Bruno Massao: An Analogue Street Photography Love Story

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All images by Bruno Massao. Used with permission.

Photographer Bruno Massao has been interviewed here before; but his work isn’t just about intimate portraiture. In fact, he’s most inspired by what happens on the streets.

Bruno, like many of you, gained influence from days of studying the work of many of the greats. It’s translated well into his work. But what continues to set Bruno apart is the fact that he’s unusually good at color street photography. Lots of the greats profess that color is tough to do because too many colors can be a distraction: but through Bruno’s work, you can really get a gritty, raw, true to life feeling in the scenes he captures.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into street photography.

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Bruno: When I started to study another photographers’ works, like John Free, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Steve McCurry, I’ve always had this fascinating feeling towards them. They were passing something through their images, a message – I don’t know. What I do know is that I felt really amused seeing their work.

So, when I decided to do some sort of photography in my spare time, I chose street photography. With it, I’ve got to know new people, their stories, I can experience the place. It’s a really rich experience.

Phoblographer: Your work is very unique in that you’re a street photographer, one that shoots urban geometry and one that also does proper street portraits. What do you feel you tend to gravitate towards more?

Bruno: I think the key word in street photography is ‘street’ – if it’s on the streets, it’s part of it. Personally, I try to shoot what I find interesting – it could be an animal, a building, a person, all of the three combined. It’s more about the moment, what makes it interesting to me – and I think that people are really interesting subjects. I can come across the same person in two different moods and have completely different photos, and I can try to create an image that really makes that mood pops out to the viewer. Objects, while they are important to the street, they don’t have a mood, they don’t have feelings – if you take a photo of a bench, then comes back two days later and take another photo, it’s the same bench. It doesn’t matter if you change the composition or the lighting, it’s the same thing as before.

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Phoblographer: What typically inspires you to want to capture a moment, ask someone for their portrait or just photograph a scene? You’re a film shooter, so I know that you’re selective. Is it the lighting? Is it the scene in general? Are there emotions involved?

Bruno: I like to experience the place I’m in, and have a keen eye for weird or unusual things. Sometimes a person is wearing strange clothes, sometimes someone’s doing some sort of unique thing, sometimes the lighting is just awesome – there’s no rules at all, it comes from the experience I’m having at that moment. I feel the mood for the street, I let people know I’m there. Sometimes they don’t even mind about me and just keep doing their thing. Sometimes they ask me out of curiosity, and sometimes they just get mad – it’s all part of the experience – and that’s this experience that drives my street photography.

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Phoblographer: A lot of your work is of photographing people from behind though you surely do have your work of someone from the front. Lots of that work though (of the backs) seems to be about patterns, lines, or even wanting to know about what they’re thinking about or looking at. Is this what you’re typically feeling as you shoot these scenes?

Bruno: If you take a photo of someone from the front, both you and the person may lie to the viewer – the person can fake happiness, sadness or any kind of emotion through your photograph. But if you photograph them from behind, that’s not much to lie about – it’s just about what the person is seeing. The viewer have to give his own interpretation of that particular image. Sometimes it’s just someone who’s standing out in a huge crowd, sometimes it’s the feeling of loneliness among the other people. If an image can provoke such thoughts to the viewer, I’m down with it.

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Phoblographer: Lots of your work is in color; and it can be tough to find a truly good color street photographer. Have you ever thought about how color can distract a viewer? Lots of photographers say that that’s why they shoot in black and white.

Bruno: I actually agree with them: color is distracting. But, at the same time, it’s something that adds an interpretation to the image. I like to make people think about my photos, to leave them intrigued – and I don’t think that black and white gives much room for that.

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Sure, you do have lots of great works in black and white, but you also have lots of work in colors. Steve McCurry is a huge example on this – although he’s not a proper street photographer, his work is just so powerful that you can see it as a street photography work, and most of this comes from his use of colors.

Phoblographer: What do you feel makes your work unique from that of every other street photographer? What do you different?

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Bruno: I like to experience places and situations, and this is something that I can’t do with my commercial work. So I use street photography for this end – I took photos mostly for me, for my experience. It’s the kind of thing that I do just for fun, so I can really experience a lot. Most of the Brazilian street photographers don’t like to be noticed at all – they don’t like to be confronted – and I just do the opposite of them.

Phoblographer: What typically motivates you to go shoot? Is there intent? Even with some of your protest work, it looks like you’re just trying to create art if anything.

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Bruno: As I said, I like to experience and that’s why I do it in my street photography. Since I’m not bond by any rules, I just go and try to have some fun and get some photos. Whatever my humor tells me, I just follow it and pretty much that’s it.

When I got to shoot some protests, most of the other photographers were covering for the media or even working freelance. I wasn’t doing that, I was doing my own thing – and I think that’s the main reason why my photos came out differently from the others photographers present at that moment. While some of them were using zoom lenses – even telephoto lenses – most of my photos at that time were taken with a 35mm or 50mm lenses, so I was really close to those guys. I even got shot by the police in one of these protests – they were trying to contain a crowd, adrenaline went way higher than I though and I just felt the rubber bullet hitting my leg. My clothes had so much smell from tear gas that some people (who didn’t got even near the protests) got their eyes irritated as I walked past them.

Phoblographer: What do you usually use to shoot street photography? I know you’ve got your setup for portraits, but are they the same? What about the film?

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Bruno: I use whatever I have my hands on. It could be my smartphone (an old Sony Xperia Z1), a compact camera, a SLR – I don’t usually get to worried about what I’m using. I do, however, have my preferred focal distance, which is 35mm. I really like to use that distance a lot, so it’s kind the lens I go for most of the time.

The lenses I have for this kind of shoot are the EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, EF 35mm f/1.4L USM, EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and EF 100mm f/2 USM, all from Canon. I use these lenses on both my EOS 3 (film) and 5D Mk III (digital), which are also the gear that I use on my intimate portraiture sessions. Most of my gear setup remains the same, I just use them differently.

Also, as I do lots of gear reviews for other websites, I tend to use some of these gear in street photography. The most unusual gear that I’ve used is the Lomography Petzval 85mm f/2 lens. The Lomography representative let me borrow it for a week to write a review for Queimando Filme, and I tried to do some street shooting – and it was a completely disaster. So I just started to do portraits of people who were on the streets at that time.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.