Before the Story of Others

Portraits of Affection is a set of images and texts which, at first sight, may appear strange. It may even be shocking to some. This is not and never was the aim of this project, whose main goal is to show the true importance of the Barretos Cancer Hospital, which has for many years been carrying out an unprecedented work in Brazilian medicine. A goal was set decades ago and the initiative became one of the most important in the country. Its history is recorded here in texts and photographs that deserve our concentrated attention, beckoning for our careful perusal and reading, in these current times when our attention normally rushes busily from one thing to the next.

Man is the only animal with a consciousness of death. With this awareness, we live, produce, suffer, and create, and often no trace of any of this endures. On the other hand, we know that a photograph lives for a long time – hence the importance assumed by the technical image since it was introduced, in the first half of the 19th century. Through the photograph we can enlarge, even if momentarily, our life and the life of others. This is one of the maxims set forth by philosopher Vilém Flusser. Any book with texts and pictures, therefore, provides an unforeseen longevity to its content, making it possible for that story to become part of the history of humankind.

Contemporary society is pervaded by technical images that invade our daily life, though we do not always find any reality or truth in them. The current moment is one of pure, intimate display of fragile moments that place the viewer before some instance of ephemeral beauty. The pictures disseminated en masse in the social networks, the main distribution hubs of contemporary production, are nearly always fleeting and not open to any more profound analysis or reflection. Today the production of images is blatantly banal. Although they have some dazzle, there is a lack of mystery, since the image is stripped of its possibility of placing the subject before a cruel reality, without beautifying filters.

At a time when everything is presented by the media based on the concept of perfection and beauty, it is shocking to come into contact with images that reveal difference and courage through another sensibility. This involves a rare authenticity that becomes an experience of the impossible, a coming-to-grips with utter simplicity and compassion. The photographs and texts presented in Portraits of Affection are documents of a process carried out in a determined time span, between 2012 and 2015, and, if we think with the eyes of the future, they can become a reference of something that was unknown at the moment they were made. On one occasion, North American photographer Duane Michals remarked that most photographers showed him pictures of things he already knew perfectly well, like sunsets and female busts, and then he realized that we should not be contented with these simple views, but should rather contradict them, seeking to instate other visualities.

When it comes to pictures of daily life, the common approach is to present a generalization of an idealized world, without pains or fears. This is actually an escape from a necessary and increasingly urgent confrontation that would lend visibility to the human problems and conflicts that are jarring to our most essential life experience. These unforeseen ruptures destructure the most basic social groups, and the tendency of society is to mask the anguish and emphasize images that reproduce the appearances of an acceptable visible world.

The discourse of power tends to create a sensation that everything is well, in the right place, in tune with the false illusions propagated by the mediatic world firmly controlled by the dominant systems. Valdir Cruz’s portraits of affection published here are not obvious or stable. On the contrary: they are tense and require a serene gaze from an observer who feels a commitment to their surrounding context. They are humans in delicate and fragile situations who relate fragments of their experiences with the satisfaction of someone unveiling some mystery that emerges from the realm of memory.

The texts also contain some images. Each person portrayed selected some passages from his or her life story, which, together with the portrait, engender a significant sense of overcoming. It must be remembered that these people decided to come before the camera and to allow the making of a visual and audio record with the aim of sharing and revealing some secret and some intimacy. Indeed, each portrait evokes an enigma that challenges us to question the true meaning of life.

The people portrayed, most of whom are very optimistic, engender a closeness that flourishes in our perception and strengthens our understanding of the essence of what is of greatest interest to us. There is, of course, a tension in the images. After all, we find ourselves before a significantly dense set of portraits. Photography as a medium of investigation here becomes a silent shout. It does not wish to exhibit itself as a tragedy, but rather seeks to raise awareness and transform the receiver – namely, each one of us.

In this sense, the essay Portraits of Affection is an extensive human and aesthetic report on a theme that both touches and troubles us. It requires action and a reflection; it demands a political and social engagement. At the height of the era of the circulation of plasticized and simplified images, we are in the presence of a vigorous work of far-reaching social significance, demonstrating the importance of documentary photography as a tool of memory and history.

Rubens Fernandes Junior
Researcher and curator of photography