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Portuguese Photographer Documents Lowell’s Luso-American Community

Pedro Letria is Gulbenkian-Saab Visiting Professor in Portuguese Studies

Portuguese Studies Visiting Prof. Pedro Letria with the clown photo from his show "Maskirovka" Photo by K. Webster
Photographer Pedro Letria, the Gulbenkian-Saab visiting professor of Portuguese Studies, and a photo from his exhibit "Maskirovka."

12/01/2021
By Katharine Webster

Visiting Prof. Pedro Letria, a Portuguese photographer and writer, is fascinated by how images can be simultaneously revealing and misleading.

In one photo in his recent show at the University Art Gallery, a man kneels to inscribe a Star of David on a wall. Next to that is a photo of a man wearing an SS uniform. 

There are no captions or titles, and viewers of Letria’s work could be forgiven for assuming the first man is Jewish and the second a Nazi sympathizer. Yet the man inscribing the symbol of Judaism is a Christian performing a Day of Kings ritual in Portugal, Letria explains. And the second man, who is Dutch, portrays a Nazi in a historical reenactment of the liberation of Paris every year. 

Two photos by Pedro Letria from his show "Maskirovka" Photo by Pedro Letria
Side by side photos in Letria's exhibit at the University Art Gallery.
“We accept a photo as having some connection to reality – and yet we can be completely misled,” says Letria, the Gulbenkian-Saab Visiting Professor in Portuguese Studies this fall. “The images are removed from their context, and the way we construct meaning is heavily dependent on the context in which it is viewed.”

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

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

“They’re reading texts by people who are makers and thinkers, and who wrote texts that challenge the way we look at and take pictures,” he says. “We’re having discussions around landscape, portraits, and documentary and archive photography.”

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

Art and Graphic Design Chair Ellen Wetmore says students in Letria’s class are getting a unique perspective on American culture: “His influence is a welcome way to broaden their minds.”

Portuguese actor Diogo Doria in a photo by Pedro Letria Photo by Pedro Letria
Portuguese actor Diogo Doria, the star of the short film in "Maskirovka" by Pedro Letria.
Letria first visited UMass Lowell two years ago to help celebrate the fifth anniversary of the university’s Saab Center for Portuguese Studies by giving a talk at a photography show – “The Azores: Nine Islands, Nine Photographs” – to which he had contributed.

He was invited to return this fall in the visiting professorship, which is sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Saab family and UML’s College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Frank Sousa, director of the Saab Center and professor of Portuguese, says that in addition to teaching the photography class, Letria has another mission: to contribute to the center’s Portuguese American Digital Archive, which was established last year with a $300,000 grant from the William F. Wood Foundation. 

And there, the university got doubly lucky, Sousa says. Letria’s wife, journalist Cláudia Lobo, joined him for the semester, taking a leave of absence from the Visão newsweekly group, where she is chief editor of the history and children’s magazines. 

Lobo is now recording oral histories, nearly all of them in Portuguese, from Portuguese American residents of Lowell’s Back Central neighborhood, and Letria is photographing them. The pair rented an apartment in Back Central and were quickly welcomed into the community, Sousa says.

“They’ve built these amazing relationships. Pedro walks around the neighborhood and starts talking to people, and before you know it, people are excited about being photographed and they’re inviting him and her into their homes,” he says.

Portuguese journalist Claudia Lobo with Maria Arseneault at Valentina's Portuguese Market in Back Central, Lowell Photo by K. Webster
Journalist Claudia Lobo, right, at Valentina's Portuguese Market with owner Maria Arseneault.
Letria and Lobo are working on two projects for the archive: documenting the lives of a group of textile engineers and mill workers who immigrated to Lowell from Covilhã, Portugal, and chronicling the modern-day Portuguese American community in Lowell. 
 
“I attend every function I hear about, invited or not. I’ve even been the official photographer for some events,” Letria says, laughing. “They are wonderful people who are very kind and generous.”

The pair have connected with all the social and religious organizations in the community, too, Lobo says, including The Holy Ghost Society, St. Anthony Catholic Church, two Portuguese social clubs and a veterans’ organization. 

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

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

“They’re giving me an idea of what Portugal was like during that time and why they had to leave their country,” she says. “Also, I’m from the mainland, and I’ve been discovering a part of Portugal (the Azores) I didn’t know very well.”

Letria will give a public online talk about his work in Back Central on Tuesday, Dec. 7. 

Sousa says that Letria and Lobo are making an invaluable contribution to the Portuguese American Digital Archive, and some of their work could become 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 here that could bring visibility to the community and strengthen our center,” he says.