Interview with André Cepeda by Jean-Louis Godefroid, October 2009
JLG: What determining factors guided you towards the practice of author photography?
AC: My first contacts with photography took place at the Coimbra Photography Encounters, where my mother was secretary to the director. I remember going to meet her and having been able to observe the entire atmosphere surrounding the preparation of a festival: the receipt of the prints, the creation of frames, hanging, etc. In 1989, at the age of twelve, I began helping the festival team; it was the time of the Robert Franck exhibition. I was greatly marked by this very new context for me, the images made me discover a new world, a new reality that I hadn’t known about until then and to which I was highly susceptible.
I wanted to understand the meanings of the images, what they offered us, how to interpret them and to understand my relationship with the worlds created by all of these photographers.
After this initial experience, I began taking photographs straight away. In fact, I took photographs of photographs; they were reproductions. I remember visiting exhibitions and photographing the pictures. I think it was in an attempt to better understand the compositions and forms of the photographs which I really liked, such as those by Meatyard, for example. He photographed his children and through the fiction, he created a rather strange, mysterious world. His work is foundational and still accompanies me in what I do today: never say everything but show everything, leave space for the spectator’s imagination…
JLG: How did you your training continue?
AC: I worked at the Coimbra festival for several years, until I was 18. Then I went to live in Brussels for two years, where I attended several workshops and a course at the art college in Ixelles, which was very important in technical terms. The quantity of information I found in Brussels was crucial for the following years. I began taking photographs with Polaroid Positive/Negative film and shooting film in Super8, to be able to photograph a lot and to experiment with other techniques. Afterwards I went to live in Porto, where I completed a final year at college. A month later I began working at the Portuguese Photography Centre in Porto, where I stayed for three years. Before becoming a photographer, I wanted to understand all the mechanisms surrounding photography, to research, train and stage exhibitions, in order to fully understand all the process and meet as many photographers as possible.
I followed several courses in black-and-white and colour printing. The lab work had always interested me and it still does. My approach to photography can not be summed up by the image but extends to everything that surrounds it: the construction, printing, montage and books—everything that gives rise to meaning and thought.
JLG: What was your first major achievement as an author?
AC: At the age of 17, I began searching for a personal language with photography; I worked a great deal on improving my practice. In 1999, I went to Moscow for one month. This was a sort of initiatory journey for me, during which I was able to begin the work that I wanted. My objective was to create as many shots as possible, to make tangible everything that I felt, to “bring out” all the influences of these images that I had in my head. I produced an enormous quantity of pictures, two or three 35mm films per day and several 120 films as well.
After Moscow I moved back to Brussels where, as part of the Programme of Artist Residencies in the Contretype Photographic Art Centre, I undertook my first project. This gave rise to an exhibition and a publication entitled Anacronia. That was where everything truly began.
JLG: You are currently completing a project, which you have been working on for several years in Porto, consisting of landscapes, interior scenes and portraits. How did you develop this project?
AC: This project came about quite naturally. It arose from a need to photograph what was around me, drawing inspiration from everyday life. I met and approached the people I photographed in the street and in places I frequented. I have been living in Porto for thirteen years now and have photographed and observed the city a great deal. But for this work, I was interested in a more specific reality. Porto contains what are known as Islands. These are districts that were built in the 19th century, following the arrival of migrants from the North of Portugal to work in the city. It is quite unusual. Each street has a single entrance gate and is made up of little 16m² houses with communal sanitary facilities. These urban areas have now been deserted by the workers and are occupied by people living off social security and short-term arrangements, which also contributes to the energy of this city. Life goes on as though it were on a completely isolated island, the places and people are scarcely accessible; it is a life that is both socially and individually beyond society. The isolation results from poverty, alcohol and drugs. I began this project by walking through these streets where no one goes as a matter of course, first photographing the houses, then the interiors and then the people. Surprisingly, these are the places where I feel comfortable, even if there are risks and danger. I was fascinated by this boundary which is difficult to cross. I wanted to see how life went on for these marginal inhabitants, to listen to their life stories and what they thought about life.
JLG: To what extent is your work connected with your personal life?
