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Rui Palha: Master Street Photographer

by Paulo Abrantes

Rui Palha, at this time, is one of the world references in what matters in street photography. He did not start out being this reference and his beginning used to be the same as for everybody else.  I'm grateful that he took the time to tell us his story.


"Raining cats&dogs"


Rui, do you still remember the time when you knew nothing about photography and you decided to start shooting?
What was your drive, motivation and inspiration guiding that starting decision?
This passion surfaced when I was 14 years old, and became more aware of everything around me, with the natural drive of a kid, to learn quickly, to live and to understand life, watching the modus vivendi of others, whether they were anonymous or not.
It was a small Minolta 16 that allowed me to have this great learning experience. For each photo I made, I wrote down all the information associated to it on a small block: time of day, lighting conditions, aperture, shutter speed, and more.
Later, after the development of the film/negative, I studied all the mistakes and tried not to repeat those on my next photography walk.
I have always been self-taught. When I was 18 years old,  I built my first darkroom, in a very artisan and rustic/basic way, but quite functional. It was there  where I developed and printed my photos (and also my friends photos). It was a task I did not like in particular, because I felt I was wasting time that I could better spend by “walking the streets”, and that was what I really liked to do. Anyway, it was an experience of utmost importance and through it I learned a lot.

And in that beginning, have you been immediately been drawn to street photography or did you shoot a little of everything?
The street has always been what attracted me really the most. The diversity of situations, the "risks", the adventure ... but I was also attracted to other areas, the Rally of Portugal, for the world championship, for example. I never missed one dirt track race...

Did anyone  at that time help or inspire you particularly?
I've always been some kind of a “lonely wolf” when it comes to photography. I have a friend, with whom I shared my experiences whenever it was possible, especially in the darkroom and this friendship did last up to this day.

In your opinion, what is the most important part of being a photographer?
I do not consider myself a photographer in the strict sense of the word. I like to photograph, and I like it a lot, and I do it only to my delight and pleasure.
A photographer is supposed to assume, in my opinion, some kind of a "submission" to a certain number of conditions and, in a sense, it implies the loss of freedom, and  “freedom” is so important to be able to be creative. In order to be creative you have to be independent of everyone and everything.
Of course, this is my subjective opinion, just my thoughts.


"Climbing the hills"



"Wet Games #4"

"Light and Shadows"


When we look at your pictures, we see the urban world that usually surrounds you - for example, Macau and Lisbon. How do you choose the places you're going to shoot? Do you have a method that you usually follow or is all inspiration and / or the opportunity of the moment?
I do not follow any preconceived method or plan in my everyday shooting. If I have a project at a given time, of course I devote myself to it fully, with my body and soul, Macau is an example. The “Cova da Moura” (it´s a very old, traditional and typical, Lisbon City Block) project is another, even more important one.
However even with this purpose in mind, what follows is completely spontaneous and occurs in some kind of “go with the flow” mood. I really don´t like to plan at all,
When it comes to photography. I have to feel free to be creative.

Your images are never staged and always show people and situations taking place in real life. What is the relationship you usually set up with these people?
People are the greatest wealth in the world. Without them my photographs would not exist. I like, or better, I love, to establish a certain empathy relationship with these "street people".
I love to hear them, to feel what they have inside them, to learn from them.
It is impossible, in my opinion, to photograph people without liking them and without respecting them.
By principle, and whenever I can, I give most of the photographs I take also to the people I photograph in the street. Except, of course, the "stolen" moments.

Analog is again in fashion (if it ever was out…). You are, I think, first of all, a master of analogue photography and I know you have thousands of photos not yet developed and the same holds true for the digital ones. How do you see the current digital/analog duality? Does it make sense to defend one of them or use both or one over the other?
This question/issue is of cause a loaded one.
I have, in fact, made thousands of photographs, that I've never yet seen.
I never enjoyed the darkroom, as I have already mentioned, but I developed the films and I made the soft proofs or contact proofs. I have everything very well cataloged by dates, and in separate folders.
The contact proofs were very important , for my workflow, because they allowed me to see quickly if I would be interested, to print a particular photo.
Meanwhile, at the place where I worked, someone stole all my contact proof folders. This made me " neglet" to some degree the research into negatives that eventually might have some interest or relevance for me.

This is what concerns film: slides/positive film, I have seen them all, and have more or less organized them, but I believe that one day I still have to review the “mountains and tons” of positive film in my archives.



"Same rights"



"City Zombies"

As for the digital ones,  I have in fact thousands of photographs that I have never seen, because I just don´t have enough patience for that or because I think that particular day had not been productive in photographic terms, or because I was short of time.
I think I'm preparing in some way, my "retirement" as a "picture hunter." When I no longer have the strenght to walk or my legs don’t allow me to stand up, due to health or disposition, I then fortunately still have many pictures to view and process.
This is one of the reasons why I do not want to publish any more books until then. The time "spent" preparing my last book made me feel I was wasting “street time”. Just like what I felt with the darkroom. The preparation of the book included six months of intense work, during which timeI have done nothing but (rev)viewing photos. I was sick of my own photos.

