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Interview with Adriana Zehbrauskas

Adriana Zehbrauskas is a Brazilian documentary photographer who has worked for over 20 years, showcasing the stories of seldom-heard people in diverse places, including Haiti, Sudan, and Mexico.

Photo by Adriana Zehbrauskas

Graduation day at Taffari Community School in the Taffari IDP camp, South Kordofan, Sudan. Learners enrolled under the Accelerated Learning Programme supported by UNICEF under the Educate A Child program will receive certificates before transitioning to formal schools. Photo by Adriana Zehbrauskas for Unicef.

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By Daniela Cohen

 

 

Published June 2024

Daniela Cohen: How did your journey into photography start?

 

Adriana Zehbrauskas: My father was a journalist back in Brazil. He was a writer, but he always had a camera with him. When I was 10, he would send me to buy the Sunday paper at the kiosk outside. I would read the stories and was fascinated by the possibility of knowing things happening in places so far away from me that had absolutely nothing to do with my life. 

My parents gave me a little camera when I was growing up but when I was 14, I wanted a nicer camera, and I was really happy when my father gave me one. I didn’t want to be a professional photographer, nor did I know there was such a thing as being a photojournalist. 

 

In journalism school, I realized that my path is photography. One of my friends said this newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo was hiring freelancers to help with the election coverage. I put my portfolio together and the editor was like, “Oh my God, this is so bad.” He said, “Train a bit more, get yourself a flash, and come back in a few months.” I did just that, showed him some work, and he started giving me very soft assignments. After school, I went to France and studied for another year. I started freelancing with the Brazilian newspaper as a correspondent. Then I went back to Brazil and started working at the same newspaper until I became a staff photographer. My greatest education was the newspaper. 

 

How has your journey evolved since then?

 

The newspaper would send us on international and domestic trips. We would do a lot of interesting stories. It was sometimes very busy, and I had to do five assignments a day, including business portraits and other boring assignments. I had an editor my age, she was more of an artist, and she said, “I don’t want photos of people sitting behind a desk. Think David Lynch.” We had the time and incentive to do something different and it was life-changing.

 

At one point, I was working as an editor, and we decided to bring an important photographer to do a particular story. I suggested my role model, James Nachtwey.

 

When he called me back, I couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t do the assignment, but we stayed in contact as I went to New York and he went to Brazil to work on another story. It was then that he asked me to work for him as his assistant and I spent a month with him. When the story was ready, he sent the story to be published for free at La Folha de S. Paulo.

 

Afterward, he asked me to be his full-time assistant, but I wanted to work as a photographer. He suggested I come for a month while he found someone else. And so I went to New York and started meeting a lot of people at events with Time magazine and Magnum. One thing led to another and from there I went to France for Perpignan, the big photography festival.

 

All I wanted was to meet an editor to show my work. But people would walk around just looking at name tags, and if you were nobody important, they wouldn’t even look at you. I was sitting at one of those cafés outside with my portfolio feeling horrible when suddenly another photographer walked by. I had just met him in New York while working with James. As he asked to see my portfolio, a New York Times editor walked past. She knew him because he’d just won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for a story for the New York Times Magazine. He said, “This is Adriana, a Brazilian photographer based in Brazil.” She’s like, “Really? I’m looking for a photographer in Brazil. Can I see your portfolio?” I went back to Brazil, and two weeks later, the phone rings and it’s her. That was 20 years ago, and I’m still working for The New York Times.

What an amazing story!

 

I live with a lot of serendipity. But at the same time, photojournalism is something I really wanted to do, and I’m always pushing myself to be better, be brave enough to carve out my own little place. I consider myself very shy but at the same time, you have to be a bit pushy and ambitious in certain ways because this industry is brutal. It’s been two years and I haven’t taken a day off.

 

What’s the part you most enjoy and what’s most challenging for you? 

 

I enjoy it when I’m out there photographing the stories and being with people. When I was a kid, I was super curious. I was walking on the street and would see other houses and wonder what was inside. And this job for me was like, “Oh my God, I got into so many different houses!”

 

For me, it was always about telling the stories of anonymous people who don’t have the opportunity to be heard or be seen. I feel that that is my job. It’s a privilege to be able to witness life in this way and that people trust you to tell their stories. I feel a great responsibility. 

 

The hardest part of being a freelancer is working in an industry where there are no guarantees. It filters a lot of people out – if I didn’t have a private car, for example, I could not work, the geography of the place makes it impossible. 

 

Your website states your work is aimed at moving, challenging, and connecting people. I’d love to hear more about those aspects and specific assignments focused on those areas.

 

The connection part is the core of why I decided to be a photojournalist. We are so busy, and people don’t really know what’s happening, sometimes even with their own neighbor. Susan Meiselas says we are the ones who perceive the bridge that will connect people to situations which in turn will create some impact. Maybe it’s just someone waking up and saying, “Oh my God, I didn’t even know this existed,” and feeling empathy or maybe it’s a politician who will see what’s going on and change a policy. 

 

A concrete example is the Family Matters project. It was born out of a story I covered for two years on the disappearance of the 43 students in Mexico in 2014. I was approached by the bureau chief of Buzzfeed News in Mexico City to partner on a project to follow the life of one of the families.

 

You have to put a face to the news because it’s really hard for people to connect with an abstract concept or a number. We spent six months going there once a month to spend time with them.

 

I was asking for photos of the students. And they kept saying, “No, I don’t have it. I had it on my phone and I lost my phone. I changed my phone.” I kept thinking that the students were not just missing from life, they were going to be missing also from the memory of their families because they didn’t have photos or anything to remember them by. I kept thinking about the importance of photography just to prove someone’s existence. 

When we finished the project, I went back and gave them a lot of prints. The one Adán Abraján de la Cruz’s family liked the most was the portrait I took after the first communion of one of his sons. It made me decide to start a project on portraits of families living on the brink of disappearance in Guerrero, one of the poorest states in Mexico where people are forced to work for the drug cartels. I used my iPhone, the same instrument responsible for them not having photos in the first place.

 

It was also a way of giving back because we go to places and photograph people when they’re at the most horrible and vulnerable moments of their lives and we can never promise them anything. They ask, “Will this impact my life personally?” That is always the hope and the dream, but you can’t promise people there’s going to be change in their lives. So then I said, “I can promise you a photograph.”

Your photos are very visually compelling. For example, the use of color in this photo of young girls in Sudan. I’d love to hear more about how you’re playing with colors. 

 

Something that I learned working for the newspaper is you have to be very fast and creative. My editor would say, “You don’t publish excuses.” That photo was taken before the graduation ceremony, the students were already in the school and I had arrived early. It was around midday and the light outside was brutal, so I was walking around and looking for a different place to photograph and I saw that classroom. This is the blackboard, and this wall also tells a lot about the condition of education because that was part of the story. There were some students there and as I started to photograph, others kept coming and soon enough there was a long line of them wanting to have their portraits taken. The fact that they were all dressed up for the graduation made it more special, as they were feeling so proud!

 

I understand you recently joined the VII photo agency. I’m curious if that has had any effect on your work?

 

It’s really recent, the last week of December. It’s great to be with this community because it can be lonely out there. I’ve known some of the photographers from VII for a long time and some I’ve never met, but I feel it’s a new home for me, that we’re in sync about how we see photojournalism education. 

 

What would you say is the unique aspect of your work compared to other photographers who might be focusing on similar issues?

 

I don’t like to compare myself with other photographers, but for me, what is first and foremost is to portray people with dignity even in the most horrible situations. 

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