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January 26, 2024


Photography by Valeria Cunha
Interview by Karen Ghostlaw

Valeria Cunha is a vibrant Portuguese photographer that embarked on her adventures in visual storytelling in 2019. Valeria was born on a small Island in the Azores, fueling her wild spirit and igniting her curiosity for the unknown. She was a child with an infinity of imagination. The isolation growing up on the island gave her a true sense of independence, she became a quiet observer of life around her. Valeria has the ability to travel between the world of imagination and reality, between London and Lisbon, between an island and somewhere else in the world. Her images provoke this sense of play, while taunting you to play along.

The street captivates Valeria, inspiring her to find order in the chaos, while focusing our attention on details that express emotion. Her photography makes interesting relationships and connections through dynamic compositions. This surreal and conceptual approach brings a bit of mystery to her image, allowing the viewer to participate and draw their own conclusions. Valeria embraces colour as well as black and white, finding purpose and meaning in their applications.

“Photography is a different dimension of me, my vessel of expression and creativity, how I feel the moments, the world, life. I like to tell stories, convey emotions, to capture singularity. Hopefully my images are strong enough to unlock feelings, to make the viewer question and dream.”

Valeria’s brilliant photography that we share today is a dark and mysterious series exploring black and white photography and the genre of Film Noir. She explores how the French merged urban realism with working class romance, shadowed with politics, producing some of cinema’s most mysterious fatal fantasies.

“I was also inspired by the film noir concept, providing and adding a narrative of an intricate plot, a feel of suspense, that something is about to happen, of mysterious and forbidden lovers encounters, with an underlying classic moody darkness. Working this way gives me a purpose and definitely supports the creative process. There are also days that I just go out and try to capture singularity.”


THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Valeria, we are excited about your interview and are looking forward to learning more about you and your inspiring work. Please tell us what draws you to photography? What inspires you about street photography?

Valeria: Photography was the means within the art world that I found to express myself outside of my professional life. Most of the time I say I’m a photographer by chance, due to the circumstances of moving to a different country and finding a hobby that would be complementary to the exploration of a new city…but, if I’m honest it was on the back of my mind for several years and I just kept delaying it. I was clearly very visual from a very young age, painting, photography, art in general, and cinema grabbed my attention, aside from the fact that I was also an ardent reader.

As a book lover I used to write short stories, but for me the materialisation into an image was missing, photography was the ideal choice to create visual stories, in which the absence of words was irrelevant. Places and people always fascinated me, as a keen observer with a natural curiosity and sensitivity, feeling and documenting a city, a particular moment, capturing the lifestyle, the socioeconomics, was almost irresistible. Street photography was the natural choice when I moved to London. It allowed me to build bridges between my vision and the community, to comprehend the social richness and diversity of London. It was the beginning of a long dialogue between my inner self and the place I was settling in. I fell in love with London, its daily rich intricate stories, the thrill of capturing the tear in the continuum that allows to freeze the singularity. Stereophotography is an exchange between the artist and the places you are at the moment, you capture what the people, the stories, the social context gives you, and then you process it and transform it within who you are, your vision and artistic style. Photography became my happy place, my meditation, it makes me feel alive, vibrant, allows me to connect with where and the people I encounter.

TPL: Explain for our readers, your approach to photography, your critical and creative thought process that helps you create your dynamic body of work.

Valeria: When I started this journey, I made sure I would learn the rules of composition, study the master's and big references not only in the photography world, but also in art in general, always with the thought that to break the rules, first you have to learn them. I also made the decision that as this would be my way of expression, I didn’t want to follow trends and or limited myself.

You see, I don’t believe art can be chained to narrow rules, trends and boxes. Creativity is a wild animal that needs freedom to grow and be unique, and if you are always worried if the capture you are taking falls into what someone decided is a special gender, you are just executing something defined by others.

For me experimenting is key and what keeps my passion burning, which means I will always use different methods, without worrying of having a particular style that would be instantly recognisable. I want photography to be a place where I convey how I feel the streets, the cities, the moments, the people. Stereophotography is an interchangeable experience between the artist and the moments you capture and the subjects, so when I do it I bring all that I have, including the mood and emotions of the day, even if they are dark.

