1st Place in the “Environmental Portrait” category (Spring 2021). Photo by Juliana Vivolo (Brazil).

Behind the Photo with Juliana Vivolo

1st Place in the “Environmental Portrait” category (Spring 2021). Photo by Juliana Vivolo (Brazil).

What is the story behind your winning photograph?

The lady portrayed in this photo is my maternal grandmother. Her name is Nair, she is 93 years old and is my only grandparent alive. I have always been intrigued by her personality. She is a discrete and catholic lady whose humor is carried with intelligence and irony. I have always felt a duality inside her. So, every time I looked at my grandmother I felt there was a side of her still left to be uncovered. She always made me curious and I had an intuition about her power. 

This need to investigate who is the woman behind my grandmother got even stronger after my grandfather passed away about two years ago. I felt that now she was able to stand up and speak up about her desires freely as she was no longer repressed by a patriarchal system. She is living a time in her life when she doesn’t need to meet family needs as she did for her entire life. At the same time, people in the family get a feeling that they may not be surprised by her anymore. She is an old lady living a quiet life. How could I help my grandmother to express something else about herself and impact people in the late years of her life? 

This question was not solved until I was challenged by a photography assignment conducted by Roberta Tavares who is the creative director behind Alfabetismo Visual (a program in Brazil aimed to support photographers in their personal journey to recognize and defend their visual identities as artists). The challenge was to create a photography work around the theme of “nudity”. For me, this concept has always been related to experiencing freedom. However, it is also taboo for most societies so having the courage to show your vulnerability by getting naked is also a very powerful way to communicate. You can’t ignore nudity. You stop and look. You create an impact when you decide to do it, especially if you portrait the nudity of bodies that do not fit society beauty patterns. People don’t want to see their bodies but they also have something to say. 

Of course, I thought of my grandmother when I was going through this creative process. I wanted people to look at her and see more than a senile and fragile figure. My purpose was to celebrate her in a way nobody ever did. She never mentioned she had a desire to express herself by playing around with her nudity. Even so, I talked to her and asked how she would feel to get naked in public for the first time as I would photograph this experience and share the images. I didn’t know what to expect and would respect her decision to say “no” to my invitation. To my surprise (actually not so surprised since I felt she would be on board) she said she would love to do it. The winning photograph is part of this photoshoot. 

What specifically drew you to this moment that you captured?

The photoshoot took place in a bedroom at her home whose environment is an extension of herself. There you can find her sewing machine, the bed my grandfather used to take naps and, the image of Jesus Christ. Those objects represent the pillars that sustain her life: work, family, and religion. After some shoots, I told her to relax and take a break. She sat on the bed and looked at the window for some long seconds. At this moment I stepped back and saw her entire world through the camera viewfinder. There Nair was, in the center of her world, in a way the world has never seen her. 

How did this photo come together for you?

Everything came so easily across this process and that is why I believe this work has always lived inside of me. My grandmother and I were dancing ballet through photography on the day this photoshoot took place. She moved her body around the room while experiencing her nudity and I moved mine around her without judgment. My curiosity about the way she would engage with this experience was the fuel to create this work. 

What meaning does this photo hold for you, and what meaning does it have for others?

This work (which is best represented by the winning photo) is a turning point in my career as a photographer. By the time I shot the first photo I knew that many things would change inside of me from many different perspectives. On the day of this photo shoot, I had an encounter with my identity and found my inner voice as an artist. I’ve never felt so connected to a subject as I did when photographing my grandmother on that day. As I said it was almost magical and I’ve never felt so alive as a photographer. 

Moreover, I knew this work would create a huge impact on people. That was exactly what I was pursuing. At first, part of my family was really upset, claiming I manipulated my grandmother by photographing her naked and showing it to the world. They said she wasn’t aware of what she was doing which is absolutely not true. Nair is totally clear-headed and I made sure she understood all the purpose behind the project before engaging in the photoshoot. Also, I had my cousin who lives nearby my grandmother on board as my assistant on the photoshoot to guarantee I had someone to advocate for me in case of a greater polemic around this issue. 

The more I heard my family complaining the more excited I was to get this work published because I knew it held a powerful message about the way we look at old people today. As I mentioned before, society doesn’t expect much of them as they are not living their active days so we are used to think about our grandparents the same way. But they have a history to be celebrated, a voice to be heard and a body that still communicates. There is power behind their fragile figures. People understood and connected to this message honoring her courage and seeing beauty in the photos. After some time, my family did the same. At this moment I knew the job was done and the message would spread around. The photoshoot was awarded by international photography associations and opened a new world of possibilities. Above all, I found my voice as a photographer, our relationship as grandmother and granddaughter took a totally different level in terms of openness, intimacy, and friendship and it definitely represents part of Nair’s legacy to the world. I’m proud to share it here on DFA and extremely happy to see the judges saw the power and poetry of this photo as I did. 

How or why is photography important to you?

Photography has many different meanings to me. It’s not an exaggeration to say it brought me a new life as I became a professional photographer quite recently. In February 2018, I decided to quit advertising after working in agencies in Brazil and the US for almost 11 years. The last days in the industry were tough as the feeling I didn’t belong anymore was increasing year after year. At the same time, the urge to express myself and my vision about the world got bigger to a point I could no longer deny it. I had to make a decision and I chose photography as a new path of expression. 

Photography brought me a new sense of purpose to my life. Uncovering the essence of families that live in each micro-moment of their everyday lives is my biggest motivation. This is what makes me go above and beyond the commonplace to bring new meanings into those same relationships by feeling it and not only by seeing things how they look. This is not just about photography – it has never been. This is about heritage, legacy and things that matter in our lives.

View more of Juliana’s work on her website and follow her on Instagram @juliana.vivolo

The Documentary Family Awards is an international competition in search of the insightful and meaningful ways that documentary photographers explore the interpretation of family.