In his latest series Por este rio acima (Up the River), Gonçalo Fonseca takes us on a special journey: he explores the course of the Ceira, a small and pure mountain river in Portugal’s heartland. Over a length of only about 100 kilometers, it flows furtively through almost forgotten villages and small cities, places that have struggled to maintain their vibrancy in the 21st century. For the Portuguese photographer, however, it was also a very personal project, as his family roots lie in the area he visited.
You live in Lisbon – was the trip to the quiet Portuguese countryside also a reaction to the current pandemic situation?
Yes, the pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, impacting our mental health in a deep way. I was longing in a way for this trip; to be out in the wilderness and to get a chance to put the past two years into perspective. For this reason, I decided to begin a journey on foot, from the mouth of the river to its source, high up in the mountains of Serra do Açor.
What connection do you have with the region?
My maternal family roots lie in this region. I first went there when I was just two months old, and, for a long time, spent my entire summers there. I grew up in this place in the middle of nature, learning from my father and grandfather about the trees and animals. For my grandparents, it meant a spiritual homeland, where they felt close to their roots and to nature. It was where the whole family would get together at special times of the year: to honour the dead in November, for Easter in Spring, and during the summer.
Are there any memories that have shaped you in particular?
I spent my childhood there, disappearing from home for hours at a time to explore and to climb trees. I have very fond memories of that time: mushroom hunting and fishing with my grandfather, and walking in the wilderness with my father, where I would learn about the different species that lived there.
How long you were on the road for this project?
I was there for two weeks from September 12 to 26. I walked alone most of the way there, but also got a couple of rides, so that I could complete the journey in time.
Otherwise, you were always on foot?
My maternal grandfather grew up poor, in a small village in this region that was known for its quality wooden utensils. As a child, I loved listening to his stories of those times, especially when he told of his adventures, walking hundreds of kilometers in the winter to sell his wares at markets, sleeping in animal pens and meeting different people. I guess I wanted to experience that in a small way.
That seems like a big challenge, not only physically but also emotionally.
I walked about 100 kilometers in really difficult terrain and had to deal with storms and pouring rain. It was physically and emotionally demanding, but very peaceful as well. In this area that is so familiar to me, yet at the same time very new, I felt extremely connected to the land and the people, and it made my work much more instinctive.
Were there any experiences that impressed you in particular?
Reaching the source of the river was one of the highlights of the journey. Although there wasn’t much to photograph there and the weather conditions were terrible, it was a remarkable experience. I woke up before dawn, so that I could return to Malhada Chã, the last village before the source, in time to be sheltered from a storm that was looming. The previous days I had been consulting with shepherds who indicated the way there, up a steep hill and following rarely-walked paths. I walked for two and a half hours to reach the source, and once I arrived, I could barely see because of the dense fog. All I could hear were the deer’s mating calls and the small hum of gushing water.
On this trip, you were one of the first photographers to have the opportunity to work with a Leica M11. How did you get on with the camera?
At first, I was a little intimidated by it. Thinking back on the history of photography, so many historic and remarkable pictures have been crafted with this system, I felt it was something of a responsibility to use it.
But your photographs prove that you were able to work quickly with the camera…
Yes. After that first reaction, I became so in tune with it, that it felt like I’d shot with an M camera all my life. At the end of the journey, I felt extremely connected to the camera, having lived this wonderful and emotional experience with it in my hands.
What impressed you most about working with the Leica M11?
The colours it renders and the fine detail of the photos really surprised me. I was expecting it to be good, just not as good as that. Usually, I have to work on the photos a little bit in photoshop, to match the vision I had of them when I shot them. With the Leica M11 almost all the photos came out exactly how I had pictured them.
Did the journey change you?
It made me feel closer to my ancestors and to myself. It was a nice change to work on a more personal story, not knowing what I would encounter at the next bend in the road. It made me improvise and be more creative. It was a very rewarding experience and one that will inform my practice in the future.
Gonçalo Fonseca (born 1993) works as a documentary photographer, especially on long-term projects. His subjects, which he finds in Portugal as well as worldwide, deal mainly with human rights, health and stories about housing. He received a B.A. in Journalism, followed by postgraduate studies of Photojournalism at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His work has been published in numerous international magazines. He was awarded the Leica Oskar Barnack Newcomer Award in 2020 for his series New Lisbon. He is a member of the non-profit organization Photographic Social Vision and teaches Photography at the Pelos Teus Olhos project in Chelas, Lisbon.
More of Gonçalo Fonseca’s work can be seen on his website and Instagram channel.
A portfolio of his current work will appear in LFI magazine 2/2022.