Alfredo Cunha has been photographing his homeland of Portugal for over fifty years. During the time span from March to May 2020, he produced – in part with a Leica Q and on assignment for the EU – a series documenting the country’s different social spheres. Youngsters, work, social life, landscape and Covid-19. The mood captured in Cunha’s intense black and white images is bleak. Even so, or maybe because of this, he titled the series Hope.
For quite a while and before its strict lock-down, Portugal was one of the countries with the highest numbers of Covid-19 cases in Europe. When did you take the pictures?
I took the pictures between March and May 2020. I worked intensively in hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries, and at political demonstrations.
How did you come up with the idea for your series?
The Hope series came about following an invitation from the Presidency of the EU Council to portray the past and present of Portugal. It portrays the special, different aspects of the country ― youth, work, social life, landscape, as well as Covid.
Your intense pictures show daily life situations, but they are also imbued with a dark mood. Why did you call the series Hope – the images speak rather of the opposite …
I called it Hope precisely because the images are sombre. We need to leave these dark times. The parts dedicated to the youth and to the landscape are images of hope.
Why did you decide to photograph in black and white?
Black and white has always been my option for photographing. In my images, colour introduces unnecessary noise.
In what way was photography a kind of need, or help, or even support for you in these times?
One could also have taken an art break, read tons of books on theory, or studied another language, etc … I ask myself that question. I can’t stop making pictures. To me, photography is a necessity.
What kind of equipment did you use?
I used several cameras, including the Leica Q2, Micro 4/3 cameras with Leica lenses, and other camera models where I needed to use very long focal lengths. Equipment nowadays is very stable; I’m very happy about that.
What did you like most about working with the equipment? And why?
I like to use 28mm, 50mm and 90mm fixed-focus lenses. I like that the equipment is an extension of my eye, with high mechanical stability and optic quality.
How did the people react to your taking pictures of them?
In Portugal, people still react well to photojournalism. In some cases, there’s even an effusive reaction. Some give me their email address so I can send them the photos.
What did the younger people tell you about their situations and their perspectives?
Young people were telling me they didn’t have a lot of opportunities before the pandemic, and now they have none. They are worried about the future. I remind you that Portugal is one of the poorest countries in the European Union.
What do you think the social situation in Portugal is developing towards?
I started photographing in Portugal in 1970. I got to know a country that was extremely poor. Today the country is a lot better off; but the difference between us and the rest of Europe is still very big. I don’t know if this difference will become smaller; I’m worried about the very negative way the countries in the north of Europe see the southern countries. They don’t understand our differences. In the same way that we’re all European and all the same, we’re also all European and all different from each other.
How would you describe your photographic approach?
I have a humanist approach, influenced by Magnum and by the humanist photographers in Europe during the second half of the 20th century.
What – in your opinion – characterizes a “perfect” photo?
First of all, there are no perfect photos. What some find perfect can be terrible for others. Personally, I prefer emotion, action, and truth.
Please complete the following sentence: Photography is …
… my life.
What will your next project be?
My latest projects are all connected. They’re projects about cities. Last year, I published a book about Amadora (a large Lisbon suburb, today a centre in itself). This year, I’m working on a book about Maia (near Porto). In 2022, I’ll also publish a book about Porto.
Alfredo Cunha was born in Celorico da Beira in 1953. He began his career as a photographer in 1970, in advertising and marketing photography, moving on the following year to work as a photojournalist for a variety of newspapers and press agencies. He was the official photographer for Portuguese Presidents Ramalho Eanes and Mário Soares, and was awarded the Comenda da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique. Of special note in his career is a series of photographs dedicated to the Revolution of April 25, 1974.