A night in Alfama

The noisy tourists have finally disappeared. They must be having a late dinner in one of the newer, fancier restaurants of the neighborhood. Or having cocktails in a bar overlooking the city. The streets are deserted, apart from the occasional couple walking slowly and holding hands, or an old lady walking a dog.

At night, city streets live a different life. Like a nocturnal animal, they wake up to different sounds, smells and movements. Freed from the layer of agitation and noise brought by humans, they are breathing again.

The locals are living their quiet home life. There are voices and smells of home cooking, but everything is slowly dissolving in the breeze.

From time to time, the breeze picks up. It carries smells of ocean and seaweed, of deadwood floating away to nowhere. Boat lights are flickering on the Tagus river, each of them carrying its own story.

This ancient hilly quarter of Lisbon, where people have left on the ocean never to come back, where lives and loves were lost to famine, plague, fire and war, is not my home. But I feel so much at home here. So much in touch with the thousands of stories slowly unravelling around me.

A cat comes to caress himself against my hand. He looks at me and then he goes away into the dark. Am I accepted into this hidden, almost invisible street life? I am not felt as an intruder? I stay silent and let things be. It’s almost as if I’ve become part of the landscape.

I hear the sound of a cruiseship horn far away. I’ve never been on a cruiseship but it hits me violently. It brings back memories of travelling to unknown places, leaving behind what I love, being left behind by a loved one.

Are these my memories or have I become part of this place and now I am dreaming its dreams? I cannot tell anymore.

Narrow streets are leading down towards the river like torrents on a mountain after a heavy rain. The wind has stopped and everything is still and silent, as if frozen in a picture frame.

Time

Time is perceived differently at different ages. I remember the endless days of my childhood, the agitation of waiting for something that was just a few hours away but seemed to be forever frozen in the future.

Now I cannot make sense of many days before they’re already gone. I just record their passage. It’s like sleep – you go in and out of it and meanwhile time has passed. Only that it’s not sleep, it’s life. It’s what should have been life but has been replaced by schedules, meetings, worries, urgencies, fatigue, anxiety. And some sunshine in between.

How do you convey a sense of time in photography?

Of course, you can show a wrinkled face. The frailty of old age. A building in ruin. An abandoned park. You can put side by side photos of the same scene in different moments of the day or year. You can capture change by working with longer exposures or intentional camera movement. Or, on the contrary, you can freeze movement with short exposures, capturing expressions or gestures that would have been otherwise lost in that micro-fraction of a second.

You can work in black and white, desaturate colors or otherwise manipulate the color space in order to evoke the past. Or you can simply evoke a mood that is closely associated with the passage of time. Nostalgia. Longing. Irreversibility.

The photo above was taken in a small graveyard in Transylvania, close to a wooden church. Despite the somewhat dramatic editing, there was nothing sad or morbid about the scene. It was serene. High grass moved by the wind, nature slowly reclaiming the graves.

Letting go

When it comes to photography, learning to relax and accept what happens, to let go of control, is as important as technique. Serendipity is behind some of the most interesting photos.

It’s important to make plans. It’s even more important to realize when they need to be abandoned or changed.

Get into the scene, be present. And work with the situation as it is, not as you would have wanted it to be.

Photos do not have to be truthful to what was really out there when you took them. They have to be truthful to what you wanted to convey, to your interpretation of that scene and that moment.