Photos by Pedro Letria
Pedro Letria is a Portuguese photographer whose work often deals with displacement, a subject stemming from Letria’s repeated migrations and assimilations. Born in Portugal, he has since lived in the United States and Italy; while abroad, his work has often returned to Portugal and its diasporic reaches. While pursuing an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design from 2010 to 2012, he completed a series of photographs of Portuguese social clubs and businesses in the Providence area, which he first published in 2014 as a book of images and interweaving narratives, titled The Club.
The Club makes it clear that his entrance into the Portuguese community in Providence was a complicated re-encounter with the country of his birth. The images he produces—often of inscrutable scenes in darkly lit interiors—provide both a sense of place and a jarring feeling of dislocation. The accompanying texts Letria wrote for the series are personal stories told by his subjects. They also include Letria’s own reflections on the estrangement he felt entering into spaces which were at once his own and entirely foreign. For Letria, it’s impossible to detangle the displacement and alienation that emerges in photography, the photos themselves, and the narratives they can and cannot provide; looking at the work is a process of forestalling interpretation. Viewing Letria’s work might simulate the same kind of unsettlement which he has experienced for much of his life.
Early this month, Letria spoke with the Independent about his own interpretation of The Club and the aftermath of its publication. As we Skyped between Providence and Portugal, it felt oddly fitting to sit in the city he photographed while he reflected from his home country—as if we were occupying the distances through which he sees tradition, language, and belonging.
The President of the Amigos da Terceira Club poses with Genuine Madruga, the legendary solitary seafarer at the club's 23rd anniversary in Pawtucket. Much could be said about the power relation between the two subjects in this picture, and yet none would account for the expression of humility and thankfulness that the man sincerely offered to the event's photographer. Like me, this photograph was uninvited.
The twin-engine plane careened over the island of São Jorge, describing an arc over the volcanic ridge, and nosed down towards the simple runway. Aboard, most passengers made the sign of the cross and their knuckles whitened as they grabbed the arm rests. At the Amigos da Terceira Club, in Pawtucket, the issue of independence from the mainland is averted, and instead, I am assuaged that all things Azorean can be simply put down to a bird of prey and the good will of the Holy Ghost.
Eva will be the ring bearer in her cousin's wedding and she was brought to Ana's Bridal Gowns, on Warren Avenue, for a fitting, by her grandmother. Silently, she glows with the attention and knowledge of having entered a rarified space, one wholly emptied of men and where history is written with the truth of experience. Ana is from Ribeira Grande, on the island of São Miguel, in the Azores, and all the women in her family are seamstresses. "As a child, I would run away from my mother's call to help out because I didn't want to sew, and would run to hide in my aunt's house. But everyone there was sewing too, so there was really no escaping it."
It might be understood from the meekness with which the hands belonging to the two gentlemen on the left rest on the table that they were the losers of the last round of sueca, and that the expediency displayed by the others may be synonymous with victorious good fortune, but given the normal distribution of players, which instructs that partners should sit opposite each other, nothing could be farther from the truth, and unless there are more discrete terms of agreement, we are in the presence of genuine goodwill.
Luís Neves is an engaging man and a singer capable of a real high C. For the last three years, his band, Centerfold, has performed every weekend at Portuguese social venues across the East Coast and that is no mean feat. His booming voice filled the hall at the Amigos da Terceira Club for its 23rd anniversary. As the lyrics became more daring and the tempo slowed, couples swarmed the dance floor and their bodies inched closer. "I know what they want" Luís told me afterwards. "You just have to make them wait for it."
Is it a dream or lie if it does not come true, or is it worse? And the sign flashed its warning in the world it was forming. Show me slowly what I only know the limits of. Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove. I am sentimental, if you know what I mean. Inside the covers of the Holy Rosary music book, Steve, the baritone player, kept these beloved lines and made them his.
The College Hill Independent: I wanted to start by asking about your entrance into these social clubs. You didn’t enter a social club until 2011—were there unique aspects or functions of Portuguese community in Providence that you had to learn and integrate into your practice? How did your motivation to investigate your own displacement figure into this process?
Pedro Letria: I was looking around for things to relate to when I was in Providence, and I ended up moving a bit. Between 2010 and 2011, I ended up moving to East Providence and I found a huge Portuguese community there. I wanted to figure out what they did, and would go into the supermarket and find all these products which are out of place, so to speak; you couldn’t find them at other supermarkets but [there] you could find all these Portuguese symbols that were easily available. From there, I contacted a few people that I had met, and asked them to tell me how their connection to Portugal was something that they were still keeping alive. They said, very naturally, “just come by our social club.” The first time [I went] it was interesting, immediately I was in a kind of capsule, not just a time capsule but a geographic one. You’d walk in and the people were drinking Portuguese beer and watching Portuguese soccer and speaking Portuguese. But the minute they stepped out, they were Americans, not Portuguese; everything about them, their work schedule, the way they organized their family, and the schools their kids went to, it’s all perfectly integrated into mainstream Americana. In that sense, it’s when I began to think I should make some pictures here, without thinking of doing any major project, just because it was fun to be around.
I started making pictures, and people did something unplanned: they started telling me the stories of their lives. They weren’t just longing for home, people were channeling something through me, wanting to let me know what may have come around, whether they still felt connected or not to their histories in Portugal. From then, printing the pictures and sitting down and writing just kind of flowed. When it came time to put together a thesis, it made sense to center the work on pictures made in the community, with the community, and then with my own text on one level addressing each picture, and another text which would contextualize my attempt to make sense of these pictures today.
