Compelled to Get Close: A Q&A with Photographer Carlos Simes

"This project is sometimes offering me answers to personal questions and on occasions opens my mind. I'm seeing a much more complex territory than when I arrived," Simes says about his work in Southern Alentejo and the Costa Vicentina area.

We first learned of Carlos “Cuca” Simes as the author of the first Portugal-wide rock climbing guidebook that came out in 2017 — an impressive feat of coordination, travel, research, writing, and, of course, climbing.

And photography.

Simes began taking photographs long before the climbing guide book project. Since its completion, he’s focused his efforts most recently on documenting the southern Alentejo and the Costa Vicentina region, an area undergoing transformational change these days.

Atlas sat down with Simes to find out more.

Atlas Lisboa: I know photography has been a big part of your life for a long time, but I also know you as a climbing book author and a dedicated climber, all of which takes significant time. When did photography start taking center stage for you in recent years, and how did that happen? Did writing the guidebook to climbing make you pause your photography work, or contribute to it?

Carlos Simes: For me, photography started with climbing in my early teenage years. My mother gifted me a manual SLR that I got really hooked on using, documenting activities I was doing with friends. Some years later, I studied photography at in Lisbon and then went to Scotland for a Master’s in geography. Living abroad opened up my views as well as expanded my knowledge of the possibilities of the photographic medium to portray socioeconomic issues. I’m glad I got foundations in analysis from a social/environmental science, and from then on, I started attempting to materialize my perceptions via visual representation.

All photographs courtesy of the artist

Although I continued reporting my outdoor pursuits with personal images, especially during the period when I had to give feedback to climbing sponsors, I started focusing on documenting other realities — which I kept doing on a daily basis in the places I was living or traveling through.

Writing the climbing guidebook made me halt for a while, at least in terms of organizing and exhibiting my portfolio, but never totally, as I kept photographing. I had a task at hand for the Portuguese climbing community, and I did the necessary work together with Ricardo Alves to illustrate it. That had nothing to do with my photography scope. From the life side of things, I’m fortunate that my options have been proving good over the years; I work seasonally, so I have time to develop projects more freely and now further dedicate it to photography.

What has influenced your photography — not just other photographers, necessarily, although of course we’re curious, but also events in your life, other pursuits, music, literature, etc…

In the beginning, I was inspired by photobooks I would borrow from the library, especially classics from the humanist documentary tradition such as books with work from [Josef] Koudelka, [Marc] Riboud, [Bruno] Barbey, [Raymond] Depardon, and by the approaches of photojournalists such as Susan Meiselas and Paolo Pellegrin, as well as by friends with whom I could share and discuss photographic ideas. Basically, by the multitude of great people that produce work (recently, often self-published authors) along these lines. I would say long-term living experiences in foreign countries, and initially going through a variety of jobs to make a living, which put me in different contexts, were probably influential factors that defined and shaped my search and contemplation for otherness. I love reading and listening to music and prefer content that is truthful, reflects on the individual, society, geopolitics, natural history, etc…

What are you shooting on these days, and how has that evolved? Digital, analog, both? Why?

I shoot mainly black and white on Leica (M7 and R6) film cameras with fixed manual-focus lenses. It all makes me comfortable by its simplicity and the fact that it is the way I’ve been photographing ever since I learned. My portfolio has been shaped by the qualities and limitations of these tools and processes, and I’m a bit conservative when it comes to changing methods.

I also have a mirrorless camera that I use in some situations.

Analog and digital both have their advantages and disadvantages: it depends on what they are being used for and the desired result. I prefer the pictorial and gritty properties of high ISO film — they suit my sense of the world — and I find it too time-consuming to get rid of the cleanliness and accuracy of digital files in post-processing.

Where do you go to see photography in Portugal? Any museums or galleries that you return to? Websites, Instagram accounts, etc.?

I like to attend photo exhibitions whenever I come across them and always check and plan visits to galleries if I’m in a city. In Portugal, CCB and Serralves are the museums where I recall seeing the most inspiring content lately: like Lu Nan’s trilogy or the Manoel de Oliveira archive respectively. Artists’ websites, photo books, and magazines are my main source to keep up while at home in the countryside.

