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Breathing houses

Fernando Guerra’s architectural photography goes beyond the façade, capturing how the house breathes. Because a building is nothing without people.

Written by Fernando Guerra and Cecilie Harris

“I’m not a collector,” says Canon Ambassador Fernando Guerra, showing off his collection of over a hundred cameras. "I don’t think about their value or selling them, I just like how beautiful they are." Fernando is drawn instinctively to beauty and it is how he captures and brings to life stunning architecture in beautiful photographs. How does a building breathe? How is it used? These are questions he asks and answers. A building is nothing without people, after all. 

“Before I started taking photos, I was drawing. Even at 15, I knew I couldn’t reach the top being a painter, but when I discovered photography, I understood that I could achieve whatever I wanted, as long as I put the work in. It all started in 1986 with my first camera, a Canon T90, which my parents gave to me as a gift. So, the sky was the limit and I fell in love with it. I was taking pictures of everything; flowers, insects, people – I was going everywhere. It soon developed from wanting to take a pretty picture to want the image to be part of something.

I didn’t have any interest in shooting architecture at all, but I did want to be an architect. So I went to university and then to Macao (near Hong Kong) as an architect, designing buildings. For me, architecture was kind of boring in terms of photography. I wanted to be like Alex Webb, shooting stories of people in villages and making the cover of National Geographic. Each time I had a project, I would go to see the site to check the building and take pictures on the way and on my way back to the office, but never of the building itself. I became a hunter of the city, chasing people – in a good way, of course – and trying to tell stories about Macau. It was fun, but I never thought it could be a profession and I was very happy being an architect. Nowadays everyone is a photographer. Back then, you really had to put your time and energy into it. I was using my 35mm camera to capture stories about my neighbourhood and my life. You have to buy the film, learn the techniques, and learn about the statistics of photos. And it was expensive.

On the right, a portrait of Fernando Guerra, looking to the left and holding a camera in his hand. On the left, a quote that reads, "Even today I’m more interested in what’s around the building. How is the building breathing? How do people go in and out? How does it work in the city?"

When I returned home in 1999, my brother had also finished a course in architecture and had the idea of doing architectural photography. I thought it sounded boring – it was just photos of buildings. Soon we had an office together, but no one wanted an architectural photographer. Portugal is not big, and there were two guys already covering all the buildings in the country and I’m the new kid with a camera. But using my 35mm gave me the pace that no one else had, because if you go to a public place and set up a large camera, everyone is looking at you, but with a small camera I could move around freely and unnoticed. My vision took shape to be a reporter who showed the life around the buildings. At first, no one wanted these kinds of pictures, but all of a sudden I was in the right place at the right time. Between 2010 and 2022, Portugal had an incredible architectural revolution. Everyone was building something – and I was taking pictures.

Even today I’m more interested in what’s around the building. How is the building breathing? How do people go in and out? How does it work in the city? If it’s an office, I love shooting people going in. If it’s a house, I like to be with a family. I’m the guy in the corner with a small camera taking photos and my photos are open narratives, not stories. It’s not my job to tell the story of the building, but I take pictures that can help you tell a story if you want to. It’s like I’m working for an imaginary magazine, and my assignment is to show how the building works and how people live in the building.

If you open a magazine from the 90s, all architectural images are devoid of people. This didn’t make any sense to me, and I wanted to include people in the images to add more meaning. A building is nothing without people. Me, I want to tell the story of the family living there. I will wait till the owners and the kids are back. They throw their backpacks in the entrance and run to play or go swimming. They give me the photos because it’s a breathing house and that’s a good day in my life, when I get to tell those stories, to give them a day in the life of the building.

A person in a long clear raincoat stands on a wooden boat in the middle of a pond right outside a low, light grey Brutalist-style building.

© Fernando Guerra

You can’t have a bad day. You always have to be completely on. It’s like being a singer, you have to perform no matter what. I spend 10 hours in a building, waiting for something to happen and I’m just there to capture it. Kids today want to conquer the world in a week and I always tell them that you need to conquer your street first… then your village...

This image is a good example of dealing with terrible circumstances. I went to a site – ‘Building on the Water’ – in the middle of China and the weather was horrible. It was raining a lot, so how could I capture it in this way? I usually go to sunny places with very good light. I asked if they could get me a boat, keeping in mind we were in the middle of China far away from any rivers and oceans. But there was a pond nearby and they had a boat to clean it, so I asked the owner to get in. I’m more or less telling the story of the cleaning of this pond, going slightly beyond the narrative. Adding a layer of information.

My relationship with beauty and the objects I collect come from inside. I want them in my life, but they are also tools. A watch is to see the time, a car is to be driven – they are objects that can be used and this is important for me and dictates my relationship with art. If it’s just a statue or a painting, I have a harder time wanting it. I have old toys, my astronaut gloves for example, for me, are a piece of art, even though they are not. They are objects made for a purpose and they are not filling any purpose now, but they are so beautiful in the way there are made and designed. I stumble into beauty. This search for beauty is a constant in my life. I call it a job when it comes to cameras.

That’s the difference in what I do and the traditional way of showing architecture, which is mostly showing the facade of the building. My aim is to be like a historian, not only to tell the story of how the building is today, but also to leave something for the next generations.”

Learn more about Fernando and his work on his Canon Ambassador profile page.

Fernando Guerra and Cecilie Harris

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