Well, that said, let´s go for the second part of the question and the most "poisonous" one.
The old film school was important to me on all levels, technical, aesthetic, etc.
I am convinced only someone who went through the “film school” can get a real sense of a true greyscale. On the other hand, the use of positive film, slide, requires a framing technique taken to the edge, and a framing discipline taken to the very extreme in what can be done with the camera. At that time there were no "crop" possibilities or similar resources. You had a framing chance only and you had to do it well or the resultwas trash with no appeal.
This discipline of framing right from the beginning of the shot, helped me a lot in my photography work. As you know, about 99% of my photos have had no cropping. What I see is what I shoot, and what I shoot is exactly what I show.
Not denying my training and my "old school" learning and evolution, I consider it not to make sense today, to use film. I feel sometimes a certain nostalgia for my old-lady camera and I feel like taking it off the shelf and go with her to the street ... but then what? I give the film for development to whom? (I do not have anymore equipment, dark room, chemicals, etc, and I do not want to have them) And in the end, I have no patience to wait for the result of what I did on a particular day.


"Street guardian"



"Real life"


I now only use digital, the film workare just memories.
I dare to say a blasphemy: nowadays, I believe Henri Cartier-Bresson, if alive, would use digital only.
In the end of the process, what really interests me is the same thing:  the final result.
If this result is able to transmit something to the viewer and if it has any aesthetic and or artistic value. This holds equally true for film and for digital, and if it has been made with film or with digital becomes irrelevant. There are photographers who only use film and they are fantastic and there are photographers who only use digital and they are also fantastic. And vice versa, unfortunately.

The "old school" was very important to me because it taught me to try to get results in the digital equivalent or similar to the results obtained with the film. I believe that the "secret", if there is any, is not to overdo the post processing work. The photograph must be good right away with the "click". If it is not, then there is no "photoshop" that can help or is worth the work .It is the best to throw it away.
Typically, spent 2 to 3 minutes to post process a photograph. If I like the result in these 2 or 3 minutes I am pleased, if not I send it to the “trash basket”.
I repeat, what matters, in fact, is the end result, no matter what camera(s) and what process(es) were used to achieve it.

What has been your past and present relationship with the equipment?  How important is the equipment for your photography? On your personal 1X page, some years ago, one could read "equipment: any camera". Is equipment important or not? And can you tell us a little more about your relationship with this equipment to photograph?
I still believe in that, and now even more. I do not care too much about equipment, including the camera I use. Let´s see…, they all do the same, I believe. The lens, yes, the lens is very important. But above all the equipment, there are the "eyes" behind the camera.
Of course, nowadays, there are important technical characteristics for street shooting and they should be taken into consideration. Mainly the focus speed, the placement of buttons and behavior at high ISO . The rest are features I never use, I do not know what they are and I do not want to know about them.
I used to say about the degree of importance in percentage terms (if I remember correctly): Camera - 2%, lens - 5%, "eyes" - 93%. Nowadays, and after so many years, I believe I would change these percentages for: camera - 7%, lens - 18%, "eyes" (and I would add to the "eyes issue" the common sense and good judgement in the post production work) - 75%.


"Walking over the city"



"Black and White"



"Pose subject"


You're a black and white photographer: light and shadow. Has it been a conscious choice or had the choice already been made when you realized it?
I do not remember exactly if it was a conscious decision or not. I know I started with B&W, right from the beginning, and I stayed in B&W for many years, but I also made many color photographs in a given period of my life. But for many years until now, I used only black and white.
B&W It´s what I really like.

There is a saying by Ted Grant, with which I agree completely:
 "When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But When You photograph people in Black and White, you photograph their souls! "

Is there anything you could have photographed and that you regret not to have photographed? Or is there anything related to photography you regret not to have done?
Yes, there are projects that I regret not to have "embraced" during the “right time” in my life. For example, the "nomadic Gypsies in Portugal." Now it's much more difficult, I would say almost impossible to do it.
I also regret some other projects that could have started in the so-called 3rd World countries and that did not start.
For many projects it is crucial to have the energy of youth, and this kind of energy starts to fail me and there is a “giant mountain” of things than I cannot do anymore, because of that, with great regrets.

Was there a photographer you had personally known and who has impressed and surprised you, either as a person or as a photographer?
Yes, there is one, but I will not name him. It is an excellent photographer and a very polite person, very direct and a great character.