AC: I’ve given this a lot of thought. One day I read an interview with the Algerian film director, Abdel Kechiche. He stated that his cinema was the reflection of his life, his personal story. My father died when I was three and I experienced very strong emotions and a great deal of suffering. I don’t like to interpret these emotions, but I sometimes think that they gave rise to my sense of revolt in relation to bourgeois false appearances and social injustice. If I am interested in the world of poor people, it is because I enjoy being with people who have difficult lives, and who have stories to tell. My life involves thinking about my photography work every day; it is about interpreting other people’s thoughts, expressing my ideas, having experiences and understanding how to do things. I can not imagine myself separately from my work. What is important? What makes me get out of bed every morning? What attaches me to this place? How can I continue to evolve? These are the questions I ask in this work and for me the answer lies in the feelings one has for others, in the love for one’s family. These are the basic, essential things.
JLG: When I look at your photographs, I find them very silent, cut off from the noise of the world…
AC: Silence is where I rediscover myself. I have visual memories of places and when I take photographs, there is no sound; I am in the landscape and I feel comfortable in this silence. When I dream, I remember images, never sounds. My relationship with life has always been visual first and foremost, but I very much enjoy listening to music. I play the guitar. It is very important for me, but that is another story…
JLG: When we look at the houses that you photograph from the street, all the doors, windows and curtains are closed. There is this same feeling of emptiness in the landscapes and in the people’s faces.
AC: That is what you feel here when you walk along the street, because everything here is closed, abandoned and for sale. There are more or less 216,000 inhabitants in Porto, an enormous city, whose hour of glory has past. During the property boom, the suburbs developed extensively, but many people have now left because there is no work. The majority of those who stayed in the centre were born in Porto. They are often poor and old, and live in very difficult circumstances. There is a prevailing sense of desolation. It is very hard to meet people every day in the street who have lost all hope, who are closed, sad and lost. They have worked all their lives and at the end they have nothing. It is very hard. When I came to live here, I didn’t know about this situation. It is not easy, but all of this inspires me. It is important to think about the social situation and the current crisis we are going through: social differences and the causes behind people’s difficult lives. My photographs are the reflection of the times we are living in. After the revolution in 1974, there was hope for a better world. After various crises and difficult adaptations, people no longer know where they stand or where they are heading.
JLG: You worked with a press camera in the interiors. How did you go about this?
AC: All the shots were taken with a press camera. I really enjoy using this camera as it is more about constructing the pictures than taking them; it is a very slow, meticulous process. I like having the time to feel the space and observe the subject, working on the framing, waiting for the light and feeling the image that I am going to take.
A picture may take one or two hours. In the interior pictures we sense a human presence and movements; objects are positioned so as to indicate that something has happened. For the portraits, I built up a relationship of trust with the models. We talk a great deal and they tell me their life stories, which help me to understand them. We think about the place to take the picture, we choose the street or a room, and then things happen very naturally. The picture simply reflects a moment that I have spent with them, in order to capture the empty, lost expressions in their mental space.
JLG: Why did you choose Ontem as the title for this new work?
AC: The further I advanced into the project, the more I sensed an absence of references in relation to time, in the places and in the homes of the people I met. How to manage time or rather, how to spend time with one’s body and one’s thoughts; what to do except perhaps take refuge, hide, cancel and forget? The best word I could find to reflect this sense of timelessness was ontem (yesterday).
JLG: For the exhibition in Lisbon, you are presenting an installation in which the central piece is a film.
AC: I sometimes need to film things that I have already photographed. For this exhibition, I am going to present a 16mm film about a couple whom I had first photographed. It is a couple in which there is a true sense of tragic love, final love. For this couple have lost everything. They live without anything.
They told me that if it wasn’t for the love they had for each another, they would have gone mad and separated. That touched me so strongly; it made me want to film what they felt. It is a 90-second film, with 4 different shots, in which they are always in the same position. The angle changes every 35 seconds… it is very powerful.
JLG: In spite of the presence of a strong dramatic orientation, do you consider that you take a documentary approach to photography?
AC: The drama arises from the framing, the search for locations and from the fact that things don’t simply happen. I provoke situations: going to places, trying to understand, speaking with people, trying to go as far as possible. That way, things happen. I don’t ask myself whether it is documentary or not. I am greatly marked by everyday images, such as those I see on TV; the visual aspect is what constructs my work. When I take photographs, I summarise, I try to put into my pictures everything that is happening around me in political, social and family terms.
I want to present reality with a little fiction. I don’t tell private stories, nor do I make judgements. My sole aim is to reflect what I feel about life by addressing questions that I consider to be essential.