João Miguel Barros’s Photography Passion Develops Into First Macau Solo Exhibition

Between Gaze And Hallucination captures the philosophy of photography and its personal connection to the photographer


The Macau magazine Macau Tatler, text by Steve Crane
Mar 23, 2017


João Miguel Barros (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

With the ubiquity of smartphones, photography has become a skill that seems like everyone has—but when it comes to art a solid aesthetic sense is key.

Born in Lisbon and a resident of Macau for 30 years, João Miguel Barros is best known as a lawyer, yet his creative side was in focus at this first solo exhibition, Between Gaze And Hallucination, which ran at Creative Macau ( in March.

A limited edition of 333 photo books complements the exhibition but goes far beyond it (books can be purchased at Creative Macau or Livraria Portuguesa, Rua de S. Domingos, 16-18).

See also: Interview: Macanese Designer Calvin Sio

Showcasing 73 black and white photographs, the exhibition, in the words of its creator, “freeze the moment, certain moments that we may not even notice in our real lives, and try to project it and imbue it with an importance that allows the person seeing the final image to interpret it freely”.

In our interview with Barros, he speaks about this and other aspects of his innovative viewpoints on life and art.


Gaze-and-Hallucination-Tryptic-–-Print-3 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

As a creative choice, your black and white photography has a striking, timeless quality. Did you choose to use this form because a world without colour forces you (and the viewer) to see things differently? Or because black and white suggests an older, simpler, more romantic time? 

I don’t seek romanticism in my photography. I don’t even see the idea of the beautiful as an aesthetic option. I love having colours in my life, particularly some colours. I really do think that it would be a shame if we lived in a world without colour. We would surely lose a lot of the vibrancy and quality of life.

But colour is not one of the aesthetic choices that I bring to my photography. A black and white photograph has a much greater potential than a colour one to fix the essential in the message. The colour is, per se, a significant distraction.

In the black and white photograph, there is much more objectivity with regard to the theme or the object. This allows the viewer to focus on what is important in the picture and run much less risk of getting lost.

My choice to work in black and white is based on precisely this idea, on the rawness of pure black, which, when it comes down to it, is the total absence of colour, on the various shades of grey, on the contrast with the white and on the need to express myself through the essence of things.


Night-Vision-1-–-Print-B7 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

InfoTrends has estimated that in 2017 an estimated 1.2 trillion photos will be taken, largely by smartphones. With the broad mass appeal of photography, do images that evoke the past gain extra force and meaning?

Your question covers a number of issues that need to be separated out.

In the past, and I am not talking about all that long ago, the fact that not very many people took photographs meant that the images that they captured had a prominence and an impact on people that, if they were taken now, they probably wouldn’t have at all, or at least not so much.

The mass uptake of photography trivialised the moment, the instant. Even photographs of war and of horrors have become so trivialised that they have begun to have the perverse and terrifying effect of triggering little more than indifference. And the repetition of the same poses, of the same gestures, of the same scenes, have made everything so much the same that.

In all truthfulness, the modern photograph can’t compete with our photographic inheritance. Many of the photographs that are part of this human heritage form unique records. They were often taken by extraordinary people with the simplest of equipment and without access to the marvels of modern digital photography.

If you managed to see the great retrospective of Cartier-Bresson’s work, at the Pompidou Centre, in Paris, in 2014, then you know exactly what I am trying to say. That man stood squarely at the epicentre of all the major historical events of the last century and recorded them in images of a unique richness. So rich that they cause a deep impression without even a whiff of explanation. We owe him a lot. Him, and most of the photographers of his generation.

However, it is also worth pointing out that, in conceptual terms, that was the documentary school of photography, of photojournalism, if you like. That is a different thing from photography as an artistic object.


Night-Vision-1-–-Print-E2 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

How have Instagram and Tumblr, for example, influenced the art of photography? Has populism trivialised its meaning? 

I think that Instagram and Tumblr, and other social networks of the same ilk, have, generally speaking, popularised ethnocentrism, eccentricity, individualism, exhibitionism, the social movements and so on, by using photography as a form of expression.

In most cases, the photography is not an end in its own right, not in the same way that photography as an artistic manifestation is. It is, rather, one of the means that the progress of civilisation and technological development have placed right into people’s hands, for the purposes of attaining specific ends.

All the same, you can find some fabulous photographs on social networks, ones that are bona fide expressions of art. The means by which they circulate may be different, but the sense and scale of many of these photographs is just the same as many others that actually make it onto the walls of art galleries or into the pages of specialist magazines.

