A model poses for a portrait in the Lighting for Portrait class in ICP, New York City. tiagocosta © 2015

Writing with Light


Nowadays, carrying a book and a camera is part of my lifestyle. Those are important tools that allow me to see the world and document it. However, I had to learn over the last years the powerful importance of literacy on a daily basis and realized how to create an intimate relationship with words.

Photography gave me freedom and a creative mind-set, while literacy has given me enough cultural knowledge to persuade myself to achieve dreams. I think I’m better prepared to all the barriers in life. And today, I believe books and photographs can change many life perspectives; it changed mine.

Upon self-reflection, I have found that I have always had a strong personality and sometimes I am person difficult to deal with. My mother always told me to study hard; but the more she told me, the more I avoided it. When I was a 10-year-old kid, in Lisbon, I became a student of the private Catholica Escola Salesiana de Manique (Salesians school) mostly because my parents wanted a safe place for me, so they trusted my education to this institution.

Truth is: The educational system of this school was so conservative that students didn’t grow in a real world. I had many rules to follow. Rules about the way I dressed, the way I thought, about my relations with other people. It was a place for a lot of judgement. I had required classes about religion and morals. It was mandatory to pray every day and to go to religious festivities, but most important, I was instructed to not judge the institution.

Teachers are in a different position than students, for good and bad, and students, no matter what, should not question the authority of that system. Pretty good for them right? … NO! In my opinion, every authoritarian system is negative, because it reduces cooperation and tolerance. As a result, in Salesians I didn’t feel connected to any of my teachers. In addition, I think if I don’t like the field that I am studying, and I don’t get the purpose, I’m still able to learn if the teacher persists in creating a relationship with the student. But, if I don’t have a connection with neither the professor or with the field, I feel frustrated and annoyed. That’s when general students drop; that’s what I did.

By the last year of my middle school, I was so demotivated that my grades were not good for what was the normal standards of the Salesians. So, when I was about to enroll my high school, I was invited to leave this school and that was the first time I felt fired! Not bad for a 15-year-old kid.

I left private education with more power in my life, so I debated with my mom about my intention to study the high school in a public institution. And I did.

In Escola Secundária Sebastião e Silva, I was happy because finally I was studying my in a place that I didn’t recognize as a prison. The question was, was I truly prepared to embrace this new school system? Was I prepared to that new reality? Back in that time, I didn’t know what I wanted for my future and in this new school I saw myself studying a bunch of general disciplines, but nothing in concrete. I felt happy for my personal freedom, as a student and you man who was growing and wanted to have social life, (i.e., meet girls, and make new friends), but I wasn’t prepared for the academic responsibility.

One of the things that created more anxiety on myself and I can’t forget, was when my teachers asked me things like: “So, in three years you’ll go the college! Are you ready? Do you know what major do you want to study? Do you know what do you want for your life? And for your future? Do you know? Do you really know?”… STOP! The only thing I could think was I’m just starting this new chapter of my life, and I am confused about the present! Do you think I know that much about my future? I’m just 15-year-old! I don’t know.

In two years of public high school, I didn’t learn much that would benefit me academically. I became a rebel who wanted to stay with friends all the time. I wanted to go to the beach to surf all day, go to a friends’ house to listen music and possibly drink beer, organize nights out with friends and have fun. I wanted to stay with friends for this, to stay with friends for that, friends, friends, friends. I failed in two years, but I don’t regret what I lived during that time. I became a rebel with my studies, because I was not dealing well with the pressure that I had to become a man in a short period of time.

Because I never lost the values that my family taught to me such as responsibility and purpose, I knew I would have to change. I was rational having all that behavior, but I couldn’t avoid the explosion of my youngest emotions and that sense of freedom. At some point, I started to think deeply in what I was doing and because I never lost the good values, I changed.

When I was 17-year-old, I embarked in a new opportunity from Escola Profissional de Imagem. I applied for two years in a row, and got my admition after a written test and an interview. I was truly happy, because one of the best Portuguese technical schools was giving me the chance to explore photography, a world I had always curiosity for. The concept of high school techincal education in Portugal is quite simple: For those young students who finish middle school and know, or have a curiosity for a specific major, they can embrace a high school program where around 50% classes are more broad classes (e.g., Portuguese, math, science, or geography) and other 50% are specific classes related to the major (which in my case were classes like portraiture, lighting, product photography, photojournalism, among others).

I started to study photography and soon I felt connected with this art like Malcolm X in his essay “Literacy Behind Bars” did with his desire for words and stories. He was self-taught, had an intensive aim to learn. His sensation of freedom through literature and learning was everything as he explains, “In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life” (580). I felt similarly with photography because I found a voice to express myself. To me, photography was writing with light; and for the first time, I was in a school who praised my creativity and wanted me to think out-of-the-box. Teachers asked me for new ways to see the world showing me that creativity is a life definition without limits. I felt happy studying for the first time.

With friends from the same or other majors I had new and great connections to work on personal projects. One of those projects was with a friend, James Albuquerque, who was studying Multimedia and worked in a personal music website. Through his website, I started to go to music shows and make my photographic reports. The results went online days after and that’s how I got my first publications. To be truthful, that music project was a kids project, that means we didn’t have much responsibilities and our main concern was not the audience, but to make experiences exploring our ideas and goals.