Are there any photographer you do not personally know and you would like to have known?
Of course! I would have loved to have known Henri Cartier-Bresson in person. I always cherished this hope and at the day of his death I felt really sorry for the loss and for not meeting him in person.


"Sharing spirit"





"Le bal"



"Wet jump"


Is there any photograph of another photographer who has influenzed you significantly and that you often recall, and that you would like to have hanging on a wall of your house?
Yes, several ones, but I prefer not to name them.

About your photos, which was the image that influenced you most and that you remember the most? One that you consider your best photo or is it just another one among many?
My best photo, to me, does not yet exist. It´s this one that I still search daily and constantly and probably this is a never ending search, which gives me the power of soul, to keep shooting.

In some kind of self-critical way, do you think that you have any weak points as a photographer, you want to tell us about?
I do not know if it's a weak point or not, and whether this can be considered as self-criticism, but I am very angry and frustrated with myself when I "fail" a picture that should not fail by any means. This happened to me many times and, obviously, I view it as completely intolerable. I cannot accept the fact of the "human condition” and “failure" in certain circumstances. There are times when there can be no slip-ups, distractions, crashes, etc. ... in terms of the timing for the "click" or in terms of poor exposure, focus, etc.  However I say, and it is true, that every day I learn a little more, both technical and aesthetical, and even in terms of life itself. So I say and reiterate that I am a lifelong learner. Learn until death.

What qualities do you like to see in other´s photographs? This is when Rui Palha, spectator and critic of others photography, what do you think you unconsciously are looking for in those other people's images, which flaws do you search or qualities do you see and admire or draw your attention right away?
What is expected in any work of art, whatever it may be, to feel a chill in the body and tears in the eyes.
I do not seek any flaws and faults, but any photograph photos have to convey and transmit “something” to be consider Photography.

What qualities and / or characteristics do you think are important for a street photographer?
Liking people.
Respecting people.
Having the ability to listen to people; they teach real life lessons.
Try to understand people, their thoughts, their movements, their feelings, their souls.
Be brave and courageous.
Be as close as possible to the people you are going to photograph. This way you will be able to know and feel their soul and vice versa.
Shooting alone, without anyone else, because in street photography it is important to be aware of everything that goes on around us, to hear the sounds, to smell the odors, to see the tiniest details, to feel life.


"Comebacking slowly"




"A bit of lighting"



"Almost empty" 


I think in the world´s view you are, of course, a completely accomplished photographer. Do you experience yourself like that? What can we expect from Rui Palha in the near future?
Me, accomplished…? Never. I still have to do that “one picture” and before this happens I will never feel accomplished.
I don´t have any plans for now. I live one day at a time, doing what I can and what health, willingness, availability and energy allow me to do.
Before I quite photography I would like to know the “deep” India, not the touristic one, to know Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Cabo Verde and some other countries and peoples, and return to Paris, a city that I love, almost as much as I love Lisbon.

Do you have one important advice to beginners in street photography ?
If it is one word: respect.
When I can say more than one word, then: Respect, attention, concentration, listening, bravery and courage, as well as closeness.
I think I should add: one must be able to be very critical and demanding of oneself. One should always be fully satisfied with his street work before displaying it everywhere for others to see.

Enjoy People, Life and Street. It is a way to grow in all aspects.

You're an honorary member of 1X. Would you briefly tell us how far this site has been important to you, when it comes to know other photographers, and for the exposure of your photography?
I think this website, like others, was very important for me to get to know some great photographers that otherwise I probably would never have known. Viewing the work of other authors is a real lesson and a constant learning. As for my photography, I cannot answer this question. You have to ask my peers.



É sempre um prazer ver e rever estes trabalhos, meu amigo. A entrevista está espectacular e muito bem elaborada. Os meus sinceros parabéns por tudo o que és e representas para muitos de nós. Grande abraço, meu amigo Rui e tudo de bom.
"Viewing the work of other authors is a real lesson and a constant learning" ... Yes! Thank you for your photography!
Rui's work is constant inspiration. Thank you for this interview Paulo and 1x!
Thanks for this excellent interview with Rui, Paulo!
very nice
Thank you very much for incredible inspiration Rui, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your outstanding work, all the best to you. Wayne Pearson
Shot on the streets of Europe and capture the moment persistent wet and cold, it is very interesting and unforgettable, Thanks to ALL and BRAVO!
Wonderful interview Paulo and so great portfolio Rui Palha! My best compliments!
Great interview and work, thanks for sharing! Have a great weekend and take care. Warm regards, Edith :-)
I love Rui's work but I love more the man behind the camera. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your work, Best regards, Dragos
Excellent Interview! I have always love Rui's work, and find it both insightful and beautiful to look at.
Wonderful !!! Your work is fantastic, Rui ... Thanks a lot for sharing your story and thanks to Paulo for leading this great interview.
great interview
Great interview and fantastic images.