Sbe in Portugal, his homeland, or in the various Latin American countries where he worked, the photographer João Pina, 38, has dedicated a good part of his 20-year career to “making sure that stories don't fall into oblivion”. From the family he inherited an interest in politics – his grandparents, communist militants, were political prisoners during the Salazar regime. He also understood the importance of memory and knowing the past, both to understand the present and to repair historical traumas and injustices.
No wonder, By Your Free Thought, his first authorial work, was a sort of reckoning with his own history, based on records of survivors of political persecution in Portugal. Condor, a project that took nine years to complete and resulted in a book and a series of exhibitions around the world, investigated Operation Condor, an articulation between six South American military dictatorships (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) organized to repress left-wing opposition.
Other projects came in Portugal, Cuba, Colombia (on the FARC), in Rio de Janeiro (46750, which takes in its name the number of homicides that occurred in the city between 2007 and 2016), among others. Currently, the photographer is working on Tarrafal, a concentration camp created by the Portuguese government in Cape Verde in the 1930s, and is beginning to focus on Portugal's slaveholding heritage. Unfortunately, according to Pina, looking at the past is still a work that has not been done much in Brazil or in her country – despite the fact that discussions about colonialism and dictatorship are beginning to become more present there.
In the Brazilian case, which is more worrying for the photographer, the result is, among others, the election of a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who praises “a torturer who should have been arrested for crimes against humanity”. Furthermore, in the case of Rio de Janeiro, “I have no doubt that the fact that the Military Police kill an average of XNUMX people a year has to do with this culture that comes from the dictatorship,” he says.
In each project, based on extensive research and investigation, Pina builds narratives about open or hidden stories, present or past. The violence that appears explicitly in the current scenes of police actions in Rio appears, otherwise, silent in an empty room that was used for torture sessions in Argentina or, still, in the faces of torture survivors in South American countries.
With an increasing performance outside photojournalism, where he began his career, Pina began to exhibit, over the years, in museums and galleries, in addition to having published three books. “It's completely out of my control and I don't care how the market or the academy classify my work – whether it's documentary, artistic, journalistic photography. What interests me is telling stories. I can only classify myself as an author who has a voice and things to say.” Read the full interview below.
ARTE!Brasileiros — Many of your projects deal with events from a time you didn't live. How to use photography, which captures the present moment, to address these facts from the past. I mean, what tricks did you use and use?
John Pina – Some gimmicks I'm aware of and some I'm not. The work involves investigation, listening to primary sources to get to clues, places, people and objects, so to speak. I think it has to do with that, with studying, researching, interviewing and then understanding how you can tell stories from a visual point of view. So I'm following the clues of this visualization of the past in the present. And from there I create.
There always seems to be a desire to make these faded, often forgotten stories public. Does it make sense to think so?
Yes, I think that's my mission, to be able to amplify these voices and make sure these stories don't fall into oblivion. That's my big concern, especially at this moment that we're living in, in which it feels like we're rewriting and reinterpreting history according to who's in government. This to me is very scary.
In 2016, when Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment process was still ongoing, you said that the fact that Brazil did not discuss its past – and that the Armed Forces and some politicians continued to support the coup – was very worrying, because it sowed the ground for abuses to happen again. One of these politicians, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected president. How do you see this moment?
This process of not looking at memory in Brazil is very similar to what happens in Portugal, so this is not strange to me. But I look at the Brazilian case with more concern because I feel that the institutions in Portugal are a little more solid or, at least, there is less political instrumentalization of the institutions at the moment. And this forgetfulness in Brazil, associated with other problems of populism – which proposes easy recipes for deep problems – led to what we are seeing, with the election of Bolsonaro, with enormous polarization and an exponential increase in violence that thought to be resolved.
The violence inherited from the dictatorship?
Because things are not resolved by osmosis, by themselves, they have to be talked about, stirred, fixed and only then can a process be closed. In Brazil, as in Portugal, where this resolution process did not exist, many people thought that this would be resolved. But the fact is that Brazil continues to have barracks with the names of dictators and that we had a deputy, now president, dedicating his impeachment vote to a torturer who should have been arrested for crimes against humanity. And a good part of the population thinks this is normal. Therefore, as long as these conditions objectively exist, it is normal for this type of result to happen. The consequences are what we are seeing.
