Driven by an unquenchable interest in his country’s cultural and colonial past, the Portuguese photographer, Rui Pires, returns time and again to the “blue city” of Chefchaouen in the north of Morocco, capturing images for his atmospheric, long-term project with a Leica SL.
You’ve been visiting Chefchaouen in Morocco since the 90s. When and why did you decide to produce a photo project about the place?
I am a storyteller. I investigate history and cultural anthropology. Photography is a tool that gives visual expression to my research, the visual outcome of many hours of study and research. One of my projects – that I started a long time ago and will certainly never finish – is the story of the expansion of Portugal, starting in the 14th century. I have travelled the world looking for the traces of Portuguese history. We Portuguese spread our culture, our language, our customs, our way of life and our religion, worldwide. Chefchaouen is a key part of that story. It is a place where you stumble across a piece of history with every step you take in the old medina. In 2015 I received a UNESCO documentary photography award for my work in Chefchaouen; but the city never loses interest for me, so I’ll be returning many more times.
How much did the “blue city” trigger your photographic eye?
Well, I’ve no doubt that the strong blue tones have a strong impact on the photographs I’ve taken in Chefchaouen. It’s this pictorial part of the town that has attracted so many photographers and tourists in recent years. But I think that what really inspires me is its whole history, the books I’ve read about it, the discovery of every detail with the eye of a historian.
How did the people react, when they realized that they’d been photographed?
It depends on the approach. Sebastião Salgado has a phrase with which I couldn’t agree more: “I tell them a little bit about my life, and they tell me a little about theirs. The picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg”. Arab people – and in Morocco this is no exception – don’t like to be photographed by strangers. They hate the photographer who is just an image hunter. But if you make friends with them and are communicative, they love to have hours of conversation. You end up learning a lot, forgetting that you have a camera in hand, and they end up being the ones to invite you to photograph them. It’s important to show your interest in these people; and my interest is genuine.
How would you describe your photographic approach?
The photographer David Hurn has a phrase that says it all: “The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing visual interest, in the theme of the pictures. This curiosity leads to intense examination, reading, talking, research, and many, many failed attempts over a long period of time. Your curiosity, fascination, and enthusiasm for the subject can be communicated to others through the pictures you take”. Essentially I’m a photographer with a very classic and humanistic approach to the person photographed, and I’m incapable of taking a photograph that a person would not like to be seen in.
Do you have (photographic) idols who have influenced you?
Don’t tell anyone, but no, I don’t. My source of photographic inspiration is my books. I like to see photographs by other photographers on subjects that interest me or something that interests me. I never think about how the photograph was made.
Most of your pictures have a very dynamic light composition…
I’m very demanding of light. I have to have the ideal lighting conditions to feel good about shooting; but this is often not possible. I’m a great admirer of the art of classical, 17th century, European painters. I love the shades of light, the contrasts and, whenever possible, I like to work with them in my photographs. It’s not always possible, but I try to play with the ideal time of day to do a certain type of photography, and I only work with natural light, often in the first and second degree of reflection. I’m still a photographer who thinks that a window facing the street is the best flash in the world for indoor photography.
You took many pictures at night or in low light situations…
The public lighting at night makes the colours explode, and especially the blues. During the day it wouldn’t be possible. And for me, there is no better tool in the world of photography than the new Leica SL2 attached to a Leica Summilux-M 28mm f/1.4 ASPH lens. Many of the photographs seem to have been taken during the day; and I didn’t need to raise the ISO above 1600. The absence of noise is almost total, with speeds that allowed scenes to be frozen. In my many years of photographing I have never had a better tool in my hands. Even so, the Leica SL, which I worked with for four years, is excellent for working without any difficulties in low light environments. And Leica lenses are the most sublime in photography.
How did the equipment perform?
I used a Leica SL for four years, and now I use a Leica SL2. The lenses I use most are the Summilux-M 28mm f/1.4 ASPH, Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90/f2.8-4 ASPH and Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4. With this set, there can be no happier photographer in the world. They are the ideal tools for all types of photography, as well as documentary video. I usually tell the students attending my photography courses, that the ideal equipment is the one you end up forgetting is in your hands: it works as an extension of your body, and you are able to intuitively take advantage of all the potential that it offers. And there can be no failures. With my set, there are no flaws. It meets my technical needs 100%.
Rui Pires is Portuguese and was born in 1968. His passion for photography began in 1983 as an amateur. In 2006, he began working on Rural Moments, a project documenting life in rural, Portuguese villages threatened by desertification. In 2009, Pires began the Lands of Allah documentary, which researches the lives of the nomadic tribes and Berber-Tuareg people in northern Africa and the Sahara Desert. Pires has had many photographs and essays published on the www, in magazines and newspapers; while some of his documentaries and photos belong to permanent exhibition in museums, and private collections. He has also won many prizes, grants and awards in exhibitions and photography competitions, including the UNESCO Documentary Award, in 2013 and 2015. Find out more about his photography on his website.