Photoessay: Life in Porto, part I

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I came away from Porto with a bit of strange feeling about Porto. From a distance, and on the opposite bank of the Douro, the old town looks charming and quaint, with a vibrant revival immediately around you. The sun is shining, the tourists are enjoying their wine tastings, and the locals are eager to please. Go back over, however, and a cloud seems to settle; edifices that appeared charmingly quaint are really decaying very badly and somewhere between neglected and derelict. There are few locals left, and those who are are very elderly and not in much better shape than the buildings. Smiles are absent. Tourists are tolerated or seen as targets. It is altogether a very different Porto from The Other Side. It seemed to me that most of the locals inhabited a sort of zone between the two – a monotonous grey transience between the two states of decay and forced tourist joviality. They lived lives subservient to their environment and took what little joy where they could find it – a drink here, a smoke there, a bit of sun when it showed. It honestly felt a bit sad. These are the impressions I left with of life in Porto. MT

Shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C and 28, 100 and 50mm lenses except for one image, which was shot with a Leica Q. Postprocessing was with the Monochrome Masterclass Workflow.

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  1. As an English man living in Porto, actually I won’t comment… I’m neither a local, a native nor a tourist, so my Porto reality will be driven by my own experiences, which you’ll neither get by visiting or by being Portuguese!

    I’ve been made to feel very welcome, (neighbors insisting I eat with them, Porto residents meeting me for coffee, showing me the best camera shops and vantage points, I’ve had watches regulated while I chat to the guy and there’s been no charge, stuff like that!)

    It’s a good series Ming. Yeah ok you went to see the Ribeira area and Foz and Sao Bento, like most do, but you also ventured into the darker places and they do exist. You’re not miss-selling anything here!!

    You did better than the Leica M-D launch video managed too 😉 😉 that video was odd, it sort of showed some voyage of discovery, like taking Leica to the simple town… I kept expecting someone who had just had a M-D shoved in their face to say ‘oh yes, that! We make that where I work !!!’ 🙂 🙂 🙂

    As a final point… Really much of Europe is not the power it once was a 100 years ago, or even 40, just in some locations you can see and feel that fact a little more vividly.

    You’ve some great shots in the Porto flickr album btw, it’s not all wabi and gloom at all, but even where it is… The pride still exists

    • I’m sure it’s different if you have a chance to get embedded – same case everywhere. And there are little pockets that are exceptions either way, and without knowing any better, one just wanders through and sees what there is to see. Actually, what surprised me with Porto was the variation in mood between the different areas of the city – it’s really quite a stark difference, and persisted on different days. Makes me wonder if there’s some other local context there which I’m missing.

      As for camera launches…for some reason, no company can seem to get them right; there’s nothing but really mediocre samples or lifestyle crap most of the time…sadly, the photography gets left on the sidelines too often.

  2. bill walter says:

    You’ve always had a way with black & white. Nice set! I especially like the 3rd to the last one where the 2 guys are glaring at each other from across the street. There seems to be a deeper story there.

    • Thanks Bill. There were some words briefly shouted, though whether in confrontation or recognition I had no idea (since I don’t speak Portuguese).

  3. Strong imagery there Ming. Also the fact the images actually illustrates very well your feelings of being in Porto for some days.
    Anyways looking forward to work the images up I have from there. I’m terrible behind.

  4. Coisas EM'adeira says:

    Mr Ming,
    First, My personal disclaimer: Porto is the town were I was born! Now I live around 50kms from Lisbon.
    Second, I’m sorry I was unable to join you in Lisbon or in Porto, even I can’t afford to take a master-class with you, I would love to shake your hand in person!
    As usually, your images ‘show me’ some of your way of looking and perhaps some of your ‘personal feelings’ on those locations with I appreciate very much. So Thank You for that!
    As a side note, because of the economic crisis in the last years in Portugal we had a negative population growth tax and thousands left the country searching for a sustainable life.
    So yes, Portuguese in general are kind of melancholic, we have ‘Fado’ in our veins, but also in the last years for the majority, life has been very very rough around here.
    Porto has always been a more ‘grey type of city’ by the weather but also a much more welcome population, better food, and people used to actually live in the city until a few years. This year the ‘city hall’ is trying to bring people again to live in the city.
    So if you ever came again I’m sure you’ll have a totally different experience.
    Did you eat a “francesinha”?
    Did you saw “Senhora da Pedra”? – from across the river

