Alex Oliveira and I have never met but we are ‘friends’ on Facebook. The images that he posts from Algados, a slum area of Salvador, Brazil, muddle in with the others in my feed – that vast inventory of other people’s lives, which I encounter but barely each day. Alex’s photographs are sometimes humorous, sometimes sexy, often touching. They index a complex field of interactions as he shifts between the micro and the macro, the private and the public. Encountered online they say something of the, albeit fleeting, sensation of connectedness that keeps me logging on; these images are less a precise record of any particular community than a feeling for one.
Alex’s images are underpinned by a documentary impulse but pull away from more traditional understandings of that genre and the instrumental role it has historically been assigned in the formation of identities. People, of whom one finds many in his photographs, are often singled out yet they register within a complex field of objects, backgrounds and exchanges. Their portraits, produced as a result of encounters within this field, thus constitute a fluid and unfixed performance of the self. This lack of fixity is the merit of his work. Alex’s photographs look askance at the periphery of cities or societies. They expose communities not on the basis of any essential commonalities but rather within a register of affective scenes.
Scattered across Alex’s images are numerous shared signs. Motifs of bleach blond hair, tattoos or painted skin manifest like ritualised acts that work to bind bodies together. The relation photography bears to exposure has helped photographers and scholars describe the role that the medium plays in the recognition of oneself as part of social or cultural formations. Subjects in Alex’s images are often positioned at the centre of the frame. They look at as though staring straight through the lens. In this confrontation the mechanism of the camera is made explicit within the exchange. Thus the photographs intricately fold their subjects back into the medium.
This reflexive dialogue between medium and subject is one that also occurs in the exhibition strategies Alex employs. Sometimes enlarging and pasting his photographs onto the outer walls of buildings in Salvador, he gently calls upon the tactics of guerrilla advertising to underscore an aesthetic layer of experience. Adhered to buildings the interventions create an ephemeral skin for the city. Simultaneously disseminated across diffuse networks of communication they produce a liquid reflection of life in flux. As his images traverse concrete and virtual – always social – networks, likewise their meanings seamlessly shift. Rather than treat these pliant qualities of the photograph with caution, Alex revels in them. As a result, whether we arrive to his images online, in the city or in a gallery space, it is possible to grasp from them a fleeting sense of how perfectly and yet tenuously we are held into the world.
Laura Guy is a curator and writer currently based between London and Manchester, UK.