In ODÚ, Hugo Martins (b. 1978, Brazil) brings to the forefront Afro-Brazilian life depicted through his immersive experience in one of Salvador’s most busy markets. Mingling between street and documentary approach, he provides an intriguing insight to the community with the attempt to acknowledge its legacy. Besides his recently published photo-book, he additionally works on Hippocampus – an ongoing project exploring his own ancestry and roots by the use of archival photography.
In an interview with Discarded Magazine, Martins talks about his projects and sheds light on the urgency of sharing and exposing black narratives.
Recently, you have published a photo-book called ODÙ. You shot the photographs in Feira de São Joaquim Market in downtown Salvador in Brazil where the Afro-Brazilian community resides. Why did you decide to focus on this community and what has such interaction brought to you?
Since I started focusing on understanding visual memories and ancestry, my photography practice has expanded in many ways. I’ve learned how to photograph and produce visual narratives to reinforce and bring visibility regarding the memories of black people and their culture and living in all of my practices that involve photography. I’ve also learned about my own ancestry, which is strongly built and connected to my black identity.
Salvador, Bahia is a city that has deep roots in African culture as approximately 80% of the population are of African descent. The market Feira de São Joaquim is one of the places where the black diaspora of Salvador pulses intensively. As a black man and photographer, I see the power of the market as a possibility to experience and reinforce the importance of this strong pillar that supports many of the African-Brazilians – their cultural contributions in the city – represented by for instance religious manifestations such as Candomblé, culinary arts and other celebrations that happens in Salvador. The Feira de São Joaquim supplies and maintains alive this important legacy, has its own economy logic and acts as a place of engagement and social interactions of the black community.
When flipping the pages of your book, one really gets immersed in the scenes through your choice of edit. Inside, you combine close-ups of gestures, landscapes and the market environment where the dense flow of people on the market is highlighted. What was your logic behind using this zoom in and zoom out strategy in the book?
As I evolved as an apprentice of the market, I became more and more engaged with the people over there and with the overall environment. I see Feira de São Joaquim as one large organism where the corridors are veins and the flow of people moving through these corridors resembles cells transporting and exchanging “goods”.
Commerce as a physical interaction is something that happens from hand to hand, where you give something to get something back. I wanted to be part of it somehow, leaving something from my end too. So, every time I was far from the subject it was like I was more of an observer looking for a market opportunity than a part of the cell flow. As I got closer and slowly became accepted by the people, then the close-ups arose as a logic of the market dynamics which happen in there.
ODÙ is not a mere representation of the market but rather it points to more universal themes of socio-economic relations and the history of the Black community in Brazil where photography becomes the mediator. What then is your goal with the publication?
ODÙ is about the legacy of memory. The market Feira de São Joaquim portrays a history of resistance of African Brazilians in Salvador, where they organized in a horizontal and collective way a place to socialize, generate profit and keep alive the African Culture diaspora in the heart of the city. It is very important to tell this story.
For me, ODÙ is a body of work that has the potential to open a wider dialogue about Black Narratives outside of Africa, values the importance of black artists re-writing their own stories, and refreshes, with all the respect from those that came before, the memories that will be left as a legacy for future generations to come.
I want ODÙ to reach the overall public who seeks to engage in conversations about black culture and black identity in Brazil also from the perspective of the ordinary and daily life. I believe that photography is a powerful medium to promote this expansion and the photobook is one of the most effective means how to add value and distribute the visual narrative in the right sensitiveness and depth.
You have now started working on a new project called Hippocampus. Could you please elaborate on what is it going to be about and what were your thoughts when choosing the title?
In 2015 I started to photograph my parents, especially my dad. I noticed that he didn’t have a lot of pictures from his childhood, adolescence and part of his adult life. At that same time, I also started collecting old pictures and vernacular pictures, which I acquired from different sources. The insight that came to mind was that while I was searching for my father’s stories and pictures as a way to help me understand my ancestry, many people were throwing away their visual history or giving it away to antique dealers, etc.
On one hand, I had some pictures of my father plus his verbalized stories of ancestry and on the other hand a lot of pictures of unknown people. I then started from these told but visually unregistered stories to imagine what would be a possible visual narrative to fill in the memory gaps. The name Hippocampus came to mind when I started to research how the brain generates memories or images. I started to understand that an oral story could generate a full set of brain images that could somehow feed memory. Once I had both oral stories and visually registered ones, plus memory gaps to fill in with images and unknown pictures, I started to think about a possible visual narrative and Hippocampus became this place where memories and images, many lost ones, could be set with a different context and serve different means.
In contrast to ODÚ where you create new images, Hippocampus is exclusively composed of found footage. Are you planning to incorporate also newly created photographs or is it going to be a purely archival-based project?
I want to explore different ways of using images. Recently I’ve experimented with overlapping some negatives and positives together by using a scanner to create images while re-photographing some pictures as well. I want to create a new set of images that represent these oral stories and incorporate them into the body of work. I’ll experiment with this project… I can also consider the dreamlike side of memory. Expanded photography may be a way to go besides the archival-based content…
In terms of visual language, your work can be mainly defined as street and documentary. However, in Hippocampus, there seems to be a change in your aesthetics towards a more abstract and material path. Why is that?
I think there is a strong connection between photography and imagination. We see a picture labeled as documentary, but actually we just see a slice of a “reality” and I always want to imagine what is not there. My work is also deeply connected to the supernatural and dreamlike side of things, so abstract art always gets my attention. I’m up to distort the way I see things or question what I am seeing, and I think images have this benefit of doubt that opens a slit to an infinite universe.
Would you say that the themes of memory and heritage are the connecting factors of your projects?
Yes. My projects are closely linked to the themes involving ancestry and heritage. One thing that makes me reinforce that urge is the lack of memory that I found by researching my own ancestors and family heritage. This is a sad side of history that feeds my restlessness and somehow inspires me to always look for these missing pieces and create projects that may be my own memory legacy in the future.
What are your plans with Hippocampus in the coming months? And are you planning to turn it into a book as well?
My intention is to work on the narrative flow of this content from now on. At the moment, I am defining what kind of narrative would be the most representative for the strong name it has and that would define the next steps of the work. A book would be a possibility, but I’m also becoming interested in mixed media.
I would say that Hippocampus is a slow cooked dish that is starting to gain its flavour…