Interview with Bruno Oliveira
We met up with the young photographer and visual storyteller Bruno Oliveira to talk about his life, his practice, his inspirations and upcoming projects. The Brussels-based artist has shown work in group exhibitions in Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands and Portugal. His latest shows include Mirror of Self at Hangar Photo Art Center in Brussels (2023), Sticky Flames at Casino Display in Luxembourg city (2022) and Brave New World - Triennale Jeune Création at Casino in Luxembourg city (2020).
Can you start by introducing yourself and explaining when and how your passion for photography started?
I am Bruno Oliveira, I was born in Portugal and I am currently based in Luxembourg.
I will tell you a bit about my life story as it is relevant to my work. My mom was only 14 when she was pregnant with me. My biological father, my mother and I moved to Brussels soon after I was born. Then my parents decided to move to Luxembourg as my biological father had family living here. It didn’t work out between the two of them so they separated shortly after. My mother ended up raising me as a single mother when she was still a minor. We lived in relatively poor financial conditions. After a while she found a job and met my stepfather. Things then started to get better for us. School was always important for both of them especially because my mother didn’t get the chance to finish school. I studied paramedics in high school and then decided to become an educator.
When it comes to photography, I was always fascinated by it, as I barely have any childhood pictures - my mom couldn’t afford a camera back then. In third grade I received my first camera as a gift for my communion and then at eighteen I got a DSRL camera from my parents. Back then I wanted to become a fashion photographer. In 2014 and 2016 I participated in RTL Télé Lëtzebuerg’s TV show ‘Generation Art’, where artists completed creative challenges on a weekly basis. The 2016 show was dedicated to photography and I was named the winner.
After participating at Generation Art for the first time, I left my job as an educator to pursue studies in photography and visual arts at the renowned Brussels art school ENSAV La Cambre. Everyone told me that it would be difficult to get into ENSAV La Cambre but I gave it a try. In the end I was one of the 10 selected candidates out of 120 applicants. I really enjoyed the programme and after finishing I realised that I do have a place in the art world and became confident in my work.
Bruno Oliveira, From the series 'Back to Neverland', 2019 - 2021
Can you tell us a bit about your work?
In my work I focus on different groups of people and their stories. I photograph my family, friends and surroundings to which I feel drawn to in order to keep a vivid memory of them.
I would describe my work as documentary but lately I am more and more shifting towards fantastic/surreal photos especially since my series ‘Back to Neverland’. I seek to visualise real life stories in a poetic way.
What do you enjoy about photography?
To be honest I struggle expressing myself orally or in writing. This is why photography has always been a good medium of communication for me. In a certain way, photography allows me to escape from reality, while giving me the opportunity to keep a trace of my life, something I didn’t have in my childhood.
I aspire to be a visual storyteller. I narrate different stories through my photographs and I hope other people can identify with them and that it helps them to see the world differently.
Moreover, I really love archives, I could spend hours browsing old photos and I am always curious to know the stories behind each of them.
Bruno Oliveira, From the series 'Orgulho', 2016 - 2017
Bruno Oliveira, Stranger looking over the village, 2018, 42x59,4cm - 1cm additional white border
Edition of 5, Hahnemühle fine art print, €400, work available on Murmur
Bruno Oliveira, From the series 'Cor Morna', 2018 - 2019
How has your work evolved over time?
I could probably say that the main evolution I could point out is the use of light and its importance in my works.
Recently, one of my sources of inspiration has been baroque paintings by Caravaggio and other great artists, which led me using the chiaroscuro technique to create a strong contrast between light and dark. I can’t take a photograph anymore without using some kind of light, be it a camera flash, a flashlight or other sources of light.
My latest series of works are more dreamy and surreal. These might look like staged photographs but they are very real to me. Everything in these photos have a meaning: the location where the pictures are being shot, what the person is wearing, how they are placed in the photograph etc. I try to transmit real experiences through these photographs, and I hope that the viewers of my work can point that out.
Bruno Oliveira, From the series 'House of Junior', 2022
Bruno Oliveira, Herman looking for a bright future, 2021, 42x59,4cm - 1cm additional white border
Edition of 5,Hahnemühle fine art print, €400, work available on Murmur
You work mainly in series of photographs which each tell their own stories. Can you explain why and how do you come up with the ideas for your different series?