On the other hand, I like to work on projects or series, it can be a story I create and try to capture images alongside the line of thought, usually it develops and changes along the process. Sometimes I choose a place like the Paris noir series. Initially was to be named as ‘Une nuit à Paris’ but then the concept got a bit broader. I made the decision that these series would be in B&W, with a classic and temporal feel, inspired by Brassai and film noir concepts. something outside my comfort zone. These series portray the way I feel and see Paris, as a once vibrant hub of brilliant minds and artists that would get together to discuss ideas, and new ways of making art. I like the mysterious side of Paris, of places that you go back in time, and its classic look. Working this way gives me a purpose and definitely supports the creative process. There are also days that I just go out and try to capture singularity.

TPL: Colour can take one on a journey, what does red mean to you in your work? You saturate the viewer bringing them into the moment.

Valeria: My primary body of work is colour. The choice of colour is always part of the composition, setting the mood, the atmosphere, a complement to the story, strengthening and providing depth to the narrative. Red is one of my favorite colours, I’m naturally drawn to strong and saturating hues. Red for me conveys strong emotions and builds character. It's indisputably powerful, it’s full of passion, it’s provocative, full of love, embodies strength, sensuality, but also seeds anger, war, conflict, blood. It’s the opposite of neutral, sweetness, indifference.

When I see in red, I’m sculpting the way the viewer reads the image. I'm inviting the viewer to immerse themselves into the deepness of sensations and emotions that red unlocks. Red is to be wrapped up in the emotional whirl and in charge of the capture to reflect the intensity in the moment. I'm also being provocative by driving an emotional response. Red helps to strengthen the subject, empowering the dynamics of the scene.

One day I made a mini poll asking my followers if red unlocked positive or negative feelings, interesting enough the answers were 50% 50%. Images in which red is used are most of the times very compelling.

TPL: Besides a demanding day job, you curate a number of brilliant hubs and offer your expertise across multiple platforms. Tell us about this work and what you feel it brings to your own photography. How do you find balance? Is balance important to you?

Valeria: True, I have my career and professional life, that can be both demanding and absorbent. Photography is the balance, the complement, my other side, a different Valeria. Balance is key to create, you need to find the time and space to let your mind dwell and imagine. I find balance by organizing my time, thinking and planning in advance, otherwise it would be very challenging.

Being a curator started with a recommendation from a dear follower to a hub. I was hesitant at first, because to accept it, I had to do a good job and I knew I had to commit and stretch myself to find and promote good work/artists.

As a curator I have to do a lot of research, so I'm exposed to an immense variety of styles, and images. I find it fascinating and inspiring to see so many great artists and what they are producing, in a way I learn, because I study the techniques they use, the methodology, angles, etc. It widens my horizons and makes me humble simultaneously. Additionally, it is very inspiring to find so much variety and different approaches to art.

TPL: Can you describe the creative process involved with the capturing of your photographs? Where do you find your inspiration?

Valeria: I’m a sponge, I absorb a lot, and everything inspires me, music, books, cinema, people, other artists and photographers. I make sure I bring my emotional state to the work, if it’s darker that’s what I will capture, if it’s brighter it will be reflected in the stories. People’s lives inspire me, what’s behind an expression, a subtle gesture, a look, them in a specific place.

When I go out, I’m part of the streets, I immerse myself in it, I open up to the energy around me. Some days I’m more sensitive and aware of weird dynamics and momentums, others I create the context and scenario and wait for the right moment to happen. As I said previously, I don’t follow a rigid method, I believe being flexible and adjusting to the circumstances is key to producing work. Sometimes I decide to learn a new technique, for example, double exposure and I go out just to shoot in that mode. I like to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone.

Most of the time I shoot solo, photography for me is an intimate and personal experience that requires focus, stillness to observe, energy to be sharp and quick. It doesn’t mean I don’t join groups or go out with a fellow photographer that I get along with, usually someone that inspires me.

Additionally, I learned to love night photography, darkness and night changes the scenario completely, it’s when all the wildness comes out, where you find the most compelling moments. London is the perfect city to shoot at night, it is so rich and vibrant, everything can happen.

TPL: You support a lot of women and their photography, why is this so important to you? If you could achieve one thing for women in photography, what would that be?

Valeria: This subject is always very controversial and prone to argumentative discussions, in the sense that in our day's inequality is inexistent, which I’m not totally convinced is reflective of reality and how we experience it.

Although I’m very inclusive and don’t believe in segregation or specific spaces for genders, I understand why some women hubs were created. As a woman naturally I’m more sensitive to our struggles, and there are some. Street was initially very male dominated, so we had to find our space, our uniqueness within this gender. Fortunately, we now see a lot of women doing street photography, showing the world through their lens with all their creativity. I believe women brought a different approach and ‘eye’ to the street, where the human subject has a special predominance alongside layering and complexity.