You have photographed all over the world. How do these projects typically come about?

The first place where I developed a photographic project was in Scotland, when I was in university. The social environment of the city I was living on, Dundee, struck me from the very first visit and throughout the following years. It took some time to understand its U.K. post-industrial context, and I used all the possible free time there to roam around and get images I thought would depict the heavily depressed reality of the lower working class within the backdrop of an internationally “cliched” country.

Next was, and still is, Catalonia. I worked and photographed there for another three years after graduation. The nationalism issues fascinate me, with their hard-to-differentiate tangling of people’s self-sensed identity, political propaganda, and the ensuing outcomes. It is a culture I respect and like to put in perspective amidst Spain’s cultural mosaic. I often visit keeping an eye on its manifestations and state of affairs.

Recently, I did a short essay that was motivated by participation in a Magnum agency workshop in India. I picked a sensible topic, which had to do with portraying the cultural hybrid representations of modern-day Goa. I did interviews with people I met randomly in the streets and photographed daily situations that are easily observed. It was very interesting to identify elements, iconography, and archival documents, tied to but afar from my own country — on the other side of the world, in fact — mixed with the subcontinental millennial heritage and structures. 

Your subject matter is diverse, but people take center stage very often, from what I’ve seen of your portfolio. Has that always been the case, or was this something you came to once you developed as a photographer? Either way, what is the appeal to you of getting close to people with your camera? How does that work with your interest in scenes, landscapes, and other images without a human element?

I like to talk to and get to know people, so if I see something happening or someone who’s representative of an environment I’m attempting to depict, I’m compelled to get close. Sometimes, it is possible — or needs to be done — without being noticed; on other occasions, I feel the urge to talk with the person, enquiring about the significance of something and only then starting to photograph.

What drives me is the fact that for most of my investigations, human beings are agents and representatives of very complex societal cause/effect relations. Besides, the moments I experience while interacting with individuals are inestimable.

Personally, I find it difficult to access a subject without people — even if objects, wall paints, or other isolated elements can occasionally say as much. I tend to do landscapes when they convey descriptive matters, but I can also see the beauty of more abstract and emotional interpretations.

Your current oeuvre focuses on the south of Portugal, you mentioned you’re documenting “what’s happening there.” What drew you there? 

I moved to the southwest of Portugal a few years ago, longing for a close-to-nature life. I found that, but also a vulnerable Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, threatened by the usual urban pressure and individual interests. A “no man’s land” with established international communities and seasonal passers-by with alternative ways of living. The coexistence of it all with the old social fabric.

How familiar were you with the area before this project, and how has the project changed your perception of it?

I certainly had experiences with the nature and wilderness of the area when visiting, with its rural origins, also some notion of the hippy vibe and libertarian ways of living that one would come across while temporarily down here.

It was another thing to settle and have the opportunity to live immersed, observing and participating every day. This project is sometimes offering me answers to personal questions and on occasions opens my mind. I’m seeing a much more complex territory than when I arrived.

What has been the most gratifying aspect of covering this region? What has been hard about it?

It’s been gratifying to have it at my doorstep, to be understood, and as a means to further discover the region and the people making it. Sometimes it is hard to look and observe the landscape continually evolving as material evidence of the ongoing processes…

When are you hoping to publish the book? 

When I’ll get the feeling that certain dynamics I’ve been documenting stop or decrease in pace, and when enough representative images of its diverse layers are collected.

Any exhibits planned?

Not for now. In 2019 I had, along with André Paxiuta, two exhibitions of our “From Paralium to the Empty Place” — one at the LAR Gallery in Lagos and the other at Mertola’s Castle Gallery. Since then, it’s been about reframing and personal work on some of Portugal territorial issues we unleashed in that series.

Where can our readers see more of your work?

Where can they buy your work?

Please get in contact if you have any editorial or exhibition proposals, feedback, or a particular print demand.

On Key

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