Obscura Journal Contributor Danielle Ezzo recently interviewed Magnum photographer Alex Majoli about his recent Obscura Magnum Commission, TUDO BOM. They discuss the current economic crisis in Brazil, the aesthetic strategies for conveying conceptual ideas, the limitations of photography and how outside influences like theatre and performance inform the artist’s work.
DE: TUDO BOM, meaning “Everything Well?” in Portuguese, is a continuation of work you’ve been doing in Brazil for some time. The pandemic has amplified the economic and safety concerns in the country. Can you speak to what you were most concerned with, in the present moment, when documenting Brazil and the main concern with this project?
AM: I want to use Tudo Bom as the title of my 20-year project because those two words contain all the contradictions of a country. In my point of view, everyday Brazilians repeat the phrase tudo bom as an exorcism for the hard life. About the consequences of the pandemic in Brazil: yes, it created more instability than it did for the rest of the world, but Brazil has within itself an endemic social disparity that it seems day by day untreatable.
DE: There are some images that are taken from a high vantage point, further away from your subjects that have a surveillance state aesthetic. Which is to say, very removed. Can you walk us through how you took those images and what was the reasoning behind that particular vantage point?
AM: For days I was creating my scenes. There are pictures in close range with flash, but I realized what was happening around me was bigger and stronger than just a theater of life. There was movement, unconsciousness, rhythm entering the ‘square of crack’; like a real religious procession. I thought that the procession needed to be my reference. It’s the crossroads that give us access to the square and could contain a kind of worship–all the wakefulness of a rite. I didn’t think or didn’t intend with that vantage point to have a surveillance aesthetic. Although now reading your questions, I can see that I was searching for a wide-angle view. I’d just like to remind you that those images are cuts–extracts from one big, large-scale image–and are details of a landscape.
DE: What types of conversations are you having with your subjects and how much does collaborating and consent play into this work?
AM: No conversations at all, eventually sometime there might be a gaze exchange if they look at me.
DE: What is happening in image #19? It looks like a man is singing in empty stadium seating.
AM: We are inside one of the many evangelical churches that have been converted from cinemas. Brazil, over the last few years, became the number one evangelical country. This type of building is prevalent. Basically, this man is praying in a cinema. How can reality be more fictional than this?
DE: The images you took on street level, even though they’re more intimate, have a tableaux quality to them. Each is a drama that is unfolding before the viewers’ eyes. What do you consider a successful image in making these particular photos and how do they function compared to the more distanced images?
AM: Yes, the idea of tableaux is correct and it is the aesthetic I choose for this long-term body of work called SCENE. Has been almost 20 years now that I’m trying to explore/experiment with the concept of us “human beings” acting our roles in society. At first, I was trying to catch the “mask” of us in society. Later, after a series of little concept failures, I needed to add the studium which for me is the scenography of our society.
I had the intuition in 2008 to create a skene (as in the ancient Greek “scene-building”) to reference the real life of people. The “performance” of me building that “skene” around people or events of the society and then my subjects, all of a sudden, becoming protagonists of an unwritten play; their own play. That performance/skene/acting pumps the real into “more real” having the aesthetic ambiguity of the fiction. It freezes the improvisation of our acting’s in society.
How do they function compared to distance images? I personally think they are the same, maybe one is under the spotlight with “the observer” on the other side of the fourth wall seating in the theater stalls, and the other may be in a street theater seating in theater balconies.
DE: I read the distance as a crucial part of how these two types of images function. The higher vantage point seemed as if it was from the perspective of someone who wasn’t intervening. And the closer ground-level images, as someone who was. Now that I hear about how you construct scenes that your subjects engage with, I think that echoes what I was curious about.
In your artist statement, you mention being influenced by the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello and this idea of the ‘theater of everyday life’. In 1998 you began the project Hotel Marinum, the final goal of which was to perform a theatrical multimedia show. Can you expand on how photography, moving images, and this idea of theatre overlap in your work?
AM: Thank you for the question, also how do you know about Hotel Marinum? I always felt confined by all the limitations of photography, but I love challenges because I think through challenges you have a better understanding of yourself. Photography is a big challenge; it's a prison to be escaped. I always try to contaminate languages and break the walls between different modes of communicating. After many years of walking with a camera on your neck, you start to see all those steps you’ve made the day before. You start to feel frustrated when you recognize details that stay the same. At that moment you start to question, “what if…?”. In my case, the way to punch through those restrictions was by using the visual language of theater, literature, and the idea of the banal. It is a need, it is an escape, and eventually could also be a place where to hide your imperfection, your insecurities.
DE: I discovered Hotel Marinum while doing my research on the oeuvre of your work. One thing that fascinates me about artists who have been working for many years is how each project funnels into the next. There’s a clear lineage between your older work and this project if you take the time to look. Which, for me, is one of the many pleasures of engaging with art.
Can you explain what’s happening in image #34?
AM: To be sincere, I don’t know. I thought it was magic. I thought the figure in the center was talking to God maybe. I thought he was thinking of some relative’s death. I love the ambiguity in photography as in life. Pirandello’s famous quote recites, it is so if you think so. We relate to images that we can decode or we recognize the universality of them. What’s for us in the sky besides clouds and birds? Each of those people in that photo is in their dreams–isn’t that exceptional?
DE: Brazil has become the second country in the world in terms of absolute deaths due to COVID-19 (only behind the U.S.), and eighth in terms of per capita deaths. What are the challenges of working on a project of this nature during a global pandemic?
AM: Well, there is only one name here to be condemned, Mr. Bolsonaro. I hope Brazilians will learn the lesson in October when they have a national election. By the way, I got COVID in Brazil also.
DE: Talk to me more about the tension with the police. It’s clear in several of your images that there is active friction.
AM: Yes, unfortunately, it happens in all the countries where social injustice reigns over the interest of a few. It is a silent civil war, in Brazil as in many other countries.
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