Painted Portraits


As a child growing up in Brazil I used to spend the summer holidays with my paternal grandmother. Her wooden house was very simple but in the seating room area, occupying a proud place were a few big photographs that fascinated me with their painterly quality.

I spent long time looking and admiring them, specially the one of aunt Maria who I have never met but whose frozen youth and beauty in the picture contrasted with her sad early death in child birth. There was also my dad with a fresh face in an army uniform and my grandparents wearing clothes and a youth I did not recognize.

Before computer generated images or even color photography, painters used to offer their services to families wanting color in their photo portraits. Black-and-white images were not considered exciting enough. To have color images of yourself and relatives, was a symbol of status and a dream come true. The artists offering their services could make you look young, wear expensive clothes and jewellery you did not possess and even bring your dead back to life.

In the digital era this is now a dying way of making portraits but some of them have been celebrated in a recent book by Martin Parr so can be seen by people around the world. “Retratos Pintados” by Parr and Nazraeli Press.

For this project, together with the London based charity All Change, I invited two distinct groups to create work with me. They were asylum seekers clients of the NRPF group (No Resource to Public Funds) and participants of Inspire, a group of young parents.

We looked into different styles of portraiture-from paintings by the “old Masters” to contemporary photographs. We visited galleries including the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London and discussed different images.

Inspired by the “Painted Portraits” tradition we then set out to create our own portraits of individual participants and their families.

Most members of the NRPF group did not have images from their past having come to this country with little in terms of possessions.

For the young mothers being able to create beautiful images during pregnancy and with their children encouraged them to feel less self-conscious and to celebrate their transition to motherhood.

The portraits taken by me were made in traditional studio sessions with the other members of the group helping out in the photography and lighting side of things.

The resulting black and white portraits were then printed on watercolor paper. In “painting” workshops each individual added color to their own chosen portrait in the traditional manner of those Brazilian vernacular ones. People that had never played with paint and brushes got involved with trepidation at first but grew excited with the results. With my support they added artifacts, personal objects, different color or more voluminous hair, veils and headpieces, colorful backgrounds, flowers and patterns that did not exist before.

The participants in the project so far-young parents and people from around the world, seeking to make a home in London-often experience negative portrayals in the media and can be reluctant to be photographed. The “Painted Portraits” project aims at encouraging the participants to create images, which enable them to take control of how they want to be seen. Together we created powerful portraits while encouraging a discussion and debate about representation, perception dignity and pride.

In an era of image overload this one single image becomes unique with each personal intervention


THIS IS AN ONGOING PROJECT started in partnership with All Change Arts

Site by Adrian Toll