‘When I See Lisbon’

A photographer living in Portugal tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite pictures.

By / February 2012

When I was a 14 year old in Geneva, Switzerland, photography was a solitary pursuit, especially when I locked myself in the bathroom in the afternoons.

Imagine a family with three children in a little apartment and a young teenager blocking bathroom access for two hours, with black adhesive tape everywhere, a wood board on the bath tube and a bunch of stinking chemicals. For me, a pure miracle each time, for the rest of the family, one irritating eccentricity. But, let’s be fair, they let me take my first steps in photography.

My pictures are documents. I am documenting something with my own interpretation. I’m not showing what doesn’t exist. I’m not twisting reality. I’m telling things as I see it.

This is why I’m drawn to demonstrations, like the one that crunched the streets near the parliament in Lisbon on a Saturday in mid-October last year. A lot of street life in current days is demonstration. It’s a rare situation where people are natural and express themselves.

Night was falling. It was near the end of the demonstration. I was walking back to my car. I saw an officer on the parliament steps above me.

The situation was tense, but this policeman seemed very calm and arrogant, as though he was superior to the mass of some 40,000 people protesting below. It was as though he was looking at the people, with democracy disappearing behind him.

Gérald Verdon, 53, says photography is a way to connect with people on the volatile streets of Lisbon.

Some people talk about entering their own world when they take photographs. They get behind their camera and try to make themselves disappear. Not me. I like to stay engaged with the people I’m photographing.

To do this, I carry a Leica M8. It has the look and feel of an old-fashioned camera and is easy to carry around. It’s not what I call a “monster” camera. It won’t intimidate or frighten. If anything, it’s compact and reassuring.

I hold the viewfinder over my right eye but I make sure my left eye is exposed. I want them to see me as I look through the camera. It shows them I’m not hiding behind the camera. It’s a way to overcome my shyness.

I don’t think there is such a thing as objectivity. I’m clearly on the left side of the political wing. But let me tell you something: I love Fox News. They’re honest. They say what they think. They are who they are.

I want to do the same with my photography. I like the liberty to play with irony or sarcasm. The photographer, like the cartoonist, needs freedom to show things. That’s why I don’t sell my work as a photojournalist (it doesn’t sell very well, anyway). It’s more for interest than income.

When I see Lisbon, I see a city that is clearly declining, that has been abandoned by politicians. We’re not Detroit yet, but we’re getting closer. Shops are closing. There are thousands of abandoned buildings. The city feels a lot sadder and dirtier than when I moved here with my wife 21 years go. That day on the streets during the protest amplified this feeling.

I want thought-provoking content, not mere form. To be precise, I don’t advocate that artistic expression should be controlled by political or ideological goals; I just recall a simple idea, often rejected by “conceptual” artists, which implies that art is interpretation of reality and not merely a neutral exhibition of nature.

I suppose that’s why I like black and white photography. It demands more of the viewer. You have to make your own interpretation of the photography. It’s not reality as you see it every time. There is a representation of something and you have to work to find out of what. Color is less powerful in this way.

You have to be sure of what you are doing or you don’t take good pictures. This can be a challenge for me. I’m a shy person. It’s difficult to approach people. Sometimes I have to warm up.

Nothing has been better than photography in helping me confront my fear. My life is a story of overcoming this shyness. Unlike my afternoons in the darkroom, safe and secluded, I’ve learned to be comfortable walking the streets of Lisbon, even amid protests, with my camera in hand.

My brain is made for photography. And, to a certain extent, I suppose you could say photography has made me. I tend to be suspicious of the human species, and photography has helped me bond with people, in their reality, on the streets. I miss it when I’m not there.


— as told to Brandon Hoops