August 23 : 2023
The joyfulness of summer and the inherent simplicity of childhood come into focus in this outstanding image. However, these works also have a deeper, more profound appeal, leaving an emotional mark on the viewer. Please join us in congratulating João Coelho for winning the International Discovery of the Year title.
by Lily Fierman
"The Freedom of Nudity"
This is your second honor at the reFocus Awards, which is very well-deserved. You have a signature style that really shines in your images. Can you tell us about what makes your images so distinctive?
First and foremost, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the World Photo Annual jury and the entire reFocus team most sincerely for this extraordinary incentive. This award is very important to me, to the people I photograph and to the messages I want to convey with my photography. Regarding my style of photography, I believe there are three features that distinguish it.
Firstly, it is a documentary photograph with a strong humanist imprint that aims to provoke emotions and feelings by denouncing the inequalities and injustices that unjustifiably still exist in an increasingly globalized world. To do this, I tell stories of lives where survival and resilience go hand in hand with love and mutual help.
Secondly, I use wide angles in the vast majority of my work because this allows me to get very close to my subjects. I don't like impersonal or anonymous photography. I like to interact with the people I photograph, that's the only way I can get to know them and tell their true life stories, that's the only way I can laugh with them or be moved by what they tell me.
Finally, my work is characterized by enormous respect and admiration for the people I photograph. I don't exploit poverty or need for free. Being around people who live on the edge of survival, getting to know their lives, their fears and their anxieties, has radically changed my own way of being in the world. I owe them a great deal of gratitude for this and the way to repay them is to try to change their condition by showing it to the world through photography.
Tell us about how you got started in the field of photography.
For as long as I can remember, I have always felt a strong attraction and motivation for art, particularly painting and drawing. Photography came naturally as this motivation matured and I have always seen it as a form of artistic expression. Even before I bought my first camera, I remember devouring photography books and magazines.
I've always been self-taught; everything I know today resulted from a learning curve in which passion and perseverance certainly played a major role. As a teenager, I had already mastered the basics of photography and began writing text and image articles published in Portuguese leisure and travel magazines. Documentary photography only came about five years ago due to living with people who struggle daily to survive in Angola, the country where I was born.
"The Skeleton's Playground"
Tell us about the story and making of this image.
This image has a very special meaning for me. It's an example of how children who don't have sophisticated toys can be immensely happy just with the air surrounding them, the sea that welcomes them whenever they want, and the wonderful camaraderie between them. It's an image of purity in which nudity is innocent and natural.
However, it's also an image that makes you wonder what children who have everything and live in cities surrounded by civilization have lost in their relationship with nature. This image is part of a short documentary I did on a fisherman's beach near where I was born. I was doing this, too, when I learned to love the sea, so it's also special to me because it reminds me of some of the best moments I've had in my life.
...interacting with and getting to know the story of the lives of the people I photograph is one of the characteristics of my photography. This allows my projects to faithfully reproduce their anxieties, their fears, and their human condition.
What advice would you give to another photographer looking to create socially-aware and humanity-inspired images like yours?
First of all, the choice of topics and the planning of the reportage is fundamental and can be decisive for the messages you want to convey. It's important to point out that some subjects can be problematic, so I advise you to always do a risk analysis and carefully evaluate the circumstances in which you will shoot.
Secondly, interact with the subjects and immerse yourself in their world. Only then will the photographer be able to feel the true stories and thus tell them in images that faithfully portray them.
Finally, mastery of photography techniques and in-depth knowledge of the equipment is very important. When working in the field, the documentary or reportage photographer cannot waste time or be oblivious to what is happening in front of them to modify camera settings or think about how to compose a scene.
"The Dump Ballet"
Your work never feels like you are making the subject the 'other' and instead like you have created some connection with whatever or whomever you photograph; there's almost an implicit trust between your camera and what's in front of it. How do you establish this connection?
In fact, as I said earlier, interacting with and getting to know the story of the lives of the people I photograph is one of the characteristics of my photography. This allows my projects to faithfully reproduce their anxieties, their fears and their human condition. In order to be accepted by the people I photograph in a country where there is a great deal of resistance to photography and photographers, I need to adopt a very simple attitude and establish empathy through a good level of communication, sometimes even speaking their slang.
When I want to shoot my subjects in their intimacy or when there are security risks, this sometimes requires a lot of planning. For example, a report I did on a group of thugs who get together in an abandoned house to share food and drugs, required about 4 months of approaching and engaging with each of the gang members in order to be accepted by them.
What are you working on now or excited about working on in the future?
My latest project, still in progress, is a documentary about men who work in a ship graveyard, taking daily risks of various kinds with just one aim: to make a living to feed their families. Every day, that bay witnesses remarkable stories and scenes of these men dismantling huge iron skeletons using only their hands, their strength and their determination. As for the future, I hope to continue to shout to the world through documentary projects that draw attention to social and humanist issues.