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Photographer William Rice On His Zine O NOVO RIO

photography WILLIAM RICE
12 February 2024
The first pages of William Rice’s zine O NOVO RIO contain Bjork’s ‘Wanderlust’ lyric, ‘I feel at home whenever the unknown surrounds me; I receive its embrace’. After speaking with Rice, it becomes clear why this line resonates with him. Here is a photographer who scours cities, countries and continents, searching for cultural prey and feeding off the fervent young. He pursues the depths of Japan’s streets and Rio de Janeiro’s bustling nightclubs. He captures models seaside wearing a mail coif made of can tabs. He seeks out the composed and self-assured. He discovers the young, the wild and the free.
Rice first picked up a camera impulsively at Heathrow Airport en route to China. Since then, he has worked in the London music industry alongside icons Bjork, Prince and Sinead O’Connor. Travelling globally, he views his camera as a companion to curiosity, allowing him to break down barriers of shyness and explore what is often overlooked.
O NOVO RIO is evidence of this. Over five chapters, the zine delves into the sexual, political and religious facets of Rio’s dynamic cultureas it focuses on the day-to-day issues that Rio's young stars are facing. Each page is as special as the next and each image is as sensitive as the one before.

Rachel Weinberg: Your zine, O NOVO RIO, is coming out in a few weeks. What's the significance of the zine’s title? How did you decide on it?

William Rice: It translates to 'The New Rio' in Portuguese, the language of Brazil. And it was a way of saying what was new in Rio to me, because I'd seen a lot of images of Rio all through my life, like on film and TV, and especially in fashion photography. There were very particular images of Rio presented, like beautiful beach bodies and a certain kind of fashion fantasy. But the title refers to the idea that everything that I saw in Rio was new and surprising, based on what I'd seen outside of the country before my first visit. When I went there, I was expecting everyone to look like a model, everyone to be dressed in that kind of sexy, clinched way that the fashion industry had presented Rio, or maybe carnival-like and very glitzy and sparkly. But what I found was just a very brilliant and quite normal city with so much more depth to it than we were ever shown. I think the way that the media presents places in other countries can sometimes be very narrow.

WR: And, because most of the people in the book are young, the title is also alluding to the new generation of people living in Rio. It's referring to newness in lots of different ways, but I think mainly about how a city can feel so new to me as a visitor.

RW: When we're living somewhere, we don't realise how special it is, but when someone else comes or we visit another country, it almost feels like a revelation.

WR: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the nice things about travelling, and one of the things that is especially helpful for me when taking pictures, is that in some ways, those aspects become an advantage because you see everything that you might not otherwise see. For instance, when I'm at home in London, and it's probably the same for you in Australia, I don't notice the public transport, what people are talking about on the street, what people are wearing, what it's like to go into a supermarket or a post office or any sort of banal day-to-day life; you don't actually notice it, or it doesn't really register. It's just part of your day-to-day life. It's so boring. Whereas when you travel, and especially if you go somewhere like Rio or Tokyo, where they're both very fast and intense, you notice things a lot more clearly. And you notice things that you wouldn't notice at home. You really do notice what kind of conversations people are having. You notice how people interact.

WR: I don't walk around with a camera at home in London because I never see anything I want to take a picture of. But when you're somewhere like Rio, you almost want to take a picture of everything you see. You notice everything.

RW: And those banalities that you spoke of—the people and objects you saw in the supermarket and on the street—can we expect to see them in the photos printed in the zine?

WR: There's a little bit of that. There are four or five chapters of produced images. And then, between each chapter, there's this break with lots of little incidental pictures, which, I guess, would be seen as more anthropological.

RW: And is it right that you chose to highlight the queer community in Rio? What motivated that focus? Was it instinctual or planned?

WR: I started travelling to Rio in 2015. Each time I went, I kept thinking, I want to spend more and more time here. And over time, I began to see more things and visit more places. I started hanging out on a gay beach or going to a gay club and just seeing that life and all the exciting and interesting people that were part of those worlds. This all happened during a politically fraught time in Brazil when Jair Bolsonaro was the president: ultra-conservative, evangelical. He was saying things that were encouraging anti-gay violence and transphobic violence.

WR: The queer community was experiencing a really challenging time. And that resonated with me in terms of my own upbringing in Ireland 20 or 30 years ago. I felt at home and welcomed by the gay community, and I could relate to their experiences—politically, religiously and socially. Over the many visits, I got to know people and eventually got in touch with a great producer, who is also a photographer, and we were able to shoot a lot of people in the queer and black peripheries around Rio. So it happened that way, by making friends and working with their connections and their communities. It was an amazing experience to photograph those people, especially because it was such a sensitive moment in politics.

