In our series of interviews with professional photographers and photographic artists, we bring you an interview with João Pina, a professional photojournalist and documentary photographer. His work on politically charged topics has earned a lot of attention. Read what he has to say about his background, his work ethics and how he chooses his equipment for certain photographic projects.
Please tell the community a little bit about yourself, what you do for fun, what you do for a living?
Well, I am a Portuguese born photographer, that has the immense privilege of combining both what I do for fun and making a living out of it. I am a professional photographer working mostly with photojournalism and documentary photography. I say this because, photography provides me with the perfect excuse to go anywhere and photograph interesting people, places and situations, and the process of achieving that is most of the times great fun.
How long have you been a photographer and how did you get started?
I have been a photographer for way too long for my age. 13 years now, and I am 32. I started really young, while trying to finish high school a friend invited me to start as a photographer in a music magazine that he was opening. I liked the idea of photographing concerts in the first row and at the same time to see some of the most amazing bands for free. This was really cool for an 18 old guy. From there, I did an internship in a weekly newspaper for a few months before definitely becoming a freelance photographer.
You shoot both digital and analogue. How do you decide which approach suits a certain project most?
It depends on several things, the most important is how much detail I want in the photographs, or how much light do I need to be to photograph a certain subject. I work with both 35mm cameras, medium format and large format. In the last two, I simply cannot afford to have digital cameras, so whenever I want to use them, I am obliged to use film. Also, there is a certain look from film that I also love for some stories, but its mostly a “feeling” that I get, there is no logical explanation to whether I will use film or digital, its a matter of feeling and lately also financial, because film is getting really expensive to photograph with.
What are some of your favorite analogue cameras and films? Please go into a little detail about why you like them and in which situations you like to use them.
Well, as for film it’s an easy one. 90% of what I shoot on film is Tri-X, always developed with Xtol on 1:1 at 20ºC. Its a formula that I am very comfortable with and I get a range of grays that is outstanding. As for cameras, I pretty much use anything with a shutter on it, but I really do privilege good lenses. So right now, I use a very different range of cameras, from my Leica M system, to Hasselblad 500cm and Mamyia 7 and finally recently I bought a Speedgraphic 4×5 Camera with an Ektar lens from 1945 and a TOYO 4×5 also. I am quite open minded to cameras.
You published a book about former Portuguese political prisoners that ended up influencing an Amnesty International advertising campaign. What made you want to tell these stories in the form of a book and how long was the process from the initial idea to the final book?
These stories about the political prisoners is an important part of my own family history. My grandmother and great-uncle are in that book, some of the people that I photographed for that book know me since I was a child. My mother’s parents spent a lot of time in prison for political reasons in Portugal. I was raised with their stories and in my history class we never spoke about political prisoners and the dictatorship was a very small chapter in that class. So I felt I had the responsibility of documenting their stories, since many of them are really old and they are dying. It would be a pity for future generations not to know what happened during those times, so I tried to do it. The process took about 6 years from the original idea in 2001, to being able to get a writer to work with, research and photograph it all, and finally being able to get enough funding to publish the book.
Your work has been published in many acclaimed magazines. Is there a certain published photograph you are most proud of and why?
Honestly, there isn’t. I photograph because I am interested in life, in people and stories, I don’t really make photos to get published as you put it by “acclaimed magazines”. I like telling stories trough images, but I am always trying to think ahead, so I like to think that my best photograph is yet to come, and I think that is what helps me to try to re-invent myself and keep photographing and trying always to improve myself as a photographer and a person.
Please share a trick of yours that will always result to a great photo.
I don’t really have such tricks. The only trick to me is to work as much as possible. Be the first to get there and the last to leave, look around, and try to get away from the obvious, and learn how to anticipate situations so when something happens you can be on the right spot to photograph it.
What is your advice for someone starting out as a professional in your field?
As one teacher once told me and I had a great laugh “how to make a million dollars as a photojournalist? Start with two million dollars”. For sure someone starting out now, is very different from more than a decade ago. But I think there are somethings that are universal in time, one of them is if you really want to do what you love, you need to be ready to give up on other things in your life. People tend to over-romanticize a photographers life. If I tell anyone that I wake up every day and spend between 2-3 hours reading news, then hustling clients to publish my work or give me assignments, editing, researching, post-producing, preparing trips, filing expenses, backing up hard drives, writing emails, and sorting many other things, and this is supposed to be my “off” time when not on the road, makes life a little less glossy than what most of the people think our life is. So if you really want to do this, and are willing to sacrifice a “normal” stable life, with a fix income, so you are probably on the right track to become a photographer.
Lastly, do you have any new projects coming up? Anything we should watch out for?
As we speak, I am finishing a 7-year project about “Operation Condor” a secret military plan during the 1970s that killed thousands of political opponents to the military dictatorships in South America. I hope to be able to publish the book and have an exhibition about in in 2013.
You want to hear more from professional photographers? Check out the other interviews in our Meet the Pros series.