Sometimes, it is just a question of luck, even though I don’t believe in any such thing, in the sense of a phenomenon that allows us to achieve a positive outcome through what is apparently mere chance. You have to work hard to get lucky!


Night-Vision-1-–-Print-E9 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

Does your decision to publish in traditional printed book form constitute a conscious rejection of modern technology? How does the slow form allow you and your readers to dig deeper into your art?

Not at all! I feel an almost physical connection to the printed object. I am hugely attracted to books as objects, as paper, as paradigms of careful printing. I own thousands of books, amongst which is a very special sub-collection of several hundred books of photographs.

There are two ways of looking at these things: either you just look at the contents or you look at the support, that is, the book as an object.

We know that our digital footprint will last for all eternity. But books have a hold on me that I just can’t shake off.

These days, and precisely because of the massification of the image, a book has to have certain special features if it is to be considered worthy.

In my case, I take exceptional care over the publishing, particularly when it comes to selecting the paper for printing. And I chose to publish a limited edition of 333 books, all signed, hand-numbered and then sealed. When they are gone, that’s it. There will never ever be a second edition.

I also brought out a special edition of just 30 books. Each of these comes in a case with silver engraved lettering that includes an original numbered and signed print. It is an object that is more…. I was going to say lavish, but that is not a word I want to use. I could say, instead, more exclusive. But it has been made with all the love that I have for books.

I don’t want to do photography for consumption. This is why everything counts: even the sensation of riffling through each page in the book.


Personas-–-Print-D1 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

Some of your photos appear to be stills from a vintage film noir that was never made. Stripped of context, what is the essence of a photograph? 

This is one of those questions that are really hard to answer. Perhaps because there are so many potential answers.

What I do think is that the context cannot be used to justify a photograph. The photograph has to have a value all of its own.

This is the route that I have tried to take with this project. Let me tell you what I said in the introductory text to this project: “When an image is spun out of our normal sequence of visual processing, it is frozen in time and takes on a life and an importance all of its own. It is no longer what it once was in its natural context.

This means, of course, that it is free to tell its own story. It can form a narrative that is at odds with our understanding of our everyday perceptual experience. Each image, or sequence of images, becomes, of itself, a gateway to a new story. It morphs away from any story that might have originally materialised before our eyes.

The camera boasts this frightening, and yet fantastic, quintessence of being able to pervert the perceived real, or imbue it with new meaning.

In freezing an explicit moment through a single shutter click, often the result of happenstance, we are somehow giving a story another meaning, one that steps out of the voracity of time and the causality that created it.”

Basically, photography, the essence of it, boils down to being able to hold the gaze of someone who is looking at a particular photograph with the will to look beyond what is shown, irrespective of any explanations regarding the context or the circumstances in which the photograph was taken


Personas-–-Print-D9 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

It appears that you have spent a lot of time setting up a frame for some of your photographs. Is that true, or were they taken spontaneously?

The honest answer is both. I have taken many of my pictures spontaneously. Others, not so many, have required me to be patient enough to wait for just the right moment. The triptych that gives its name to the exhibition, and to the book, with the dog as the central figure, is an example of the application of this greater patience.

Spontaneity is also linked to the modesty that I feel is intrinsic to capturing images and to the “urgency” of taking the photograph and then disappearing, becoming invisible. I feel I must respect people and situations and not be overly intrusive. I have not yet been able to get over this line that drags us right into the centre of events and that normally allows one to get good pictures, although it does bother me a little.

This timidity and this posture have made me change a few things. First off, I set aside all my larger cameras and big zoom lenses. I know that they let you get virtually much closer, but these are items of equipment that only too often seem to resemble weapons. Nowadays, I use a small, compact and yet professional camera, with a fixed 35mm lens that snaps silently. It’s more than enough.


Personas-–-Print-D18 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

In the introduction to your work, you quote Roland Barthes: “Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatises, but when it is pensive when it thinks.” Yet some of your images evoke a sense of ghostly isolation, and in some instances of menace. Is this a paradox, or did Barthes mean that subversion becomes possible because still images give the viewer pause to reflect on the subjects of death, subjectivity and temporality?

Now, that is a really interesting question.

Barthes wrote this phrase to finish off point 15 in his inspiring book Camera Lucida. In this point, he focused his thinking on a photograph taken by Avedon in 1963. It was of William Casby, who was born a slave. The photograph is truly impressive. It shows a black man, with an intense stare, fixed who knows where, lips thinly pursed, chin fallen and ears sticking out. It is a long face, one that blends sadness and absence, and one that, apparently, belies an aggressiveness that doesn’t seem to exist.

