguese cultural heritage, our geography, our traditional architecture, our ancient festivities…

Forty years ago I was in love with my country and it’s people.  That is still true today.  I have been a tireless traveller in my own country; the curiosity and the desire to discover and understand our culture and geography remains the same.

You have also photographed extensively overseas – what do you find most challenging shooting travel stock images?

In the last 20 years I have travelled a lot in many countries along the Silk Road and also in Africa. I have crossed the Sahara desert in Mauritania;  I went to Timbuktu in Mali: I spent three weeks in Syria and a month in Iran. The Islamic countries have always fascinated me – mainly because of the people who are very friendly. I do a lot of research before a trip to choose the places that are most interesting to me and to better understand the culture. Regardless of that, I consider that the unexpected is fundamental to trigger my photographic reaction to any situation.

Nowadays the most challenging part of any trip is always to photograph people. I don’t like to “steal” a picture with somebody in the foreground and I always ask permission to take my photos when that person is the main subject. That said, I never carry a “model release” because I don’t have the “courage” to ask a stranger to sign a paper giving permission for everything.  Even I don’t know the final usage of that picture so I cannot explain to a stranger where and how will that picture be published. My model releases are almost always of my wife, my sons and my friends.

Your photography spans portraiture, architecture, landscape, food – what do you enjoy shooting most?

People, daily life scenes with people. That’s my passion. In Portugal and abroad. I have spent two months in India, in 2003 and in 2010 and I will never forget the surreal traditional festivities. I travelled along the the north of the country, from Jaisalmer (near Pakistan) to Kolkata, and I had a lot of pleasure shooting photographs mainly because of the people. The Pushkar Camel Fair was the most visually strong scene that I have ever beheld: more than 200,000 nomads and visitors in the village and in the desert, with thousands of camels during one week. It’s beyond our imagination and it is overwhelming. I believe that you can only understand India by going there. In 2003 I worked with Fuji Velvia and I made thousands of photos there.

Later, in 2010, Varanasi, Sonepur Mela, Bodhgaya and Kolkata were the highlights of the trip. I loved the visual chaos of Kolkata. Millions of people but everyone seems occupied, obsessed with their work and life.

How do you make your images stand out and imbue emotion into them?

When I am photographing a lot of my work is instinctive. Everything that attracts me visually is photographed in a completely immediate way, without much preparation. My most thought-out images are those taken at the end of the day, with night falling. I set up the tripod, choose the best angle, etc.

Everybody has their own way of seeing.  If my images transmit any emotions that is up to the viewer, but I am glad if that is their response. When taking pictures I just follow my instincts and try to tell a story…like Abu Shady, the last traditional storyteller in Damascus, Syria.

What’s your favourite image or images, and what do you love about them?

This is a hard question. I love several images of mine. Not because they are good pictures but because they mean a lot to me, in terms of feelings, of life… or because they are very simple and they touch me…

It is all about my background, my culture, my country, my feelings…

Is there somewhere you’d still love to shoot?

Fourteen years ago I prepared a trip for a month along the old trade route of the Silk Road from Kashgar to Xian in China, traveling through the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts. I read a lot about it. Colin Thubron, my favourite travel writer, had done it and he was a source of inspiration to me. Everything was ready when suddenly I had to cancel the trip due to personal reasons. I would still like to do it at some point in my lifetime.

Have you had a situation where it all went wrong and you didn’t get the shots you planned?

The biggest enemies of photographers are the weather and bureaucracy.

Generally speaking I have never changed plans because of bureaucracy. Only the weather has made me postpone shoots for five days maximum. It was on the Azores Islands, in the middle of the Atlantic. The Azores are heaven on earth, but when it comes to rain I think they are unbeatable. Some years ago I was stuck for 5 days on Pico Island and the only things I was “allowed” to do was eating and sleeping. The rain was so heavy that only an underwater camera would work. Every day the weather forecaster said “Tomorrow we will have a Sunny Day”. I had to return there two months later to finish the job.

The cryptomeria’s forests of Faial with the Volcano of Pico island on the horizon. Faial, Azores islands, Portugal

Is there any advice you’d give to a young person thinking of getting onto this business?

Love it, love it, love it: Love to travel and love photography.

Work, work, work: always do your homework. In time.

Respect people, above all. Be honest.

And, please remember, the photos are made by you not by a Nikon, a Canon, a Sony, a Fujifilm.

On an assignment you must satisfy your client, of course. You need to earn a living, everybody needs some money in this world. But always try to do what you like with your way of seeing. If not you will only do what others want you to do, not what you want.

 If you weren’t a photographer what would you be?

In another world, in another time, I would like to be a musician. I love music, I listen to music everywhere, I admire several musicians. I have no heroes but if I had they would be musicians.

I believe that our “salvation”, if there is any, is by culture and, for me, music plays a big part of the main role.

About the Photographer: Living in Portugal, Mauricio Abreu has been a professional photographer for thirty seven years. He principally photographs landscape and culture heritage. Portraiture is also one of his passions. Throughout his career, he has built up a huge and detailed collection of images of Portugal. When he is not in his studio, Mauricio can be found wandering the wild places and beautiful cities of Portugal, or the ancient cities of the Silk Road, producing images that document the culture of these places and their relationship with nature and environmental surroundings.

He has published and co-ordinated a collection of photographic books about various regions of Portugal, accompanied by texts written by several Portuguese writers. Several of his 29 books have been published by major Portuguese publishing houses. In 1997 he was honoured with the Honour Medal of Culture by Setubal City Council. He won the First (Gold) and Third (Bronze) prizes – Pictorial Category – in the European Professional Photographer of the 2009 Year Awards. He was elected Qualified European Photographer in Landscape Photography by the Federation of European Professional Photographers Associations in Belgium.

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