After a couple months learning in school, I started to photograph friends from Carcavelos beach. Surfing was always a passion that I wanted to document. Later, I decided to start sending emails to magazines and got my first publications in paper. I had 18-year-old and was receiving my first profits. Everything was going good, however, I felt a necessity to pursue new goals and quickly I proposed articles where the intent was to combine text and photography. I had a neutral connection with narrative essays (i.e., I had curiosity, but not too much of it). I understood my need to get more knowledge in literacy narrative, so I applied for Escrever Escrever, a workshop institute specialized in writing. While some of my teachers thought I had a natural talent for writing narrative this was the first time I was motivated to turn that affection in action. I sold three articles with text and photography for a surfing magazine and realized that living as a journalist, working with both photography and writing tools would be interesting.

I finished my high school degree when I was 20-year-old and decided to not continue my academic education. I wanted to chase a personal aim working overseas and I knew that doing all my school in Portugal would be a mistake.

I wanted to pursuit an international career so I looked for universities in California. This curiosity for the bear state appeared because in my country I lived the surfing culture and as a result, I saw myself dreaming about Santa Barbara, Ventura, Malibu, those places where the sun never hides and life is art, culture and the ocean. Quickly I found that the amount of money required for most of the universities in US was unaffordable for the pocket of my family and special as the economic crisis was growing in Portugal, things were becoming more serious and struggle became a fight in daily life. While researching, I found that was almost impossible to study in US, but I kept the goal in my head. Even if the possible percentage is only 1%, I will always put all my energy in that 1%. I think each of us need to have a personal route, we need to know where we are at the moment knowing where we want to be in the future and plan our journey with that. I don’t think there’s a time for everything in life. It’s a process and doesn’t need to follow a pattern.

I advanced in my career forgetting the American dream for a while; I started to work for the Portuguese freelance market. By that time, I was naive and for me struggling was a normal consequence of my work. Struggle is part of life, but struggle in Portugal has a different meaning. In normal jobs people work many times 10 to 12 hours per day receiving less than 1,000 euros per month, and to add to that they have to discount something like 40% in taxes. This is not struggling, this is almost a slave life and while I was growing I became more and more tired of this situation. I wanted to have a voice and take risks.

I became less naive and more interventionist in my relation with clients, but the main problem in cultures living the crisis is when leaders became accustomed to the power in a market with pratically no competition. Consequently, as an employee I didn’t have space to complaint. I had two options: either I did as they wanted, or I could find another employer.

By the end of 2014, I made the decision of my life. I couldn’t stand anymore time living that way, and in a desperate act I sold some of my photographic stuff, including an important 400mm Canon lenses that I used regularly to document surfing. With that amount of money and adding a couple more of my savings, and like in many times with a monetary help from my mom, I bought an airplane ticket to New York City. I already knew by this time, that I had been approved in two workshops for the School of the International Center of Photography (ICP) and the fields I was proposing myself to study let me even more motivated. With Harvey Stein and his “Lighting for Portrait” I gained wisdom and with Beb Reynol and his “Documentary Photography for a Social Change” I gained mental preparation to deal with sensitive topics in our society. My main goal was to learn in two weeks more than I did in four years while working as a freelancer; so my focus was pointed to the ICP. This was an important step in my career and today I think about an article called “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” where it’s explained that habits of mind are necessary to approach learning in both intellectual and practical fields. In my case, I’m a critical thinker when I look to my progress, and openness or persistence are important habits to achieve success in life.

January 11th, 2015, is marked as the first day I stepped the country of the United States of America. I could not forget the first time I took the subway to Midtown Manhattan, and I saw all the towers smiling while the traffic jam was dancing around me. People there are just ants who keep the city warm even in a cold winter month.

There I met incredible people, people with tons of personal experience in life, people with desires and specific sensibilities to that fields. People like me living in the world of opportunity. That journey was so intensive that 16 days passed to me so fast and by the last days of my journey I started to look to the calendar, more and more times and couldn’t control my feelings. I was frustrated with the idea that had to return to my city, to the monotony I was use to live years before. I didn’t want, but I had to.

In Lisbon, the first weeks I was apathetic but once I got the energy to attack the world again I took the frustration and used as a fuel in my engine. In my mind, the only opportunity I had to come in America was to study again. Through almost all the year of 2015 I searched for organizations, corporations, scholarships, internships, everything even looking a minimum detail but that could be a big thing in my future. I found portuguese Multiway who works with american Go Campus, an organization specialized in taking students from around the world and introduce them to American Universities. With them I got this beautiful opportunity from Southern Utah University (SUU) to learn more about this world of Communications & Media Studies while I’m graduating. For me it’s more than that, I’m in US to change my life.

Studying in SUU is given me more perspectives for the future. I want to achieve more, much more than I had until now and for that I will work to continue learning the field that took me here, which is journalism. My dream job is to be a documentary photographer, with the aim to travel around the world and understand the beauty of our multiculturalism. In a couple of years I see myself being hired by a big journal/agency in media business and at the end of the day there’s no problem with that goal; I’m a dreamer with my feet firmly planted on the ground. I just think that nothing is impossible when you give your best and face the steps of life head-on.


Re-edited on June 2, 2018.

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