Christopher grabowski


Some of the oldest parts of Lisbon are the poorest areas of the city. It is due to particularities of local geology. Mouraria and adjacent Alfama are hugging the rocky slope descending from Castelo de São Jorge towards the centre of the city beneath. These neighborhoods were mostly spared during the 1755 earthquake and the following tsunami and fires that destroyed more affluent parts of the city.


Mouraria means Moorish quarter. After the Arab ruled Lisbon surrendered to the Christian crusaders in 1147, Mouraria become a sort of a ghetto, home for the Muslims who survived the regime change and remained in the city.  In the following centuries, Mouraria retained its medieval character. Narrow, bending streets, steep stone stairs connecting tiers of houses on the slope and small, stone paved squares populated with mandarin and orange trees. There are dozens of hole in the wall restaurants serving simple food and local wine, cheaper than pop, to dwellers of just a few adjacent houses up and down the street.


In modern times, this distinctive and affordable neighborhood attracted characters from other parts of the world. There are artist studios, small pottery workshops, German café serving legendary chocolate cake on the days when the owner’s wife feels like baking one, and next to it, an outdoor Indian restaurant with a row of tables squeezed into a narrow passage. The streets and squares around are home to an imaginative documentary photography project. Black and white photographs of seniors are embedded in the walls of the old houses they inhabit. Exposed to elements, the pictures merged with their environment and become just another layer of the long and rich history of the place.


The artist, Camilla Watson, came from London more than a decade ago to teach a photography workshop. She now speaks fluent Portuguese and is friends with practically everybody in Mouraria where she lived for years.


I met Camilla in a three table restaurant, São Cristóvão, at the heart of Mouraria. In minutes, one of her subjects, Senhor Brito showed up for his afternoon shot of bagaço. He was more than happy to walk us to his portrait with his cat Gordan mounted on the wall just around the corner. The locals seem to like the project for a number of reasons; one of them is Camilla’s empathetic personality, another one, the fact that the project is an expression of the local ethos. The wall photographs assert the subjects’ bound with the city quarter that is under pressure from gentrification and airbnb-nization.


Another of Camilla’s projects is located some ten minutes walk downhill, in Alfama, where the uniqually Portuguese music, Fado, is believed to have originated. This exhibit is comprised of photographs of celebrated Fado singers made from archival negatives. Camilla re-imagined the classic black and white process. On some buildings, she produced photographs straight on the brick and stone walls. Working at night in a light tight tent, she painted a photosensitive emulsion on the prepared fragment of the wall, exposed it through a projector then developed and fixed it using a sponge saturated with chemicals. Finally, she rinsed the photographs, let them dry out and applied a protective coat. These photographs obviously won’t last forever but I wish them a very long life, free of the confines of gallery, while participating in an unmoderated conversation with the passers-by.