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by Alice Oliver

Joana Dionisio is a photographer whose work is characterized by a strong autobiographical strand,  that explores themes such as identity, family, and memory, reflecting on how human beings relate to themselves and to the world. 

SOLA Journal founder, Alice Oliver, discusses with Joana, her fascinating practice and her body of work ‘And the shape of things disappeared for a while', a project that was born out of the opposition of feelings that arose after her father’s death and that forced her to think about the limitations of human existence. Joana seeks to reflect on how we deal with the loss of someone close to us, and with the perception of our finitude. Considering that these concepts are materialised using a practice that immortalises life by its representation, Joana questions what it means for photography to portray the absence of its reference, and what is the role of photography in the experiences of mourning?


AO: Could you tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?

JD: I was born and raised in Oporto city. My father was Spanish and my mother was born and raised in Mozambique. I lived my childhood with just the three of us in Portugal, separate from the rest of the family that lived in Mozambique and would come now and then to Portugal for short visits. I think maybe that is the reason why from an early age I had the need to record those precious moments when we were together to later remember them and because of that since very little, I wrote diaries documenting my days and my feelings. Being an only child may also be the reason why I had to learn to entertain myself and always been an imaginative and dreamy person. My interest in photography started in one of those family moments. My uncle and aunt who lived in Mozambique used to take me to travel abroad with them and their children on vacation. My uncle had a camera and took a lot of pictures during the trips and sometimes he lent me the camera for me to photograph. At the end of the day, we would all sit and see the pictures taken during the day together and I loved to hear my uncle praising my pictures. For me, photography was very much associated with family moments, reunion, sharing, joy, and memory. I think this had a great impact on my photographic practice and on the topics that I am interested in approaching.


AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? What were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?

JD: It took me some time to realize that I could make a career out of photography. I started my training in product design, where I had my first formal contact with photography through an optional subject. That's when I started to realize that photography gave me a pleasure that I couldn't find anywhere else and suddenly everything made sense, it was something that I couldn't articulate, but felt in my heart. After that moment I decided that I wanted to deepen my knowledge in the area and decided to take a degree in audiovisual communication with a specialty in photography, which made me try different approaches and themes in order to find my interests. However, the years I had in the design course greatly influenced my work in photography, “design thinking” shaped my work process in the way I think and prepare my projects. To this day, I use the same methodology I used to develop products, but to produce images. And it was now more recently in the Master in Artistic Photography that I really started to consolidate my areas of interest, to think more about the way my projects interconnect, and to find my language.


AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your body of work “And the shape of things disappeared for a while” and the starting point for this project?

JD: I started developing this project a few years after my father passed away. The contradiction of feelings that I experienced during that period made me ask a series of questions related to the limitations of human existence and the awareness of my own finitude.

In a society marked by the desire to prolong youth to infinity, the representation of the end of a life cycle is seen as a failure and therefore should be avoided. However, if we cannot set the limits of our own life, how can we connect to it and to ourselves? This is a work that offers a reflection on the concept of absence and loss and on the way we deal with the notion of mortality, proposing the construction of a look at mourning through photography.

Although the work is about my personal journey, it is also a means to contemplate the cyclical nature of life, its fragility, and the changing nature of time. It is a narrative that lies between the balance of opposing and at the same time complementary forces, between the present and the absent, the visible and the invisible, light and shadow.


AO: Was “And the shape of things disappeared for a while” a new step within your practice or something that evolved out of earlier concepts or themes that you had worked with in the past?

JD: I don't usually do an intensive search for concepts or themes to develop a particular project, what happens to me is that while I am developing a work other ideas always come up that lead me to the next one. I think that this project is, at all levels, the natural evolution of what I've done before, as it draws on a bit from each work, not only aesthetically but also conceptually. Until then, I had never mixed so freely different aesthetics and photographic approaches in the same body of work. “And the shape of things disappeared for a while” mixes color with black and white and combines archive photographs, images with a more performative character, and photographs with a more documentary side.


AO: You mentioned that your work is characterised by a strong autobiographical strand, that explores themes such as identity, family, and memory, reflecting on how human beings relate to themselves and to the world. Please can you tell us a little more about this?

JD: What attracts me in photography is its more subjective, metaphorical, and symbolic side, I am interested in exploring how we are projected by each image beyond the visible, and also this perhaps a little naive idea that handling images implies handling consciences. I like to explore themes that are close to me and with which I have some kind of relationship, the exploration of the “self” is an idea that runs through all my works that usually start from a personal idea to explore a universal theme.

Although my projects have different approaches, they basically talk about the way man deals with the fragility of life, the experience of time, and his mortal condition, which ends up influencing the way he relates to the world. Whether exploring my generation's eagerness to live in the moment, analyzing the way in which I face moments of change in my life or the way we deal with the collective memory of our country's historic past, all of these are constant reminders that time does not stop. Because deep down our only fear is the fear of time, and memory for me has this ability to alleviate the anguish of finitude that follows us since we were born.


AO: How has the Pandemic affected your photographic practice, were you still able to roam as freely as before?

JD: The pandemic completely changed the course of my life, it allowed me to slow down and focus on myself, it brought me meaning and a purpose. Before I was very focused on my commercial work and with the pandemic I finally had time to stop and focus on what really matters to me. On an artistic level, it was a very inspiring time, because for three years I had been walking at a crazy pace that made me stop developing my personal projects and for that reason, I was very unmotivated and tired. It was also at that time that I made the decision to do my Master's and leave my work to work as a freelancer in the field of photography and since then I have never felt so free and inspired.


AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?

JD:  I think it depends on each project, each work has specific characteristics and requires different means of dissemination, I can't generalise. I think that the photobook is a more intimate form of visualisation and for that reason it combines well with “And the shape of things disappeared for a while”, however, it is also a way of conditioning the reader's narrative, while in an exhibition the viewer has the freedom to make his own path. An exhibition is an experience and somewhat ephemeral, while the photobook remains, it is an object that lasts over time, it gives us more time to weigh the image and make it conscious, they are two different ways of playing with time.


AO: Please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced your practice?



Alys Tomlinson - “Ex-voto”
Sian Davey - “Looking for Alice”
Daniel Blaufuks - “Sob céus estranhos”

Matthew Genitempo - “Jasper”
Robbie Lawrence - “A voice above the linn”

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