WR: In one of the series in the book, the whole set was queer. Everyone in front of and behind the camera was queer. We were working for about two or three weeks before the Brazilian election, which Bolsonaro went on to lose, thankfully. There was a lot of tension in the air, and it was amazing to photograph the queer community and watch them be themselves. It's quite a powerful thing to just stand up and be yourself in those situations. There was a lot of pride, fearlessness and self-respect, which for me, as a person and as a photographer, was a real joy to be around.

RW: And when you are spending a lot of time in a specific location with a certain group of people, do you think your work ever shifts from fashion or art photography to photojournalism? How do you keep the two distinct?

WR: That's a really good question. I think they're both very instinctive disciplines. It's not like I set out to take an art picture or a documentary picture, but there's still a process involved with each, which sometimes converges and sometimes is distinctive. One of the things I like about photography is that there can be absolutely no process at all. You can literally pick up a camera, go down the street and start taking pictures. And obviously, that's a very documentary way of doing it. You're waiting for things to happen around you; you're waiting for life to happen. There's no set-up; you're not telling anyone what to do, and you're not manipulating anything to create the result you want. So, I guess that's entirely documentative—and I love taking those pictures. Then there is obviously the very produced imagery, which is about getting a team of people together, a producer, finding models and a stylist and so on.

WR: And then it becomes a mixture of coming up with the ideas that you want to work on in the shoots while at the same time allowing everyone to express themselves freely and empowering everyone to have their own kind of creative agency. It's a bit of a dance between me as the photographer, trying to get the results I want, and letting people experiment. I would say the lines between art and documentary are quite blurred.

There's another chapter in the zine where the photos were shot in a huge nightclub called The Week, which is a massive queer space. The photos feel more like art than documentaries, even though they are literally documentaries. You're just shooting people in a club; you're not instructing anyone; everyone's there anyway. No one's doing anything for you. You're just recording what's going on. But there's something powerful in the air and the lights and kind of the energy, and it becomes something that does feel a bit more akin to art.

RW: I think it's also about intention. Like, why you're there as a photographer or documentarian. I guess the question should rather be, What was your intention at each of these locations?

WR: Quite honestly, I'm not sure how to describe it. It was kind of an experiment. I was going there partly to enjoy it and then partly because I had a camera in my pocket. The real intention was hope, which is not really an intention. It was about putting my toe in the water and seeing what happens. Then another aspect to consider is the 'decisive moment'. Like, why are you pressing the button at that particular moment? Is it because everyone's got their hands in the air? Is it because everyone's got their shirts off? Is it because the neon is going crazy, and it's made something look really beautiful and powerful? So again, there's a kind of ambiguity between intention and desire and this kind of idea of experimenting and wanting to find something. But you also have to wait for it to happen before you know you've found it. You don't construct it. I guess that's the dance of the photographer. And you can go home disappointed. I went to that club probably five or six times. And sometimes the pictures just weren't happening, or the atmosphere wasn't happening. Then other nights it was just all happening.

RW: Are the images from that night some of your favourite? I know one is on the cover.

WR: I think my favourite images in the zine tend to be the portraits. It's a beautiful experience to work with someone and find out who they are through that photographic interaction. There isn't, like, one favourite image. I kind of have a favourite chapter, which is the first one, which is called 'Studies in Folklore'. It was shot at a nature reserve to the South of Rio. Everyone was in nature, wearing masks and certain costumes, which both play a big part in Brazilian folklore and Brazilian religion. It's really rich. The images go back centuries, based on Indigenous Brazilian culture, but also bringing in elements that are connected to colonialism and slavery.

RW: What made print the ideal format for the project. Did you always know you would curate the images like this?

WR: Pretty much, yeah. I grew up on print. I grew up with magazines like The Face and iD, Dazed. Living in London, I'm so lucky to have so many galleries here. So, it's always been about the direct interaction with a photograph in print. It always just feels more powerful to me. It looks better. You can live in it a lot more, in a way you can't when you put things on your phone. I don't think I've ever put any of these pictures from Rio on Instagram. They just don't look as good to me, or they just don't feel as meaningful. It's not a criticism of social media or camera phones, which I love, but I think it's about that tactile sense that you get with something in print. And pictures just look so much better. I've always loved photo books. They're like little worlds that you can dive into and lose yourself. I think I feel about photo books maybe the way some other people feel about fiction. It's something to hold right in front of you and you can forget everything else. The experience of touching it, of smelling it. It's such a personal, interactive experience that you simply don't get on your phone.

