In Conversation with Adriano Pimenta

by Nour Team

Could you describe yourself in one sentence or phrase? 

I’m a good architect that would love to be a photographer, architecture is something that is definitely strong for me. I’m not bad. But the real thing I would like to do in life is be a photographer. To live, to travel, and take photos, to explore and see the things I love the most. Architecture sometimes takes me to places where I can manage to stay longer. For example, when I go to India, I do one week of work. And then I stay one more week and I do my photo work which is a real pleasure. Because I am alone. 

That is very true. 

With architecture, it’s a lot of people, engineers, a lot of travel and a lot of mistakes. To be a photographer, is something you do alone and this is the real pleasure.

When you’re taking pictures, it’s an abstraction of the chaos that’s outside, it’s just you with you. And I feel when you have other people around, there’s a bit of competition that goes on because you want to show that you can take the better picture or on the other hand, and you could just be talking and laughing which is not bad. But I think that the essence of it is a very personal thing.

Yes, you don’t write a book with a lot of people surrounding you.

No, not at all. 

For me photography is like a language, when I want to say something, it’s what I feel the need to take, it’s not enough that this is nice or the color is nice. I want to see this when I am alone. 

You were talking earlier about architecture and that ties into the second question which is your day-to-day job as an architect. Having been classically trained in painting, Saul Leiter went on to develop a distinctive usage of color. And I was wondering how has architecture influenced your conception of photography in terms of composition, subject, or just the image, as a whole?

It’s funny you wrote about Saul Leiter, he is really someone amazing. Recently I had an exhibition and the curator wrote a small text about me, and something in there annoyed me a little, he said: ‘we can see in my photos that I am an architect.’ And I answered:  because there are straight lines and the composition is too straight? I wasn’t upset, but I was trying to avoid the two being related. One is to be a photographer and one is to be an architect that’s why I made two websites. 

I think we cannot avoid our background, it’s like we cannot avoid our childhood in our life experiences. As an architect, I have a point of view, I have this background which helps to find something. That’s why I’m interested in this kind of work that you have mentioned here: ‘La Maison’ for example. We cannot avoid our background, and if I’m taking photos it’s in my DNA, something that must be present when I relate with my subjects, It’s something that I need to live. 

One big distinction between architecture and photography is that photography is about the present moment and capturing what’s already there. Whereas architecture is about creating something that isn’t and putting it there. When you create a building or a structure, you’re forced to take into account your surroundings, what’s going on around you, the landscape, the climate, the geological terrain, etc. In your project Shahada how do you make the decision of what is a fundamental element of the Kingdom’s culture and history? Moreover, could you please develop and explain the last phrase of your abstract regarding the project: “The gliding and lifting of the veil is called by a new approach in raising Saudi Arabia culture.”?

When I arrived in Saudi, coming from Europe it was quite a different country/culture. Then I started to travel because I was alone, my family was in Portugal. And when I came back(to Portugal) I started organizing the pictures I had taken and trying to create a project out of this. I then started to decide which kind of elements I wanted. 

I started to deconstruct, I need a narrative and subject. I started to organize what not to show because Saudi is so big, and I was traveling so much during the weekend.

Landscapes were interesting to me because I grew up watching old western movies and American movies. And somehow it was different, but similar this emptiness and desert. So I began to decide what could be the subject for this work, and how I could share some experience that I had in Saudi Arabia and the subjects that were part of it. 

In regards to the second question, ‘the gliding and lifting of the veil..’ it’s a picture I took of a car where the protector was a little removed. I thought something was happening and something was unfolding, for example when we see a photo with a lot of tires in the middle of the desert, It raises some questions. 

Sometimes I was doing 2000 kilometers in one weekend, I would define a target but I was not interested in it, I was addressing the relation between A and B.

I would see a lot of old gas stations, for example. They are related to the Saudi way. The abandoned gas stations that we see a lot from American photographers, Steve Shore for example. So these kinds of elements were what I was trying to describe what this country is. The relation between religion, oil, emptiness, etc.

There’s this big contrast between the vast openness and these objects that come out of nowhere. You have to form a story in your head to make sense of them. But this leads me on to the next question, what was the genesis of the ‘La Maison’ project, which was also taken in Saudi Arabia?

 I was taking so many photos at the time, this is a problem that I had, and this is a digital problem. Now I’ve made some rules after getting back from Saudi. But the ‘La Maison’ started because of this pandemic, I started going over my old files about the Middle East. 

And the name ‘La Maison’ comes from the houses, it was related to, why we build houses like this? In the case of Saudi, they have all this land. And they pop up with something that they know they want to show, wanting to say that they are here. And when I started this work, it was to be something related to all the destinations I had traveled to. But then I realized that I had so much material from Saudi Arabia, that it would be better to do chapter by chapter. Maybe next time I’ll do something about India, or next time I’ll do something about Portugal. 

In the 60s, and in the 70s, it was really common for Portuguese people, because we were really poor to go to France, Luxembourg, England, to work. 

And when people got enough money, the first thing that they did was build a house in their town. But they would build their roofs in the style of french houses or German with a 45-degree angle because it snows there. 