Confronting this image with your question, we may perhaps conclude that the nub of the question contains the consequence to which Barthes refers. Not the cause. In other words: the photograph that is pensive and that is fixed in time actually ends up having this potential to become subversive.

The time that we have available to us, from the moment at which the picture is taken, allows us to contemplate it and, in doing so, project our thoughts in many different directions. Sometimes, this can spur us to action.


 Personas-–-Print-D10 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

Can the difference between art and photojournalism be defined as its ability to haunt the viewer? 

I think that the real difference between one thing and the other is basically the freedom, as a right, to transform reality. Even to adulterate it. This is because both of these forms have the same potential to haunt us when we are spectators.

Photojournalists, in my view, have no way to modify reality. They do not have that right. They are restricted to capturing reality and are obligated not to stage it. Photographers, on the other hand, who use photography as a form of artistic representation, have all the freedom they need to express themselves. This is because, in this case, photography “is not a means but an end in itself”.

There is another angle to this that is also worth thinking about. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, photojournalists are looking for the image that shocks, that assaults the senses, that demands a reaction, perhaps conscious of the fact that without one of these elements there is no reaction, no appreciation of the work done. They seek out the evil, the catastrophe, the crime, the voyeurism, as a way of proving their work and attracting attention.

I completely understand this approach, which is clearly illustrated in the recent controversy surrounding the voting for the winning image in the last World Press Photo competition and the statement by the chair of the jury, who said that he was against awarding the grand prize to the winning photo.


Personas-–-Print-D16 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

Was it your aim to create works that have no identifiable history but are nevertheless pregnant with meaning?

Did your book project develop organically, or were the photographs it collects planned with a unifying theme?

The book has a narrative that I freely admit is not immediately discernible and I see it as being an experiment in testing the hypothesis that it is not necessary to toe the dominant and politically correct line of thought that states that a book must tell a story if it is to be of any value.

Each photograph or small set of photographs that I have included in my book should be seen independently, as being capable of telling their own story. The way in which I want to challenge my readers is to get them to look at a specific photograph, without knowing anything about the context in which it was taken, and, on the basis of the image alone, to imagine and attribute a past and a future of their choosing.

My work was to freeze the moment, certain moments that we may not even notice in our real lives, and try to project it and imbue it with an importance that allows the person seeing the final image to interpret it freely.

However, there is logic in the ordering of the pictures. And this narrative has two features that I would like to mention. One lies in the fact that I have interspersed photographs of stairs throughout the book. Symbolically, and irrespective of any value they might have as images, they indicate that there is a path. But we are talking about a path that is not easy, not linear, that forces us to climb and descend, a little bit like an allegory of people’s lives.

The other feature is that the book ends with an image of a man who is elderly, not the same thing as saying an “old man”, who symbolises the arrival at a certain point of our existence, after many ups and downs, with life having left its mark on our face, a sign, perhaps, of burgeoning wisdom, but, above all, with an open smile of hope.


Night-Vision-1-–-Print-E10 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

Who are you hoping to reach with the book?

Basically, anyone who likes photography and has the sensitivity to unearth, in some everyday banality, the richness of the people and situations that inspired me.


Night-Vision-2-–-Print-F5 (Photo Courtesy of João Miguel Barros)

You say the book includes some of the works from the exhibition but goes far beyond it. What else can readers expect?

The book is not an exhibition catalogue. Far from it.

The narrative of the exhibition is completely different from the one I chose for the book.

The exhibition has five independent panels on which I have grouped sets of photographs that share some common identification. In fact, two panels show series, which I have called Night Visions 1 and 2, which have only partially made it into the book.

So, the book, which has 160 pages of photographs, contains a number of photographs that are not in the exhibition. This is what I mean by the phrase that you mentioned in your question.

On the other hand, it is also important to mention that the exhibition goes further than the book, thanks to the support that the photographs have been printed on.

When I was preparing the exhibition, I did some research into what kind of support would best help transmit the surprise that I reveal in some of the pictures. I was astonished by some of the results of my experimental printing on metallic paper.

The photographs seem to gain an extra dimension and look almost 3D, which is a particularly good result for the type of photograph that I am exhibiting, with the blacks and the half tones of heavy and somewhat grainy grey. Some of these photographs, though, have a clearly visible metallised pattern that makes it look like they were produced by some more “rustic” method, although this had by no means been my intention.

The book, for the reasons I have already stated, will certainly preserve the memory of this project better than the exhibition will; an exhibition that was be taken down on 25 March to make room for another…