Photoessay: Lisboan melancholy

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Despite the sunniness of the weather and the outward happiness and enjoyment of most, there was definitely something brewing under the surface: a slight undercurrent of unhappiness or unease. Perhaps a reflection of an economy still not fully robust and recovered, or a city that felt a little bit too big for the number of actual residents; quiet lanes and grand old buildings that had seen better days that were waiting for restitution that might not come. Or uncertainty over the future, mortgages, employment, the rising costs of living – the social divide that’s not unique by any means to Lisbon. Or maybe it was just because the next day was Monday. It’s the juxtaposition between that mood, the facial expressions, the body language, the dress as though expecting rain – and the wonderful warm sunshine that I found so intriguing. That tension followed me subconsciously through the city that day, and here is the result…MT

This series was shot mostly with a Hasselblad H5D-50c, 50mm and 100mm lenses in Lisbon, Portugal, with a couple of supporting images from a Leica Q. Postprocessing follows Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow III and The Weekly Workflow.

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


More info on Hasselblad cameras and lenses can be found here.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. I was late getting to this photoessay from you, sorry. After viewing the images, I immediately thought of This Gulf of Fire, a fascinating book on the Lisbon quake of 1755.

    Highly recommend it, if somehow you ever found the time. Maybe on a plane somewhere….

    Very frustrating to read that the mystery extreme low tides preceding tsunamis were heavily documented, even after the Lisbon quake.

  2. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:
  3. Portugal has always been a melancholic country, with good or bad economy. Listen to a “fado” or read Pessoa. Personally, with all due respect, I don’t think your pictures reflect any special sadness or melancholy. Maybe you felt it (I insist, Portugal has always been like that, like Northwest Spain), but I don’t see it in your pictures. If something, the light you caught is very white, dry and sort of metallic, what makes some pictures too cold and clinical. They are good photos, and I appreciate your work a lot, although this time I see some gap between topic and style. It’s like a very modern asian style applied to an old european city, and there is some collision there. Excuse me again for the uncalled criticism, and thanks again for showing your always interesting work..

    • Melancholy, apathy, indifference, clinicality – aren’t they all different stops on the same continuum?

      • Thanks Ming for your response, I really appreciate it. No, I don’t think they are different stops of the same continuum. Your photos of Lisbonne are a continuum of your personal style, very prone to crispynnes, sharp focus, cold palette, compositional use of man-made geometry and luminous colors. That style works well with modernity, angled constructions and Asian lights. (South) European cities, old cities (not Frankfurt or some partes of London i.e.), are very different, with irregular buildings lacking clean lines. Lights are more irregular and usually streets (in the South of Europe) are packed with visual distractions at the pedestrian level (lots of advertising, etc. Of course you can also find irregularity in Asia packed districts, but visual patterns and light are more regular over there. And my impression is that your photos are kind of cold (clinical) also in that ambiance (japanese streets, for instance (as far as I have seen)). I think your style is great (more even so your technique), but for some reason your style overimposed itself to the topic instead of flowing more with it, in the case of Lisbone. I can be wrong, I can be very subjective or off topic, but nonetheless I admire your work the same. These are just small opinions, much smaller than your pictures and style, and probably you should not take them into consideration. Thanks again.

  4. Beautiful shots, especially the third one. I completely understood your feelings about the ‘unhappiness’ you sensed there. And yes, the economic crisis in the southern parts of Europe may contribute to that. Although it might be possible, that you may have gotten quite similar feelings, if the economy would run. It’s just the quietness and body language which differs a lot from, say, Spanish or Italian people. If you like, you can compare your experience with the ones, I made in november last year. The light was also bright and sunny, then.

  5. Great series. I love how the reds get stronger from left to right in the first image. I guess you also could say something about the man has crutches and sitting next to a fire hydrant(both helpful utilities)

  6. Reflects the gradual diminution of vitality in the EU … you are used to the bustle of KL and its economic success.

    Socialism tends to set a much slower pace … as nothing much will get accomplished.

    For a vacation spot a great place to slow down … not a place that I would want to work or live if I had to build a career.


    • KL is hardly what I’d call economic success – we and Singapore started out at roughly the same place at independence in 1957, and look at the gap today; it’s mostly just second-tier mediocrity and me-too. Similar comments with KL, actually: nice to visit, but hell to make a career in because you’re trying to fight inertia and extreme risk-averseness. I do think Lisbon was better to photograph, though 🙂

  7. Bill Walter says:

    Reminiscent of your Hanoi photographs, but not quite as moody. A city deep in thought. The shot that for me really stands out is #9. The height of the shot capturing the entire window works well. Wine, cigarettes and serious conversation. What more could you ask for? I’m also fond of photo #10 which works on a similar level.

  8. Well, after all their national tune is Fado, a tearful sound of melancholy itself.
    look at you all
    I look at the world
    And I notice it’s turning
    While my camera gently weeps
    (With) every mistake
    We must surely be learning
    Still my camera gently weeps

  9. I’m sorry that Lisbon has such a depressing effect on you, perhaps, as you say it is the apparent contradiction between the way so many people are dressed and the brilliant sunshine. I have visited the city over a number of years with my last visit being this April and while still down at heel in many parts what I see is the rebirth of the cit;, you must have been to the Time Out Market and the whole of the surrounding area is decidedly on the up. Either way, as you show Lisbon is full of potential for the photographer and I look forward to my next visit!

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