Saudade: Traces of the Past

Igatu Chapada Diamantina

Photograph, Igatu, Chapada Diamantina, Brasil

“The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.” (

“Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again… The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.” – Introduction to Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento

Effigy, Brasil

Efigy, Chapada Diamantina, Brasil

I just finished the second of two back-to-back photography workshops with Ernesto Bazan (this one in Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brasil). We visited families in Arandai and Velho Mocambo(?), explored a few out of the way places (i.e., at the end of long, dry, pocked, iron-filled dirt roads), and had the opportunity to watch a celebration of Umbanda. It was quite overwhelming as children from the homes we visited, ran around posing and trying to grab each photographer’s attention. Multiple generations live together, and both calm and pandemonium abound. Likewise, the festivities we witnessed had equal shares of order and chaos. It was easy to get lost in the throes and, as a photographer, to lose intention.

Focusing (no pun intended) is difficult. It is a trait that I must nurture, when a great deal of activity surrounds me. I have to remember to do what I am naturally inclined toward, rather than be swallowed up by the waves of movement around me (or, alternatively, do what I think is expected of me when I take pictures with other photographers). When I heed my own voice I tend to turn in a different direction from others. I do not do this to be contrary or non-conformist but rather to find my own space. I get lost in the details, layers, cracks, and crevices, rather than be swept away by the whole; I go at my own rhythm. Looking until something – almost always intangible – captures me. I then try to transform that particular something into an image.

BEd, Andarai, Brasil

Bed, Arandai, Chapada Diamantina, Brasil

After initial inner struggles (and many poor shots thanks to these fights with myself) what calls to me are typically the quieter and less certain spaces of my surroundings – the things that can be overlooked because they may be too quotidian or too spare. But, I respond to these with my heart – they feel like psychological layers. It is a dance between “me” and “object” – and I explore the space where we intersect. How it manifests itself to me and then how I translate that feeling into image is unclear to me (at least for the moment.) I simply allow myself to be carried with it and go with the grain. Like saudade or pentimento, the photograph becomes an utterance detached from context, thereby giving it a unique integrity and opening it to abstract or new meaning.

This trip to Brasil was an eye-opener for me on a few levels. I felt that I was walking on a tightrope in both the country and my work. In regard to the Brasil, I became very conscious that behind the myth of a magical/spiritual Bahia lies a very difficult, and sometimes unbelievably harsh, world of poor, landless, and/or homeless people who suffer yet are determined to surmount obstacles. They struggle daily to survive – and do not always succeed.

Homeless, Salvador, Brasil

Woman, Salvador, Brasil

With this as a background, it seems almost trite to talk about my photography. But I am discovering that the  pictures I take are responses to the spaces and places where I work in. During these weeks in Brasil I figured out that I must feel comfortable in my own skin and do what is right for me. It is something I always know but do not always allow myself to remember and act upon. In Brasil I felt strong links to saudade, something that escaped me entirely when I visited the country in 2015. After a while it was difficult not to see it everywhere. Yet, despite the melancholia there is strength and hope that seems to prevail even under some of the more dire circumstances.

My work is not straight documentation but, rather, a subjective (and limited) description of experience. In framing the material subject of a photograph I express an embodied tactile knowledge – it is a gesture toward turning familiar places and objects into visceral experiences. But my photographs barely scratch the surface (or layers) of this state of being, of saudade.

Woman, Igatu, Chapada Diamantina, Brasil

Woman, Igatu, Chapada Diamantina, Brasil

Landscape, Arandai, Chapada Diamantina, Brasil

Landscape, Arandai, Chapada Diamantina, Brasil

Poster, Salvador, Brasil

Poster, Salvador, Brasil

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