Here we don’t have snow, only rain. We have a lot of these constructions in Portugal, and I noticed the same in Saudi Arabia. It becomes interesting, because of what they want to do in that landscape. What these constructions represent is something of a struggle to do with the territory, it’s the expression of the individual.

And Saudi Arabia is a rich country because of the petrol. And on the outskirts of Riyadh there are these kinds of constructions, and we can see something pop up in the middle of nothing. 

The same happened in Portugal with the trade route to England in the 16 century. We got a lot of money out of it and subsequently a lot of construction, new models of building, it was a need to show something, to show they achieved something.

In the case of the Saudi’s it came through color, in a postmodern style. The color is the subject. 

It feels like differentiating oneself from the norm, seeing as Saudi Arabia can be quite a rigid country, in terms of laws and religion when I look at these pictures I see all these different houses that look really funky. I always wonder, in Saudi Arabia, locals wear the Abaya or the Kondura. And they’re very monochromatic outfits. But sometimes when they’re sitting and they’re having a coffee you can see the most extravagant sneakers peek out under those clothes, I feel like it’s the same with the houses. 

Yes, they have this American style, or hip-hop/urban, I think it’s also because Saudi Arabia has a very young population, very dynamic.

Those houses in question, through the framing of the images, seem to allude to a ‘Arabian Nights’ scenario, wherein a grandiose palace pops out of nowhere, do you feel that is in line with the project? The reason I’m asking this is that when I looked at the pictures and having lived in this specific region, I was always surprised when I would leave for vacation for two months, and come back afterward, seeing buildings that weren’t there before now finished. 

I feel the same, I would travel between Saudi and Portugal, and it was incredible during the four years of staying in Saudi how fast it can change and how fast they can build. Riyadh is a city that developed really fast, and in one of the pictures in the Shahada project, with the pink wall, six months before I took the same photo. When I passed by the first time it was only some bricks on the floor. And the second time I saw that the wall was completed.

It almost feels like a historical project, as opposed to Europe, where things are much slower in terms of their development. In the Middle East, especially in that region, things are springing up like bad grass. When I was scrolling through the pictures and looking at the project, I kept thinking, well, if he went back and did another version of this project, it would be completely different. 

I dream about coming back and seeing these places because sometimes I speak with my friends, and when I left Saudi, it was one way of living. Now It’s another way of living. And they are saying that now Saudi is so different because it wants to develop its tourism. 

When I finished my website, I sent it to an architect friend, who still lives in Saudi, and he left a comment saying: ‘if you come back, you will realize that this is really really different from your photos, you don’t see this anymore.’ So it was something pleasant because it was a moment that I tried to record.

What pushed you to live in Saudi Arabia? What parts of it are attractive to you in terms of inspiration?

I moved after the 2008-2009 crisis, I had received an invitation from a friend to go and work in Riyadh, on the metro project. I accepted because I didn’t have any work here in Portugal, so I accepted this challenge, because why not? 

Because of photography, I traveled, starting with 50km because I was afraid of the Middle East. And then I started to realize that it was safe. Thursday night. I would take out my map and pick a location, sometimes this was 20 kilometers around the city and sometimes I could go 2000km. For the inspiration, it was the emptiness specifically what is highlighted in the emptiness. 

On the emptiness, why don’t you have people in your pictures? 

I believe now that you need to ask people for photos. And, as it was in Saudi, it was difficult to approach people. Taking Whim Wenders as an example, we can see more, when people left than when people were there. If we have a gas station with a shoe on the floor and broken glass on the side. It doesn’t need people. I need to show what there is, and how these people interacted there. So it’s two reasons, if I want to take a photo of people I will ask, but in this case, I was not looking for people I was looking for what remains from this culture from this past and what will be the future. 

This reminds of a phrase from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, before the first chapter, he says ‘And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’

This was one of the main reasons I took photos when I was in Saudi, but when the pandemic began, I started approaching people, to not lose this contact. 

However, when people ask me why there aren’t any people in your pictures, I need to explain to them that when you have a car with a thermal protector half off, you don’t need people in the picture, the subject is already there, the scene is already there. To quote Win Wenders: “I am not a landscape photographer. I am interested in people. I am interested in our civilization. I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and places. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us. Places are so much more able to evoke people when people are out. As soon as there is one person in the shot everybody looks at that person. If there is nobody in the shot, the beholder is able to listen to the story of that place. And that’s my job. I try to make places tell their stories about us. So I am not a landscape photographer. I am really interested in people, but my way of finding out things about people is that I do photos about their absence, about their traces.”

It’s also a very anthropocentric way of looking at an image that you need to have a human subject in there. You don’t need to have anything. You need to show what’s in front of you. And if you have to bring somebody from the outside, into that setting, you’re already distorting reality, on top of the fact that taking a picture is one figment and fragment of reality that has been already distorted by the mere individual clicking on the shutter. 

Finally what’s your definition of Art? 

We have thousands of quotes from the biggest artist dead or alive, in the world. I know art when I feel it highlights my soul. It’s something more, It’s something that fulfills all our experiences and gives meaning to live.

Art is to fill the interstices of the inner void, to fill those little spaces that are empty waiting for answers.