RW: What's your favourite photobook? One you treasure the most.

WR: There's a very small collection of three books by a Japanese photographer called Tamotsu Yatō, he worked in the late sixties and early seventies. He died really young, and he photographed a mix of nudes and homoerotic images of bodybuilders. He was massively ahead of his time. He was taking pictures in Japan that people like Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar were taking in New York. In Japan, those kinds of pictures were totally taboo. He couldn't sell it. He was going around bars in Tokyo and selling the images one by one. They're so beautiful and moving. It's like looking into one person's diary. It's like reading an incredible autobiography. He went around, he photographed festivals all over Japan, he went to gyms, bodybuilding championships; and then he set things up in his own house or in studios. He was really quite revolutionary and very underrepresented in the history of photography. He only made three books and he didn't make very many copies of them. I'm very lucky to have one of each. They feel very special to me, and they inspired a lot of my own photography and also my own travels to Japan.

RW: Do you find when you're travelling or when you're about to go to a place you reference a lot of books? Or look at other artists' work?

WR: I think it's very instinctive. Like Tamotsu Yatō, I don't want to copy his pictures because his pictures are way better than I could ever take. But I do reference the feelings. Bruce Webber shot a lot in Rio. He used to take really beautiful pictures of people being quite intimate together. So again, without wanting to copy him, I'm sure these ideas of intimacy arise from the mental rolodex that I have accumulated from years and years of reading photobooks and looking at pictures. So, although I went into this project without any specific references, I think it's all kind of in there. And sometimes you only find that out afterwards. I'll take pictures very instinctively and then go back and look at them. And then when I look at them, I'll think, oh, yeah, that was X idea or Y idea, or that was something I haven't thought about for ten years but must be somewhere in the recess of my mind.

RW: That's how you know you're evolving as a photographer.

WR: Sure, yeah, exactly. But I try not to overthink. I'll have ideas about how I would pose people, and obviously things like location or styling. But I very rarely, if ever, go in thinking, I want this to be like something I've already seen. What it probably is an amalgamation of ten photographers that I really like. Maybe there's little elements of each one of those somewhere, floating around.

RW: You briefly touched on this earlier when discussing the feeling you get from perusing photobooks. The feeling, the smell, the sensory experience. What do you hope someone from Rio would feel looking through your zine? And what do you hope someone from outside of Rio will sense?

WR: I think for the people I photographed in Rio, I would really love them to come away with is a sense that they were captured authentically. I'm always shooting up. I always want to make the best of the situation and find the truth of the person and their power and resilience. And I want to capture the best of them. I never want to look down at anything. I really hope that that comes across and that the people who have been photographed feel that they were given agency. And, just touching on the politics, I also hope that they have a record of how powerful and fearless they were at a very sensitive political moment, when it wasn't always easy to walk down the street. I hope that they will have a record to look back on in 20 years’ time and be reminded of how powerful they are, or how cool they are, or how creative they are.

WR: Outside of Brazil, I hope that people see something they haven't seen before. You know, I'm not setting out to say this is how it is. Rather, I'm saying this is what I saw. This was my personal view of Rio. This is what came up in front of me. There are so many kinds of people in this book across the gender, racial, social spectrum. And it would be amazing if someone saw this book and thought, I'd like to go there. That would be the biggest thrill of all.

RW: And will you travel back to Rio soon?

WR: I'm sure I will, yeah. I feel really at home there. What might be nice is to go back in future and do another photo project, maybe in five or ten years, and see how things have evolved. This book was shot over about seven years in sort of bits and pieces. It kind of revealed itself over time, after I'd accrued the images. I think it would be amazing to go back, perhaps more specifically, with the idea of creating a book or a zine and seeing how the people in the book have evolved and how the city has evolved, and the country has evolved. I'd love to create some kind of ongoing record.

RW: Do you think, considering your whole body of photography, you could create this kind of ‘through line’ with other projects?

WR: Definitely. And that's kind of the plan. I've been travelling a lot over the last sort of eight years or so. Rio was the first place, which as I said, kind of revealed itself to me over time. I suddenly realised that I've got a body of work here which I could use in some form. I'd also really love to do one about Japan, where, again, I've got quite a big build-up of work. The ideal for me is to start with a city, then do a country, Japan, and then do a continent, Africa. So, there'll be like a trilogy of books. It's probably going to take me a few years. It's not an easy or cheap process, but the photographs are there.

O NOVO RIO is available to purchase from Dover Street Market on February 16th.

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