Scroll to top

Rui Palha. Humanism in photography

Interview with Rui Palha

By David Tijero Osorio
Collaborator of Blackkamera

Ph: Josu Zaldibar

The historical café in Lisbon A Brasileira was the meeting point with one of the most important humanist photographer of the last decades, Rui Palha. In this interview we talk about the importance of photography in his life and the influence of the people and the city where he lives in his work.

First of all, a general question, what is for you photography. Your way to express yourself beyond the words, a tool to document your needs and worries, a gate to escape from your routine or obligations?

Photography for me is my way of life, probably the main reason I am here in this world. I retired from my main job very soon due to health problems and I decided to do what I liked, and it was photography. I walked lots of kilometres every day with my camera until I became street photographer. It is really a passion. I consider myself as an amateur as I don’t accept any charge to photograph, so I only do what I want, not what others want me to do. It is very important for me photography. I am not young anymore so I don’t walk as many kilometres per day as I used some years ago, but when I travel, I’ve been visiting Hanói and Bangkok past week, I walk up to thirty kilometres per day because I want to see everything.


© Josu Zaldibar

The city of Lisbon is the main stage for your pictures. What do you find in this beautiful city that you did not find anywhere else? Did this city influence in your style or feelings you want to describe in images? Do you think your photography/style would be different if you lived in another place?

I don’t know if I agree with you because persons are the main subject of my photography and I can photograph where I find persons. I could not live without persons in the streets, without street models. It is truth that Lisbon is special in my opinion because the light is beautiful, it has also this wonderful ground that creates reflections when it rains, but anyway, I don’t mind to photograph in any other place all over the world. Lisbon often appears in my photography because I live here and I photograph almost every day. I usually leave home early in the morning except when I am too tired or I do not feel very well. I walk from my home which it is in the newest part of the town and I walk several kilometres to the centre. I choose all the possible ways to come to the centre. I photograph many people during my walk and some days later I give them the picture in paper. I’ve met many people during my walks and the relationship with them is very good.


© Josu Zaldibar

“Photography for me is my way of life, probably the main reason I am here in this world.”

Lisbon is a great, multicultural and crowded European capital. How is to take pictures in their streets? Is it as easy as it can be for example in other big cities like Paris or London where most of the citizens do not care if a camera points to them?

It depends on the person. If you are a serious guy, if people like you, if you respect people and ask for permission to photograph, of course you are going to get lots of good photographs. It is very important to respect people and talk directly to the person you want to photograph. It is also very important in other situations, if you are in a narrow street or in a dangerous place, never show you are afraid.

Which are your feelings when you take the camera and walk the streets? Full concentration, joy, routine, happiness, being under pressure, maybe a sense of urgency to document ways of living or places than can disappear in the near future?

I have all kind of feelings but yes, I feel under stress in the streets. As time goes by the level of exigence with yourself goes increasing and many times it can happen that I spend one entire day in the streets taking pictures and when I go back home I don’t like any of them. It is important to be under pressure and concentrated in the street, always looking for the perfect moment, a moment that you will probably not find but you must force yourself to find it. I often tell to my closest friends that if I begin publishing not very good photos, please, take me to the hospital, ha, ha!

“I don’t use the smartphone for photography. I feel comfortable with cameras and it is enough for me. «

Your photography is like fragments of life rescued in an image. There is a kind of poetry in them. Would it be exaggerated if we said that you have been able to describe or transmit this feeling called «saudade» in many of your pictures?

I think so because all the Portuguese people have this feeling inside. It is a historical feeling. There are so many factors to feel these emotion. This saudade comes from previous generations, because of the Fado, because of the war and fascist regime, something that the younger generations has not known. People from my generation, young people at that time, were fighters. We went to a lot of political meetings against the regime. This land has lots of poetry and many great poets. Probably each Portuguese has a little poet in their soul. I always try to find the beauty inside the people in my work and maybe that’s why this feeling appears in my pictures when I get to describe the soul of a person.