However, who is behind the camera, man or woman is irrelevant, there is no specific style for women or men, and there shouldn’t be expectations for a more feminine or masculine look associated with gender. For me the mark or goal would be to achieve a state where this conversation was no longer needed and overall experiences and feelings of inequality were a mere drop in the ocean.

I’m a sponge, I absorb a lot, and everything inspires me, music, books, cinema, people, other artists and photographers.

TPL: What do you want your photographs to inspire in other people? What is their “takeaway”? What is your takeaway?

Valeria: This is a difficult one, because when I shoot I’m not thinking necessarily about the impact or how it’s going to be perceived by others. I would like people to dream, compelling them to make their day a better one. I want to compel people to feel grasping the sole and essence of the moment, fully observing the scene and the city. I wish to make their mind wonder, unlocking emotions so they can fully experience that moment.

TPL: Do you find you rely on the serendipitous moment, finding the excitement in not knowing? Or do you have a formula that you can count on that helps your visual storytelling?

Valeria: I don’t have a rigid formula, maybe I have a preferred one that unlocks more my creative processes. I feel it develops in a more meaningful and deeper way, having a significant purpose and a link between scenes and subjects. However, I can also be very freestyle grabbing perfect moments as they happen. In both methods there’s always the unknown factor and improvisation, that’s what the streets bring, the unexpected and a less controlled environment.

TPL: What other photographers or artists have influenced you, and how? What impact have they made in the way you approach and create your work in photography, or curation, or both?

Valeria: I particularly like surrealism across the different artistic genres, whether it’s film, literature, painting and photography. The notion of different realms and realities happening in parallel, not matching real life, unlocks my senses and transports me to completely new dimensions, sometimes even in an uncomfortable way.

In terms of photographers, I’ve been buying a considerable number of books and love going to exhibitions whenever I can. I adore the classics, they were pioneers and created the genre, always a great reference to have and they are the usual suspects – Henri Cartier Bresson, Brassai, Vivian Maier, Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter, Alex Webb, on the other hand I like fashion related photographers as well.

TPL: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman photographer? Were you able to overcome them? What did you learn from them? What advice can you share with other women photographers out there?

Valeria: Every journey has ups and downs, challenging moments of self-doubt and if it makes sense to continue, of feeling stuck and breaking through a creative blockage. Sometimes, the hecticness of life does not allow you to focus on your hobbies and passions. In these situations, I give myself time, I take some breaks, focusing on different things to take the pressure off.

Photographing at night as a woman can be an interesting experience, sometimes I feel unsafe and that something unpleasant can happen. You just have to be smart about it, find a way of not getting into trouble, keep your senses sharp, choose wisely where to go, deal with the situations in a clever way.

Not sure if my personal experience differs a lot from men, I can say I’ve experienced unsolicited and unconstructive feedback and bad behavior. In these situations, I just remove my energy and move on. I also have my boundaries and there’s a clear line that is drawn. I don’t let difficulties, setbacks or obstacles that could demote me and stop me from doing what I like.

TPL: What would you like to focus our attention on in the coming months? Are there any short or long term goals or projects we can look forward to?

Valeria: I have a couple of projects in view, still in the embryonic phase of defining and designing the idea to advance and start working on it. I’m not ready to reveal the details quite yet because it is too early in its development.

These projects will require time, networking and some partnerships that I wasn’t able to progress last year. There's already some clear thought and options on the table, but it will depend on my availability and motivation. I plan to travel more next year to develop traveling and documentary photography.

TPL: When you’re not working, curating, and not capturing the world before you through a lens, what would we find Valeria doing?

Valeria: You will find Valeria traveling, on gigs, attending performances in the theatre, Opera, Contemporary dance, and always the cinema. I enjoy socialising with my family and friends, enjoying what life has to give.

Follow her portfolio link to experience Valeria’s Red Thread in full. See for yourself and find what emotions her images stir up in you. What side of the polls will you be on? Will you be filled with love and passion, or perhaps see anger or rage.

“I love red, I love strong colours, I love intensity, life is too short to be neutral, we only live once.
Red is opening yourself to the good and the bad, exposing you to all what life has to give you. Do you remember when you loved without fear? Do you remember when you ventured and experienced the world without fear? Red is the opposite of numbness.”

The Pictorial List is grateful for the in-depth interview Valeria has shared with us. She offers great insight and gives wonderful advice, while allowing the freedom to find your own way. Support Valeria by following her across all her platforms on Instagram. We look forward to watching her newest project she has on the horizon be realized and come into view for all of us to see and experience.

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