    Sorry for the long text, I couldn’t restrain myself 🙂
    All the best to you sir and your family!

    • Thanks Antonio. For some odd reason my impression of Porto was always one of adventure and color – perhaps because of the seafaring history – but it was so different in reality, so somber, that these were the images that really represented my own mood there. I don’t claim for it to be accurate or truthful – in reality, all photography is biased – but I do believe it’s faithful to my (short) experience…

  5. I visited Lisbon many years ago (during the first financial crisis) and got a similar impression. There was the modern and lively tourist center, but wander outside of it and you’re immediately hit with decay and feeling much less secure. Tiled walls are falling apart, graffiti is prevalent, well kept houses are guarded by aggresive dogs, etc. Surely a lot to photograph, but I didn’t even have a point-and-shoot back then, so all I got was a slightly depressed feeling.

    Nice images, btw – very classic MT style but I think it has improved over time. I can see that your new toy lends itself to very film-like tones 😉

    • Thanks – yes, it’s the dynamic range talking…easier to get that kind of tonality when you’ve got both lots of latitude and well-tuned highlight response. The images have actually been sitting for several months in the curation/maturation stage, and I landed up changing the order and content quite a lot, which is unusual for me. Much of the B roll went back in…

  6. Isn’t this melancholic outlook very typical of the Portuguese? It is reflected in other ways of their life. Fado, their music comes to mind. I find that they are very strong people with a realistic, but not pessimistic outlook onto life. They were a great seafarer nation. Many buildings stem from that time. Those maritime times are long past. But they have retained an openness to life and other cultures that is quite remarkable within Europe. I have Portuguese friends and these are just some thoughts that come to my mind. The middle class and families btw mostly live in the suburbs. This explains the shift to elderly people you observed in the inner city.

    • Terry B says:

      Knut, a very informed assessment. We see what we see, or what we want to see. I’m not sure how optimistic a nation can be with youth unemployment, that is within the EU defined as 25 years old and below, running at 30%, and in the context of a total population of just over 10 million. Is it any wonder that this disenchanted part of its society may find it difficult to smile at a tourist? They do, though. This is part and parcel of their warm stoic nature and which is, unfortunately, missing from these images.

    • Absolutely right Knut. Porto (and Portugal) are much more than that. Ming had little time to visit it and almost only saw what usually tourists see. Porto and the area have all kind of people like everywhere else. Portugal is not a rich country, it’s a country that’s being ruined by politicians for a long time, but the people live their lives, they go on vacations, they send their kids to school and they go to restaurants. I’m Portuguese, I lived 57km from Porto for almost 40 years.

      • Well, I’m glad to hear it – because it would be a shame otherwise. Given I only had eight shooting days in total, I didn’t have much latitude to explore or live as a local; I think what really reinforced my impression of depression was the return train from Porto being delayed for several hours as we hit a suicide jumper on the way out through a very run down part of the city…

    • You might be right – fado is very strongly embedded and really can be quite depressing in some ways, but deeply emotional (as opposed to the shallow outward hysteria of some other countries…)

      I was told later on the situation with real estate is that the purchase cost is cheap due to some arcane laws fixing rental; however, properties that have to be rehabilitated must be done in as close to the period style as possible, and that costs a fortune…

  7. Stefano says:

    these images really capture the melancholic mood of Porto’s locals.
    Without any doubt, monochrome is the best way to convey this kind of feelings.

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