I always work with series because I rarely take photos without having an idea beforehand, and these series narrate this idea and story. It sometimes happens but then I am not sure where to place these photos.
The ideas for my series come from my own experiences, my past and my travels. Through my work I am always in search of my own identity. I often try to transform the sad things in life into something beautiful.
What I also enjoy doing is placing elements or objects which appeared in older photo series into my new photos. A bit like the hidden Mickeys or Disney Easter eggs.
Bruno Oliveira, From the series 'House of Junior', 2022
Can you tell us more about your latest series of work ’Tales of Junior’ which combines photography and text and tackles the topics of identity and gender?
The idea for ‘Tales of Junior’ came to me during my residency in Kaunas, Lithuania last year (H - The notion of humanist photography with Jim Goldberg). Another artist at the residency mentioned that children's books with LGTQIA+ content were seen as harmful and sometimes even censored in some Eastern European countries. I was so shocked that I came up with the idea of creating my own children’s book, ‘Tales of Junior’. Junior comes from the fact that my mom always wanted to call me Junior but my biological father didn’t think it was masculine enough.
During my residency I somehow didn’t manage to photograph people for this project as they seemed a bit distant to the idea of the project and didn’t want to be photographed. But I really wanted to start working on this idea during my residency so I started listening to a lot of pop songs by icons such as Lady Gaga - who have always inspired me. I then decided to write a text about how I and some other people have experienced queerness.
Coming back from Lithuania I didn’t have any photos for the project. So, I told some friends about it and showed them the text. They then shared their personal stories, which then inspired the photos and its setting.
I also drew the cover and the drop caps in watercolours with a Disney inspired font called ‘Enchanted’.
During the past years you have created several video works. What do you enjoy about this medium?
I enjoy working with video and I will surely continue working with this medium. When my biological father left us, the only thing he left was the TV, so I could watch Mickey Mouse. This TV was the first link to video I had.
While growing up my mom and I used to watch reality shows like ‘Secret Story’ and ‘Star Academy’. She always thought that participating in one of these shows was an easy way to become famous and make money. She actually wanted me to become a celebrity, hence the reason why I always hoped and dreamed about being on TV. It became reality when I participated in the - previously mentioned - reality show ‘Generation Art’ and won the competition which turned out to be a very emotional moment for my mom and I.
This medium somehow always triggered something in me. For ‘Sanfins’ I really had the urge to take a video of the village I was born in and to show how this place is and how the lives of people living there are. This was my first short film.
Sanfins presented during the exhibition 'Mirror of Self' at Hangar Photo Art Center in Brussels in 2023
© Diego Crutzen
© Diego Crutzen
I am also currently working on a new video work together with Ana Filipa Martins. The videos were shot with my parents’ 20 year old video camera. We have been very inspired by Portuguese pop music videos from the 80s, which came out after the dictatorship and were very provocative.We somehow wanted to pay tribute to these singers and filmed ourselves in the villages we were born in, in the quest for our own identities. In the video we also created our own rhythm which always comes back during the video - a clapping that you often hear in Portuguese music. We are currently editing and hope to present it as an immersive installation very soon. We want to show this work to a larger public.
What inspires you?
Songs that have influenced my life. I listen to the lyrics and find the similarities with my life, and in some cases these songs inspired the titles of my works.
And of course, photographers I admire, such as Alec Soth, David La Chapelle and Pierre & Gilles. I always told myself that my work is somewhere between Alec Soth and Pierre & Gilles’ works. Alec Soth’s work is more documentary, traditional and coveys people’s stories and Pierre & Gilles’ work is more fantastic, queer and plays with light.
Also, my work wouldn’t be the same, if I wouldn’t have my boyfriend, Herman. He has helped me a lot in my work. Without him I would have never come so far. Also my friends and family are a big inspiration for me.
What are you currently working on?
I will present my work during this year’s European Month of Photography which will focus on the theme ‘Rethinking identity’. My work will be part of two group shows, one at Neimenster and the other at MNHA in Luxembourg city.