Portuguese photographer documents Lowell’s Portuguese-American community

Portuguese photographer and writer Professor Pedro Letria is fascinated by how images can be both revealing and misleading.

In a photo from his recent exhibition at the UMass Lowell Art Gallery, a man kneels to inscribe a Star of David on a wall. Next to it is a photo of a man wearing an SS uniform.

There is no caption or title, and viewers of Letria’s work could be forgiven for assuming that the first man is a Jew and the second a Nazi sympathizer. Yet the man inscribing the symbol of Judaism is a Christian who performs a Kings Day ritual in Portugal, Letria explains. And the second man, who is Dutch, plays a Nazi every year in a historical reenactment of the liberation of Paris.

“We accept a photo as having something to do with reality – and yet we can be completely misled,” says Letria, Gulbenkian-Saab visiting professor in Portuguese studies this fall. “Images are taken out of context, and the way we construct meaning depends heavily on the context in which they are seen. “

So, the name of Letria’s show: “Maskirovka”, a Russian word for “deception”. The show also includes a short film, scripted by Letria, which stars a famous Portuguese actor, Diogo Doria, about a woman with a bartender. Although the film draws on conventions of fiction, it recreates a true story, Letria says.

The exploration of deception and duality is the theme of much of Letria’s work. He is teaching Photography II this fall and he also encourages his students to think critically about photography.

“They read texts from people who are creators and thinkers, and who have written texts that challenge the way we look and take pictures,” he says. “We discuss landscapes, portraits and documentary and archive photographs. “

Side-by-side photos in Pedro Letria's exhibition at UMass Lowell's art gallery.

Letria, who teaches photography at Escola Superior de Arte e Design in Caldas da Rainha, Portugal, has worked in all of these genres – and is both a designer and a writer himself. As a Fulbright Fellow at the Rhode Island School of Design from 2010 to 2012, he created “The Club”, a photo and text book centered on the Portuguese Social Club of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Arts and Graphic Design President Ellen Wetmore said students in Letria’s class gain a unique perspective on American culture: “Her influence is a welcome way to broaden their minds. “

Letria first visited UMass Lowell two years ago to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the university’s Saab Center for Portuguese Studies by giving a talk at a photography exhibition – “The Azores: Nine islands, nine photographs “- to which he had contributed.

He was invited to return this fall to the Visiting Professor Chair, which is sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Saab family and the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at UML.

Frank Sousa, director of the Saab Center and Portuguese teacher, explains that in addition to teaching the photography course, Letria has another mission: to contribute to the centre’s Portuguese American digital archives, which were created last year thanks to a $ 300,000 grant from the William F. Bois Foundation.

Journalist Claudia Lobo, right, at the Valentina Portuguese Market in Lowell with owner Maria Arseneault.

And there the university was doubly lucky, Sousa says. Letria’s wife, journalist Cláudia Lobo, joined him for the semester, taking time off from the weekly Visão, where she is editor-in-chief of history and children’s magazines.

Lobo now records oral histories, almost all in Portuguese, of American Portuguese residents of the Back Central neighborhood of Lowell, and Letria photographs them. The couple rented an apartment in Back Central and were quickly welcomed into the community, Sousa says.

“They built these amazing relationships. Pedro walks around the neighborhood and starts talking to people, and before you know it people are thrilled to be photographed and they invite him and her to their place, ”he says.

Letria and Lobo are working on two projects for the archives: documenting the lives of a group of textile engineers and factory workers who immigrated to Lowell from Covilhã, Portugal, and chronicling the Portuguese American community in ‘today at Lowell.

“I attend all the receptions I hear about, invited or not. I was even the official photographer for some events, ”Letria laughs. “They are wonderful people, very kind and generous. “

The couple are also in contact with all social and religious organizations in the community, Lobo said, including the Holy Ghost Society, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, two Portuguese social clubs and a veterans organization.

Lobo says they are learning more about the history and culture of their own country, especially the Azores, a group of islands in the Atlantic. While the first Portuguese immigrants came to Lowell to work in textile factories, many came from the Azores after a series of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in 1957 and 1958 that turned hundreds of families into internal refugees. Others followed when immigration restrictions were lifted in the mid-1960s.

During this period, Portugal was a poor country suffering from a dictatorship, but in 1974 the military ushered in a more democratic and prosperous era, Lobo says. She grew up in this latter period, while her interview subjects mostly left before the revolution.

“They give me an idea of ​​what Portugal was like at that time and why they had to leave their country,” she says. “In addition, I come from the mainland and discovered a part of Portugal (the Azores) that I didn’t know very well.”

Letria will be giving a public lecture online about her work in Back Central on Tuesday, December 7 at 5:00 p.m. ET. Please register at https://uml.zoom.us/…/register/WN_9IgX16-nTXODUQdRRbwcLA, in order to receive an email with access to the event.

Sousa says Letria and Lobo make invaluable contributions to the Portuguese American digital archives and that some of their work could be part of a book on Lowell’s Portuguese community. He hopes the center can bring them back to Lowell so they can continue their work.

“I see something amazing growing up here that could bring visibility to the community and strengthen our center,” he says.


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