In March of 2019, Bruno Morais visited two brothers living in isolation in the hard-to-access mountainous region of the Chilean part of Patagonia. Cochamó, the closest town, lies two hours away from the hut, where Arturo and Horaldo survive by their own means, surrounded by their sheep. The Brazilian photographer spent a week as their guest in this primitive setting, which was literally miles away from the next sign of civilization. He spoke with us about the challenges and shared his observations of a secluded life in touch with nature.
How did you meet the two men, and how did your Shepherds of Patagonia project come about?
I met Arturo and Horaldo through a friend of a friend who had built a house in the region, which is really remote and isolated. I went to the Chilean Patagonia to help with the production of a piece with Cristina [ed. note: photographer Cristina de Middel, his partner]. When we arrived, we were shocked by the simplicity of their life and how integrated and in perfect balance they were with nature. Somehow they represented so well that ideal of the shepherd projected by Western culture, that I preferred to be totally literal and reflect it in the title of the series, Shepherds of Patagonia. It’s about the simplicity of their existence.
What did it take to get to their place? What challenges did you face with this project?
The climate in the shepherds’ region is extremely cold; the region is very mountainous and moving around is complicated. To get there, we traveled by car to the border between Argentina and Chile and, after crossing the river that divides the two countries at this point on a ferry, we did the rest of the journey of approximately two hours on horseback. We stayed at their house. A simple house made of wood, without electricity, hardly any furniture, and a small wood stove that also served as a source of heating.
You worked with a Leica Q. How was your experience with it?
It’s the perfect camera for the projects I develop. Super fast and discreet and also very light, which was perfect for all these horse rides and for working in isolated places.
Is there a connection to other art forms? What inspires you?
Many times my references come from cinema, because it helps me dive into narratives that use more allegorical images that I can use later in my work. Filmmakers Glauber Rocha and Eduardo Coutinho are the best examples. But I’m also influenced by a kind of popular aesthetic that in Brazil could be called “gambiarra”, which is this idea of constant improvisation.
It seems like you develop a new visual language for each of your projects. For the Inside Makoko series, you worked with collages. Your Excessocenus series, that earned you the Greenpeace Award 2016, is very conceptual, artistic; both in colour. Mama África is in black and white, with unusual angles and close-ups. To what extent do you challenge yourself with finding a specific visual language for each project?
You are right. I try to experiment and find a language that is close to the project’s concept, and that is coherent to it. My style is not important: what is important is to convey the message in the best way. It is always challenging, because you have to re-invent yourself and leave your comfort zone to make a new formula each time; but I’m not in this business of showing off my skills, I am here to tell stories that I think matter; and to do so I’m very happy to sacrifice a certain style that would make my work more recognizable, but maybe less accessible for the audience.
What is the biggest challenge for you in photography, in general?
The biggest challenge is to keep producing projects that are relevant to me, and that do not stick to agendas that respond to market demands or trends. I believe in the potential that photography has to address and share the concerns and questions I have, living in a society as unequal and extreme as Brazil. I like to think that I make humanistic projects that do not fall into the performativity and romanticization of poverty and violence.
In your eyes, what is special about the Shepherds of Patagonia series?
It may seem surreal, but the favela I grew up in is still a bit isolated and is inside a National Park; so, from the very beginning, I sensed a common ground between the shepherds and myself. There was a very special connection: despite being so distant we managed to recognize the bonds that unite us, and had very interesting and enriching conversations.
What impressed you most while documenting the two men’s lives?
The contrast between the two brothers’ sensibilities. The culture of the region is patriarchal, and I noticed that the mother of these two characters, having only male children, chose to have Horaldo closer to her and, consequently, to the household chores. Within that context, it often makes him seem too delicate a person for field work. Interestingly, he deals with this prejudice with great ease; but I could feel that there is also great frustration in not being able to fully externalize his sensitivity.
Would you like to continue with the Shepherds of Patagonia series?
To be honest, I don’t consider this a finished project at all. Many aspects of the sensitivity of these two people need more time to really understand – like the intense patriarchy in the region, the isolation, their personal stories and why they ended up living there. There are a few a factors that make the life of these two brothers very interesting, and I would like to focus on Horaldo, who has a much more feminine sensitivity; but I would need more time for that and I am hoping this can happen in 2022.
Born in 1975 in Rio de Janeiro, Bruno Morais grew up in the Mata Machado favela, which is in the “jungle of Tijuca”. He studied Geography and Physical Education at the Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and was a professional folkloric dancer for seven years. He joined the Escola Fotográfica da Maré, an activist photo school in one of the biggest favelas of Rio, whose mission it is to train local photographers to tell their own stories from within. His visual research is focused on exploring a non-affirmative documentary language. Morais founded Coletivo Pandilla in 2009 and became part of the agency Imagens do Povo in 2010. He has exhibited in Galeria 535, FotoRio, Paraty em Foco (Brazil), Lagos Photo (Nigeria), San José Photo (Uruguay), Encontros da Imagem (Portugal), and at the Encontros de Fotografía de Tiradentes (Brazil). Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.