These intimate portraits capture Lisbon’s thriving youth culture
Photographer Emerick Mukenge finds the beauty of Portugal through young people who live there
image Emerick Mukenge
words Darshita Goyal
You know those forgotten spaces, warm feels and wacky foibles that you discover about a place only after you build a close relationship with it? Now imagine if we say you can experience that time-travelling magic vicariously? Welcome to Postcards Home, a monthly column highlighting a photo series that looks at a city, town or country through the lens of an interesting community, an unheard of practice, or a hidden hangout. There’s no famous monument or must-see spot here, just that comforting, wholesome high of feeling at home in a place. Get cosy.
There are people who travel to see places and then there are those who travel to meet people. For Emerick Mukenge, a 24-year-old creative from Coventry, those two ambitions are inseparable. The photographer, filmmaker, and social assistant believes the best way to discover a space is through the young people who live and thrive there, and his travels reflect this sentiment. Mukenge’s holidays follow a simple framework, they’re usually solo and low-lift (with him living in hostels to ensure maximum socialising) and almost always result in additional trips to the city.
Such was the case with sunny Lisbon; Mukenge first visited the city for a university project and then returned to spend six more months there in 2022. On each trip, he captured a series of photos to remember the people and places that made the space feel like home. This series documents a sequence of events, from the moment that the creator befriends a stranger and starts his journey with them until he gets swept into a different, organic, unexpected narrative all together. It's the collection of moments that form an adventure. So when Mukenge printed the pictures into a photobook, he named it just that: A Collection of Moments. Despite recording Mukenge’s personal experiences, he believes the photos can appeal to anyone, irrespective of their interest in Portugal’s capital city.
According to the photographer, while the series is about the city, at its core it’s about uniting people in beauty. “The way I see it, beauty is this transcendent entity that brings people together. Like when you see the Duomo in Milan or the Colosseum in Rome, no matter which religion, gender or race you belong to, you stop and admire it. And that’s what I hope people see in these pictures - beauty that helps us see beyond our disagreements," Mukenge explains. Below, we carry on our conversation with the photographer about his striking series.
What inspired this series and why did you pick Lisbon?
Emerick Mukenge: In my second year of university, we were tasked to do a personal project and I decided to make a photo book because photography is the way I best express myself. The idea was to capture what life is like through a sequence of moments, and instead of staying in England, I decided to travel to take these photos. When it came down to selecting the place, my first choice was to go somewhere where people speak Portuguese or German. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the Portuguese language and the reason is simple: football. I vividly remember the 2006 FIFA World Cup that was hosted in Germany and the Brazilians had the most captivating team. They almost danced with the ball and I decided I have to see this culture up and close.
But then reality hit - it was very expensive to go to Brazil and so I thought of the next best thing, Portugal. When I visited for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. It was a solo trip and I did absolutely no research but you know what? I think Lisbon is the most beautiful city in Europe, it blew me away. It felt like the entire city was built bit by bit and each element is so full of purpose. I promised myself once I finish university I had to go back, and that’s what I did. I worked odd jobs to save up some money and then went and lived in Lisbon for six months. The photos featured in this series have been shot across my trips to Lisbon and as imagined, they capture a collection of moments through time.
Typically when people try to capture a city they look at spaces and landscapes but you choose people and portraits, more specifically young people. Tell us more about this choice.
Emerick Mukenge: All my work is directed around young people, I think while the elderly or even middle aged are more set in their ways and are sure of what they like and don’t, young people change so much from age 16 to 30. From what they wear and listen to, to how they speak and who they become. Their beliefs and ideas are in constant flux and I’m quite intrigued by this. When I travel, I usually go solo because when you’re by yourself, there’s only one option - you have to meet people, and that’s what I did. I’m naturally drawn to putting myself in slightly uncomfortable positions because that pushes me to speak to strangers and build friendships.
More often than not, people are really nice. I got to tag along to a lot of parties, too. I consciously chose to capture people in Lisbon over the architecture because it’s people that make a place. That’s what draws me in. For some people buildings have emotion, but I am interested in capturing complex personalities and the way that humans express themselves.
The photos in the series are quite diverse. There’s loud, fun shots and more quiet, intimate portraits. Was this a conscious attempt?
Emerick Mukenge: I didn’t approach any of the photos from a predetermined thought in my head, all my work is very intuitive and guided by wherever my spirit takes me. I think that’s why the result is diverse. I don’t take pictures of people unless I find them interesting or I’ve had the space to talk to them for some time, like I want the photos to tell a story and to take people on a journey not just show a singular moment in time. This one time I saw a bunch of Portuguese guys standing outside a bar drinking, and I was drawn to their energy. They told me they’re going to see a really famous DJ perform and invited me, so I followed them to the club. When I explained what my project was, they were into it, and so we started taking photos along the journey and at random places that we hung out at after. This makes every photo an experience that I have lived with the people. And the next time I meet them and capture new moments, it’ll add to a larger story that we share together. These photos aren’t capturing distant subjects, the people in them become my friends. In real life some moments are more intense and intimate than others, and that’s what’s reflected in my photos.
If there’s one spot featured in the series that you could recommend to people, what would it be?
Emerick Mukenge: Ooo I have a favourite spot but I can’t recommend it. So how Lisbon works is, the city is divided by a river which opens into the Atlantic Ocean. One side of the river is mainland Lisbon and the other side is this place called Almada. To get there, you basically go to Cais de Sodre and take a short ferry - it costs a couple Euro and takes less than 20 minutes to get across. This guy took me there, in that area he found this abandoned factory and had spent the summer breaking walls and redoing stuff to make it ready to host parties and movie nights. They brought art and hung it up on the walls and started hosting monthly gigs there with food and niche artists. One of my favourite photos from the series is from the roof of this place. After a party we were all just hanging out there and that moment was really special.
You studied graphic design at university and went on to work in media. When and how did photography become such a big part of your creative expression?
Emerick Mukenge: When I was a child, I spent most of my time on the computer. I was amazed by how much information it could store. That’s how I discovered the Pulitzer Prize competition for photography and was hooked. I scrolled through every year starting from the 1940s to the present day and saw some really powerful images. I wanted to replicate those photos on my own and so I began drawing faces from portraits that I would see, whether that was Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. I wanted to take the image off the screen and hold it in my hands.
Then when I was about 15, my brother brought home a film camera because of a course he was doing in college. He took me on a journey through our neighbourhood in Coventry, capturing his friends and other everyday things. And when we finished, he took me into the dark room and developed each photo in front of me. I thought the process of film becoming a photograph was the most beautiful thing ever and that’s when I realised I didn’t need to draw moments anymore. I can just take pictures.
Now that you’re back in London, what is one thing that has stayed with you from your time in Lisbon?
Emerick Mukenge: One of the first things I noticed about Portugal is the difference in culture between Northern Europe and Southern Europe. In England, Scandinavia, Ireland, even the Netherlands, the societies are more individualistic, we prioritise work a lot. We usually leave the social gatherings for the weekend and then when we go out, we go really hard. Even our music is harsh like techno, house and garage. It’s like the social activity is a release after a stressful week. But for Southern Europeans, they approach life in a more chilled, relaxed way. There’s a certain joie de vivre that Portuguese people have. They walk slower and speak with more patience. I witnessed this love of community and in some sense, a shared love of humanity and that’s something I want to hold on to while I’m in London.
Follow Emerick on Instagram here.
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