The Indy: In the written accompaniment to one of the photos, a man tells you, “your reason for taking pictures is bullshit,” but that he did not care. What kind of relationships did you aim to build? What shared understanding of your work did you have to develop with your subjects, and in what ways are the resulting text and image an interrogation of that relationship?
PL: I never viewed what I was doing as any kind of anthropology. The usual exercise of going into a community, collecting data, interpreting it and then seeing how people respond to their own outsiderness…well, that just never made sense. I was much more selfish. Like anybody who is taking pictures, I was going in, getting a picture, coming out. The picture and the text were working in a different way. The text was allowing our conversation to carry on. I was not limited to the there-and-then-ness of every picture that exists, I could actually make things up. And I did, I made a lot of things up. There is an interpretation of mine as to whether making pictures in that club was of any importance to their character.
I didn’t feel very welcome, unlike most of the other clubs, probably because I was as unwelcome as anybody is when they have a camera. People aren’t very interested in having their pictures taken. What I was doing with that camera was using it in a way of entering these spaces, and then measuring my own closeness to these people’s experiences, simply by carrying around this artifact. They never saw the pictures I took of them. They never saw what I wrote with the pictures.
The Indy: You describe one of your subjects, a girl in a bridal dress shop on Warren Avenue, as “enter[ing] a rarefied space, one wholly emptied of men and where history is written with the truth of experience.” Another photograph shows a conversation where you are “not a part of the circle, for there are instances I will never understand and others I am not meant to.” How do you go about retaining the quality of these scenes that is both altered by your presence as witness, and beyond the reach of your interpretation?
PL: Hearing those texts read back to me… they sound kind of lofty. I didn’t plan them to be that way. The first one is a reflection on how I was in a space of the feminine, I was in a place men don’t go—it’s where women try on their bridal costumes. Being a girl, she’s inheriting this way of things—she’s simply part of it and she has to rise up to it. In a sense, the things that happen in the bridal shop, the personal narratives, they’re all written by women, and written by women who, for most of them, were not even born in the US. This photo is about people understanding that part of their function is to have a certain relationship with family, and family has to do with not only helping others but carrying on some kind of tradition.
The other [photograph] is about my own estrangement. If you’re sitting next to a table of people playing cards, and you’re not playing cards, they’ll always look at you suspiciously, right? You could help them cheat or tell somebody on the other side the cards that somebody on your side is holding—you know what I mean? If you’re not part of that game, if you don’t take on the rules of that game, you’ll never be accepted. I see that as a metaphor for me being allowed into this space. I [wasn’t] really given a chance to be a part of the conversation. Nobody invited me to play cards, I didn’t try and belong in that sense, or try and wise up to them and pretend to be something I was not. I kept my otherness because it was true. Those people are there making a living and I was there observing; it’s a very different point of view.
If you look at the text that underlines the book, you’ll see that I’m making connections to my own personal history as somebody who was taken out of [Portugal] when I was small, returning here some years later, and then went out again. I then came to the US, then back to Portugal, then went to Italy. I was always dealing with difference, [both] cultural difference and personal difference. My references were always off. As a teenager, I’d go out with friends, I’d imagine telling jokes that nobody laughs at because they had a different register. Nothing bad ever happened to me [because of that difference], but there’s a question of having to come to terms with the fact that I am applying to the world around me different kinds of [learned] rules. You can’t get rid of them. You can’t say, “I know rationally I’m not supposed to deduct things this way in this context.” Your mind does it for you. There was a lot more rationalization of that going on than [for] somebody who is always living in the same country, or always sharing the same set of values.
The Indy: How has your relationship to your work changed as your relationship to place has changed? Is this relationship the same as your relationship to Providence and the Portuguese community here?
PL: That’s a great question, and something that I’m still trying to deal with myself. There’s something in this work that is really fundamental—my connection to language. I learned to read and write first in English, and then moved back to Portugal. I had never written until this moment [of making The Club]. Until 2010, I had never sat down to write. I’d write stuff for school, but I never imagined that it could be for my work. One of the effects of coming back to Portugal was that, being away from English, I simply stopped writing. I have done one project with writing since The Club, but somehow it did not make sense for me to do everything here in Portuguese and then sit down and write in English.
In 2014, The Club was published in book form by a Portugese photo-book publisher. Since then, I’ve worked on a series of photographs that will appear in a show without any text, and I wrote a film script, which I’ve directed, that is all in Portuguese. That film script is performed by actors; I realized my own displacement issues have to take a back seat [in the project] because it is much more about the workings of language. [The project] doesn’t have to do with being in Portuguese or English, but more about the way I’m looking at photography’s relationship with fact and fiction, and writing’s relationship with truth and fiction. In the show that I’m having in May, I’ll be showing a set of pictures in one gallery, and in another, I’m projecting the film. People will be looking at the pictures, which are wholly factual, unmanipulated, and yet they’re completely removed from context and very misleading. In the film, they will see two well-known Portuguese actors in a scene in a bar, talking to each other, and yet everything they say is absolutely real and true.
Trying to answer your question, it simply became very difficult to keep an activity of writing in English making sense. That said, every book I’ve been reading for the past four or five years has been in English. The Club and being in Providence really gave me the space, both physical and intellectual, to look at how the work comes together, and how we are able to throw upon [a work] some kind of meaning as we inherit an interpretation of how we connect to it and to the world.