Vera Marmelo (b. 1984) is a photographer that came to be very well known in a specific art scene, particularly in the music subsystem of the Lisbon area. She was born in Barreiro, a city facing Lisbon from the other side of Tejo, a city with a very strong sense of community and strong comprehension of how important autonomy and individuality are to redefining culture. So, it could be stated, the natural conditions of her environment conditioned the nest of social relations she started to care for. There is a fizzy underground scene and young people are organized in a community that seems to come together to support each other. They show up in events, bars, concerts, assemblies, etc.
It’s not like this is an ideal place, but these people have strong roots. They’re from a land that is used to resistance and to put of a fight. Needless to say, there is a leftist ideology behind it all. So what makes Vera’s photographs appealing? I suggest it is exactly her proximity to her subjects and the sense of joy and bond her photographs portray.
Writing for the “On the Side Project”, Vera, a professional engineer, explains how photography came into her life: My friends played music and I was around, with a camera in my hands, just for fun, just to give me a reason to hang out with them. […] What started out as an hobby, a reason to hang out with some people and meet new, ended up being a second job, a second life. From 8.30 am until 5.30 pm I am an engineer and then a Photographer for the rest of the day. Weekends don’t exist and I use my vacations to photograph and edit the work.
Vera photographs a lot. I mean, really a lot. She does the promo shots, she is there for the videoclips, for the side projects, she goes to concerts, she does portraits and she hangs out on weekends with musicians even when no music is playing. And she has cameras and now there is the digital snapshot so there are hundreds of photographs taken by her that you can glimpse at. I’ll put it up front, that’s not what I’m interested in, though this unedited archive will be very relevant as a document of the music and art scene in the Lisbon area in the beginning of the 21st century.
What interests me is her portraiture, specially the one shot on film. The so-called promo shots. Not only are these the ones I can relate to, as photographic objects, but also because they are the ones revealing the thought behind her process of relating to her subjects. The life of these photographs is not on their indexical signs or their configuration, but on the illusion they create. And this illusion is nothing but a document of a reality which, portrayed like this, leaves out the mundane and small verities of the people in them. So these ambiance which Vera shows us, is put up front as a chimera. Vera is a dreamer, no doubt. A believer and an achiever. She gives us happiness, sense of togetherness, wholeness, there’s no strong sense of individuality (not to be mistaken with style or with the jargon of individuality), as if that was never needed.
Of course it’s not everybody’s dream and it references a iconography that is perhaps overworked, but its influences are the same shared by the musicians so it seems genuine. Yes, it’s the same old America, the Christian style, the Brooklin style, the Californian style, the multicultural New-York style. It’s all that but with our Mediterranean light and a clumsier sense of style. Vera’s photographs are so attached to their signifiers that it is as if they don’t have the risk to be over-stylized unless the people in them do.
Vera should be praised for her commitment to her lifestyle. What these photographs sell is exactly that: a sort of life that is “cool”. And that’s what her public (within the art scene she portrays) wants. She mastered the moment of desire and she managed to find subjects that seems perfectly comfortable as objects of desire. And we get to be witnesses of that exclusivity and that exclusivity is the ultimate price: the privacy of their relation.
It’s not about whether you studied photography or arts, but about your willingness to challenge visual culture. And how can one do that? If you commit to show people as authentic as they are. Well, of course there are other things beside the notion that you are “selling” a lifestyle. The use of old films, blurriness, appeal to the sense of nostalgia and temporality, so they dislocate our memories to the place of our childhood, for the smiles, the colors, the smilingly genuine happiness in the air.
Things are never about what they are because they are nothing beyond the cultural notion of what convention told they should be. So Vera’s photographs here shown, though beautiful and extremely honest on their own, are a promise of a chimeric land where music will always live.