When it comes to Street Photography, there’s the usual suspects: USA, UK, Europe, Japan, Philippines….but the world of Street Photography (“Life Photography” is a better word in my opinion) is much larger. Here I interview Helio Tomita about his work in Maragogipe, Brazil.
Helio, can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I was born in Presidente Prudente, São Paulo, Brazil. Although born in Brazil, my parents are ofJapanese origin and immigrated as children shortly after the first world war. I worked in the industrial sector my whole life in Bahia until a few years ago, when I came to live in Maragogipe, the land of my wife. Maragogipe is a small fishing town on the edge of the Paraguaçu River, with a population of little more than 40.000 habitants.
The city is pretty quiet and very hospitable and has lots of peaceful people, which helps in my recovery of my heart problems. I’ve retired for a year now and I’m taking advantage of my morning walks and sometimes the afternoon to practice photography. I have 6 kids and 3 grandchildren. It’s only me and my wife with the 2 youngest daughters. Another hobby that I have besides photography is fishing, I practice with my wife on the Paraguaçu River, in my little fisherman’s Canoe.
What does regularly shooting the streets mean for you?
Currently, I’m walking almost every day, and I always take with me my camera. And despite the path always being very similar, it’s amazing how things happen differently every day. Each time different things appear: a detail, an action, a different light, a thrill every day. Very rarely do I have a shot in mind. Most of the time the occasions simply arise in front of me. But of course you still have to organize things in the frame.
What attracts you the most when you photograph there?
What attracts me in the streets are the people, their attitudes, their faces, their business, your own relationship with other people, your own interactions with things around you. The details of the houses and streets also attract me, but I always try to insert a human or animal element that is interacting with the site.
It’s amazing how we can find interesting things anywhere you go. The overall landscape also started to interest me, especially after I started walking early in the morning, when it’s still dark so one can observe the first rays of light on the edges of the river. Again, when that happens, I am always trying to insert a human element, boats, birds, animals, etc.
How are you and your camera received? Suspiciously or with open arms?
Honestly I haven’t had problems with the reaction of the people. In most cases, they act normally, perhaps due to the compact size camera, maybe my appearance of tourist (I’m the only “Japanese” who lives in the town. A few times I had a negative reaction. I remember only once when a fisherman told me he didn’t like photography. Of course I respected his wishes. Normally I don’t ask for permission, I just go shooting, then give a slight smile and nod in appreciation.
Interestingly the only negative that I had (with the fisherman), was when I asked if I could make the picture. Sometimes the reaction of the subjects is to laugh or smile when they realize that they are the object of the photograph. The people of Bahia are very receptive and joyful. They are loud, and they laugh a lot too. They are very cheerful despite being poor. The people I photograph often thank me for photographing them, but I know most photographers would say I’m lying. But it’s the honest truth. When this happened for the first time, I caught me so off guard that only smiled back, feeling deeply ashamed. But now I realize that if you photograph someone, at least for these people, it seems that this gives them some importance.
Indeed, every one is 1 in a billion, when you make a photograph of someone you acknowledge them, and everyone, at a basic level wishes to be acknowledged. Brazil is a colorful place, why do you opt for mostly Black and white?
I think BW makes people think more, interact more with photography, without letting the colors, there is more space for the imagination. The colors, I think are used when the photographer wants to show a work finished, complete, without any need of any addition by the observer. It’s all there. Take it as is or leave it.
On the occasions of feasts, which is very common in Bahia, I pretty much only use color, which are alive, warm and beautiful. There’s a few in Bahia, such as the Carnival (the Maragogipe carnival is completely different from the rest of the country. It’s a carnival masks in the streets that resembles those of Venice), the feast of Saint John (June commemoration) and feast of St. Bartholomew (Patron Saint of the city).
What camera do you use? Why?
Cameras that I use currently are the old Nikon D40, the small Canon S90 and Canon G15. The latter I’ve been using pretty much for everything: Street, landscape and portraits. I use the D40 only for sports. I don’t need anything else, I will let the more expensive and advanced gear for advertising and fashion photographers. I share the thoughts and follow the advice of master Daido Moriyama, who have always used cheap compact cameras. The camera is only an instrument that should become your slave to serve your art. Not the other way around. Ultimately, photography is not ultimately about cameras.
I think the best anecdote that I could tell is that there’s a place where people thank you for photographing them and refuse when you ask them for a photo: Maragogipe in Bahia.
Any closing comments?
I consider myself a person of Maragogipe. When Olivier invited me for this interview, I was deeply grateful for the honor, since I’m just an amateur photographer in learning, and that encourages me to increasingly improve in this art. Thank you very much!
More about Helio
Helio Tomita is a Brazilian of Japanese descent living in Maragogipe, Brazil. Please check out his Flickr.
Thanks Helio! Don & I understand that everyone is different, everyone is at different levels but we are all passionate, and it shows in the work. We are also honored to for encouraging you 🙂 Please show your support by leaving a comment below.