© Josu Zaldibar

You are considered as a humanist classic street photographer. The influence of Cartier-Bresson and his search of “l’instant décisif” seems clear in your work, but, is there any other contemporary author whose work inspires you?

I think it is impossible not to be inspired by Cartier-Bresson but I must say he was a lucky man because when he lived all the cars were equal and black, the suits of the people were equal, very dark and women very beautiful. Today it is more difficult because there is a lot of confusion in the streets, with many different cars, people and clothes and you must be really aware of the background to get a good moment, an emotive moment. Framing and composition is very important to get a good picture and this is really difficult in a crowded street. About alive photographers, to be honest, I do not have now any contemporary photographer as reference. I like, for example, James Nachtwey. He is a war photographer but he has a very important social work and I love Sebastião Salgado’s work, a great humanist photographer. I wish I could travel with him to the places he goes. I don’t have any clear influence from street photographers. I know there are several currents in this genre but many of them I don’t like, for example, I don’t like the work of Bruce Gilden and his use of flash and I think he feels the same about my work, but it is OK.


© Josu Zaldibar

“Portugal has lots of poetry and many great poets. Probably each Portuguese has a little poet in their soul.”

You lived the transition from working with analogic cameras to digital ones. Today, due to the new technologies, photography and creation of images are probably living a new transition or revolution, with new tools like smartphones and all kind of apps to intervene the image. Are you interested in this new way to make photography?

It was so difficult to change to digital. I worked with film cameras since I was fourteen years old and I spent many hours in the dark room. I learnt a lot but I felt I was losing my time because I just wanted to photograph. My first digital camera was the first digital Nikon and my experience with it, a travel to Morocco, was awful because the way to work with it was quite different and most of the pictures were too white or too black. But I could test many digital cameras in the following years and I saw that these cameras were improving. Nowadays I only work with digital ones because I am too old for the dark room. I photography with my Leica only in .raw and with Nikon and Sony I only photograph in .jpg. I always try to take pictures with the perfect light because I do not want to waste time in post processing and this can be seen in many of my pictures, they have a bit of grain and look like if they were made with film. About photography with smartphone, I don’t use it, I feel comfortable with cameras and it is enough for me. I respect it and I also saw one exhibition with pictures made with smartphones. It was a very good exhibition but it is not something for me.

Do you have any technique to approach to the people you want to photograph or any kind of trick to become «invisible» when taking pictures? Could you share with us?

Sometimes you must be invisible to try to capture the essence of moment or if you are photographing something tricky like drug trafficking, for example. In other occasions, it is necessary to stablish a kind relationship with the person you want to photograph. For example, if I want to take pictures from people in a tavern in Alfama, I go there several times until I meet the guys and after that I can photograph them without any problem because they are already friends. I don’t think this is a technique, I see this like a way to connect with people, something that not all photographers are able to do. I only use small focal lenses, the maximum is a 35 mm because I like to be close to the person I photograph. It is compulsory to stablish connection with the people if you want to photograph them.


© Josu Zaldibar

“You must like people, if not, you cannot become a street photographer because you cannot connect with them and it will be reflected in your pictures that you don’t like persons.”

This interview will be published in the website of a documentary photography school. Which advice would you give to those students who want to become street photographers?

I think there are several advices. First of all, you must respect the people. You must like people, if not, you cannot become a street photographer because you cannot connect with them and it will be reflected in your pictures that you don’t like persons. Another one is, always carry your camera, even if you go, for example, to the hospital, take your camera, and photograph the sick people. I had to be several times in the hospital sometimes with very serious health problems and I always took the camera with me. You have to be brave with a camera in your hands. Don’t be afraid because you are not doing anything wrong. Be brave, always. Never show you are afraid. Try to stablish connections between you and the person you want to photograph, look in their eyes, always, and never hide the camera, because people need to know that you are a photographer. Try always to measure the light in a very good way, because if you measure the light correctly, you do not have to spend time in post-processing. Light is everything. Never use flash, because you are raping the natural light, you are filling the shadows and, in some countries, you are also disrespecting the persons you photograph.