Brazilian photographer Helena Cebrian examines the significance of the untranslatable Portuguese word through her ongoing photographic project which will be exhibited in Rio de Janeiro in June 2021.
All images from Helena Cebrian’s Saudade photographic project.
“[It’s] a feeling that we will never be able to describe, that's why they created a word for it,” replies Helena Cebrian when asked to describe what saudade means. “For Brazilians and Portuguese-speakers, it is a word that comes to you before you even know it,” The 21-year-old photographer —who is currently completing her second year of the Fashion Communications and Promotions BA at Central Saint Martins— tells me, “We are all born hearing it.” The word resembles perhaps feelings of longing and yearning but has no exact translation, but it is an emotion Portuguese speakers experience and talk about at least once a day. “That is why it's so important but also overlooked,” comments Cebrian, which is why she decided to start her ongoing photographic project, ‘Saudade’, to explore the word’s nuances through imagery. The project resulted in a magazine and a small diary-like zine. It will also be part of an exhibition curated by Carla Oliveira and Luyza de Luca, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro at Casa Bicho on the 10th of June 2021. We talk to Cebrian about her ongoing project and get a preview of some of the unseen images that will be featured in the exhibition.
Cebrian left her native country of Brazil when she was 18 years old to follow a foundation course at Ravensbourne in London, a country she had never visited and where she knew no one. “I felt saudade every single day, and I still do,” the photographer comments, “[As] Brazilians, we are so connected to our culture, but at the same time we are so desperate to leave that when we have the chance to do so, we feel [saudade] more than ever.” Cebrian tells me she feels especially saudade for the warmth. Not only referring to the heat and drenching sunlight characteristic of Rio —where she grew up — but also the warmth she felt being at home with her friends and family. Although she was triggered to explore this sentiment further due to a personal experience, saudade is a concept anyone can relate to. It is contradictorily both an extremely personal and shared experience.
The photographs in ‘Saudade’ are a combination of images taken by Cebrian of her life in Rio and London intertwined with pictures and memorabilia from her past. Fine artist Rita Wainer was a crucial influence for Cebrian throughout the project, “I worked with Rita for 6 months. She became like a big sister and mentor. Her work is based around feelings, and saudade [is] one of the main ones. It only made sense to me to reference her practice for this project,” the photographer says. Cebrian’s first two ‘Saudade’ publications explore her personal experience with the concept and only feature people that are a part of her life. “[The] situations, artists, themes, and people I love were crucial to this project,” Cebrian says, “this project is not mine; it is composed by every single person that is part of my life, it is Brasil, it is who I am.” Amongst those featured were Dex Magalhães — one of Cebrian’s closest friends who is seen in his atelier which doubles as a storage for his aunt’s furniture collection — and Wainer —who is shown moving into a new house which previously belonged to a hoarder who lost his memory. “I wanted to document [Rita] coming into a house full of forgotten memories,” Cebrian says, “you can see her personal [belongings] starting to inhabit the space.” While the small ‘Saudade’ zine is a visual diary, the main ‘Saudade’ publication intertwines the new images taken by the Brazilian photographer — of both natural and set-up scenarios — with pictures and items from her childhood (such as her birth certificate) to capture the melancholy of saudade. The magazine concludes with a letter placed next to a polaroid image of Cebrian’s mother when she was pregnant with her, “Rita sent me this letter her mom sent her when she was also 18 and had moved to London! A crazy coincidence [and] an example of how relatable this project can be,” says the photographer, “My idea was to create this cycle… to show that saudade is something that will never end.”
In the upcoming exhibition — where Cebrian will be featured alongside three other artists — she will focus on exploring how objects can trigger saudade, “especially now in the pandemic, when [it] has become something that unites all of us,” she says.
Saudade is something you learn to live with and eventually appreciate. Saudade is a constant just as much as change is and as long as there is change, there will be saudade.