With the amnesty came this idea that it was necessary to forget in order to move on. Do you really need to remember to move on?
It is difficult to give a prescription. I have read books including the right to forget, not just the right to remember. But I definitely think ignoring the problem is not a recipe. History must be remembered to understand how things got where they did. And in Brazil this exercise is very little done. This exercise has never been done within the Armed Forces, which continue to defend that there was a liberating revolution that saved Brazil from communism, that bogeyman that eats little children. On the other hand, a good part of the left has not evolved its discourse either. We cannot forget that the Workers' Party (PT) was in power for 12 years and did very little to discuss these issues. There was a National Truth Commission, but what followed, in practice, was absolutely nothing. And with the current political landscape, then, it will be less than nothing, it will be the setback, the rewriting of history.
This speech by a government that comes to save the country from communism, from 1964, is very similar to the one that elected Bolsonaro…
Just like in 1964, when it was said that everything was communism. In other words, whoever says that everything is communism does not even know what communism is. Communism, fascism, are words that have entered the lexicon distorted. Even the left makes this mistake when it accuses anyone of being a fascist. Sometimes he calls people who are neoliberals fascists, which is completely different. But anyway, it's a long discussion, which has to do with the lack of political and civic education. We have to think about how this can be overcome. Brazil suffers a lot from the lack of formal education, so to speak, and history becomes more manipulable. And if many Brazilians, even at school, do not actually learn what happened in 1964, 1968, in the Guerrilha do Araguaia, etc., this is worrying.
And in the other South American countries that you researched, is the picture very different?
The situations are different. Argentina is a country where these issues are very present, because right after the dictatorship, civil society mobilized a lot – and the victims were also many. So that became the order of the day and there were political conditions for the discussion to move forward. In some ways, it is an exemplary case. I think it would be unthinkable in Argentina for a figure to adopt a discourse like Bolsonaro's about the dictatorship and have such popularity and prominence.
Finally, moving on to project 46750, on violence in Rio de Janeiro, there seems to be a strong dialogue – perhaps not so explicit – with what is seen in Condor, since police violence in Brazil is still a direct remnant of repressive violence. of the dictatorship. It makes sense?
It makes perfect sense. I started Condor I'm 2005 46750 in 2007, at a time when I was very focused on understanding these processes of violence, not only from the past but also from the present. And very quickly for me this violence of the present began to show its nuances that came from behind. And, in the case of Rio, I have no doubt that the fact that the Military Police kill an average of a thousand people a year has to do with this culture that comes from the dictatorship. In fact, what you see there is also the result of the impunity implemented by the Portuguese when they arrived in Brazil, slavery, and after the military dictatorship. The fact that the Brazilian police is a military police, the one that dies and kills the most in the world, does not come from yesterday, but from 500 years ago.
There is a discussion very present today in the artistic universe of how much the visual arts can also be a powerful device to deal with history. How do you see this issue?
I think that even in academia today there is a growing concern to treat things outside the text as well, using visual language for this. And I realized it with Condor. By using images to address this issue, I quickly began to be contacted by professors and academics, and to be called to give conferences on the subject. I think that 200 years after the emergence of photography, the power of the visual and the contributions it can make to academia began to be better understood, whether in a purely documentary approach or a more artistic, poetic, freer approach.
Do you believe that art, and more specifically photography, can have some restorative virtue? I mean, for victims of violence as well as for society, works like the ones you do can also have a healing role, shall we say?
I don't know, maybe it's too pretentious or utopian to think this way. I don't think an image in itself will heal, cure or give justice to anyone. But I think it can contribute, like the text, the painting and the music, so that there is some kind of justice, reparation and more well-being for the victims. And, also, more discomfort for the culprits, who, when they see themselves portrayed, may perhaps rethink what their attitudes were, realize the consequences of what they did.