“Brazil is powerful but melancholic”

Photographer Olaf Heine

Interview

  • INTERVIEW VERA PETERMANN

Brazil in black-and-white? What sounds like a paradox is in fact a wonderful book. In Brazil, photographer Olaf Heine captures the country’s sensual, melancholy soul without the bright colors

What sparked your interest in Brazil, Mr. Heine?

I have always been fascinated by Brazil’s 1960’s generation. Starting with soccer and the team headed by Garrincha and Pélé. As a young boy, I was enthralled, as you can probably imagine. Later, I started listening to the bossa nova music of Joao Gilberto, Gilberto Gila and Tom Jobim. When I started getting interested in architecture, I was immediately drawn to the work of Oscar Niemeyer and Mendes da Rocha, quite simply because they were so much lighter, airier and freer than the German architecture of the time. I was captivated. I felt that everything should always be this gentle, soft and sensual.

You are primarily known as a portrait photographer. Was it a challenge to capture the essence of architecture, cities and landscapes?

I have always attempted to incorporate design and architecture in my portraits. But, naturally, photographing buildings is a completely different matter. From the very beginning I knew that I wasn’t going to produce an architecture coffee-table book or a book about Oscar Niemeyer. Essentially, I first set out to explore the country and its mindset. I tried to burrow into the nation, to find an explanation for why life seems so much more sensual, softer and rounder in Brazil. This is something you see everywhere: in architecture, in everyday life on the streets or in soccer.

Brasilia – the capital, also in the language of shape

Brasilia – the capital, also in the language of shape

© Olaf Heine
The hand of Modernism: a close-up of Oscar Niemeyer

The hand of Modernism: a close-up of Oscar Niemeyer

© Olaf Heine
Heine is drawn to the beauty of a curve at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, too

Heine is drawn to the beauty of a curve at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, too

© Olaf Heine
Capoeira dancer in Vidigal, the sprawling favela high above Ipanema Beach

Capoeira dancer in Vidigal, the sprawling favela high above Ipanema Beach

© Olaf Heine
The JK Memorial in Brasília pays tribute to the founder of the capital, former president Juscelino Kubitschek

The JK Memorial in Brasília pays tribute to the founder of the capital, former president Juscelino Kubitschek

© Olaf Heine
The following video contains no captions. You will find a description on the website.

Making of - Olaf Heine

Why do you show  this vibrant, colorful country in monochrome?

Sure, Brazil is colorful. But the country also has something melancholy about it. Brazil is one of the few countries in which there is a public holiday dedicated to longing, Saudade in Portuguese. This is an emotion that you encounter everywhere. People who think of Brazil only in terms of the Copacabana, great bikinis and turquoise-colored oceans are only scratching at the surface. The country is so much deeper. It’s a bit like what Heraclites said: You can’t have one side without the other. That is precisely the case in Brazil. The beauty of the country, the arts, soccer and the women is contrasted with a great melancholy and heaviness in the shape of poverty, disease and crime.

If you stand on the beach at Ipanema and look up, you’ll see one of the biggest favelas. I met extraordinary people there, people who survive on the bare minimum and yet are still contented and master their life in a creative way. Beauty is always close to ugliness. I think that because I avoid the bright, bold colors and try to stay away from the clichés I may be able to dig that little bit deeper. There’s nothing to distract me and the essence is communicated in a more direct, purer way. This lets me engage with the language of shape on a deeper level in my photographs.

As a photographer, how did you approach Brazil?

In a certain way, you could describe me as very German: I am usually very thorough and very focused. I always plan my photo shoots and usually come with set ideas in my mind. I tried this approach in Brazil, too, and soon found that it simply wasn’t possible. This country doesn’t work that way; the rhythm is different, the way life flows is different. I can’t just stand there with my German mentality and expect everything  to function instantly and on the spot. You always have to be open to the person opposite you and the circumstances. The book is visually different to my previous books. And that is most certainly due to the fact that the attitude to life there influenced me on many different levels and in many different ways.

What are your emotions when you think of Brazil now?

I am still fascinated. I saw so much and discovered so much. Naturally, there were also sad, less pleasant moments, but for me it is all part of the whole. It is precisely this multifaceted nature that makes Brazil such a beautiful country. All the mega-cities are so different: Rio or Sao Paulo, Brasilia or Recife. Or the cities in the north, Fortaleza, Salvador…  The country is vast, and at the end of the day that is what makes it so extraordinary. As I said, if you reduce Brazil simply to the common clichés then you’re doing it a great injustice. Anyone visiting the country for the World Cup should take the opportunity to explore Brazil and take a glimpse behind the beautiful beaches.

What would you show a visitor to Brazil?

Apart from the magnificent architecture? Right up in the North, if you drive to the state border of Bahia, there is a small place called Mangue Seco. Surrounded by gigantic wandering dunes it is almost like the Sahara, but with more palm trees. Wild donkeys roam everywhere and the women wash their clothes down by the river. It is a truly original and incredibly beautiful spot.