Interview: Rui Camilo – Over the Islands of Africa, São Tomé and Príncipe

Rui Camilo - Sao Tome and Principe

Photographer Rui Camilo.

Where to start with an all-rounder like Rui Camilo? I got to know and appreciate Rui quite some time ago through my editorial activities at a marketing fair in Munich. Back then Camilo was co-founder of the photo agency Deepol, which he later sold to Plainpicture. We started chatting straight away and a bit later I was shooting photos myself for Deepol and he supported me during my Bangkok photo project. Many ideas and various projects started to spread and with our Over the Islands of Africa – SãoTomé and Principe collaboration things finally came together. Rui Camilo shot the photos and I accompanied him together with Ploi Malakul (Rupa Design) and Thomas Wartmann (Filmquadrat) to process his motives for the newly released iPhone and iPad app. The “PIXSFILMS Coffee Tablet Book“ Over the Islands of Africa – SãoTomé and Principe contains a 43 minutes documentary about Rui Camilo and a selection of his best shots from the project as download App – so to speak a DVD with bonus material in App format.

Rui Camilo - Sao Tome and PrincipeRui Camilo - Sao Tome and Principe

In this App we are traveling with Rui Camilo to the relatively unknown African insular state named São Tomé und Príncipe, to portray the soul of this tiny country through a collection of unique photos: fascinating landscapes from bird’s eye view and unseen insights into the life of human beings who are populating a tropical island that looks like a Hollywood movie set. This project by Ruis is based on a dream from his childhood in Lisbon when his teacher was telling enthusiastic stories about the cocoa plantations of the picturesque Portuguese colony.


Name: Rui Camilo
Place of residence: Wiesbaden, Germany
Profession: photographer
Main focus: people, portrait, reporting, architecture and landscape

Rui, how did the “Over the African Islands SãoTomé and Principe” project actually start?
Thomas Wartmann from Filmquadrat gave me a call and told me about the idea for “Over the African Islands SãoTomé and Principe” and asked if I wanted to do some research and shoot photos. Thomas and the director Christian Schidlowski were looking for a photographer that would fit the project form a stylistic point of view and speaks Portuguese as well. Then I got recommended by Ami Vitale (she did the photos for Madagascar) who I got to know in Iceland, where we did a presentation on photography in Reykjavik together, and she knew that I speak Portuguese. Thanks Ami, by the way!

SãoTomé used to be the biggest cocoa manufacturer worldwide, can you still find some industry there or did it completely disappear?
The only kind of industry that exists and still is growing, is the oil industry. During my travels on SãoTomé I met the incumbent oil minister and spoke with him about the whole thing. As soon as they find oil, a lot of cash is flowing for a small group of people, but if something goes wrong, everybody on SãoTomé and Principe has to suffer the consequences. Even a complete collapse of the ecosystem can be the result for the small island. There are a lot of endemic (species that can only be found on those islands) animals and plants, and the population is highly dependent on the ocean. Oil has been found in very deep water in the Gulf of Guinea and the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico showed what a big mess oil production can cause. I hope that the ecological and public good of the islands and its people is in the center of attention, and not the greed and profit of a few consolidated companies!
Besides that they still plant cocoa, as well as coffee, vanilla, pepper, etc., but not in the quantities like during the colonial era. The chocolate from Claudio Corallo, who owns a cocoa plantation on Principe, tastes fantastic and the vanilla from Carino Espirito is incredibly intensive and aromatic. A lot of people on SãoTomé and Principe would love to resurrect the old plantations, but they simply don’t have the money to do it and it is very hard to find investors.

Rui Camilo - Sao Tome and Principe

Everywhere on the islands the overgrown ruins are still recollecting the legacy of the colonial power, where today the descendants of former slaves are living. Was it hard for you to get in touch and with the local people and gain some insights into their lives?
I have to say that the locals made it very easy for me. They were never importunate and always hospitable and helpful. You can achieve a great deal all over the world with a little bit of respect and kindness, and speaking the national language definitely made it a lot easier to have a real conversation. As soon as I recognized that somebody doesn’t want to be photographed, I didn’t do it of course. I wouldn’t like it either if somebody pesters me to get a photo without my permission. Therefore I have to give those people first the chance to get to know and accept me, before I come another day to get some photos. Of course there isn’t always so much time as photographer and there are situation, where you have to react immediately, but in that case you have to balance quickly.
Rui Camilo - Sao Tome and Principe

Christopher Columbus once said “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” How did you actually travel on and between the islands?
Between the islands I’ve been hopping with the twin-engined machine from “African Connection”, and on the islands with jeep, bus, taxi and canoe, but predominantly by foot. When you move by foot, you got the necessary slowness for seeing things.

From my point of view the portraits that were taken on the islands seem very expressive. The faces of the locals are telling much more stories than every other panoramic picture. Their nativeness and elegance is simply unique. Who or what made the biggest impression on you?
I’ve been especially fascinated by people that I photographed there and I would have loved to intensify the one or another acquaintance. With Joao Carlos Silva from the Rossa Sao Joao if been very impressed by his decision to return to SãoTomé and helping to build the cultural center C.A.C.A.O. that the locals get the chance to be artistically creative, to make music, to learn cooking, etc. This project on SãoTomé is unique and completely self-financed. Joao Carlos is a pretty famous TV cook in Portugal and could afford a nice and easy living in Europe, but he preferred to live on SãoTomé and use his knowledge for the common good. Much respect Joao Carlos!

Rui Camilo - Sao Tome and PrincipeRui Camilo - Sao Tome and Principe

During the project you also organized a photo workshop on the island for the kids. What was the main difference between those kids and “Western” kids in terms of handling the camera?
Of course the local kids there don’t have those technical gadgets that we have in the West. Stuff like cameras, game pads, computers are way too prohibitive for the islanders. There are hardly any normal toys, but the children really don’t seem to miss them. They’re used to play in and with the nature, and in doing so they probably enjoy more variety and excitement than in a jam-packed toy store. Whenever I watched those kids playing happily in the river, I even felt sorry for our children because Western kids are more and more lacking of a frolic and uncomplicated childhood, and are exposed to the stress and pressure of our performance-related society at a very early age. The kids in the workshop were pretty shy, but endlessly thankful that they were allowed to take part. They were really attentive and concentrated, and worked avidly on the arrangement of the pictures. Furthermore they weren’t scared to take any bad pictures and in this way they approached the whole thing completely relaxed and open-minded. The result was the perfect proof and I’ve been really impressed by the pictures of these little personalities. There isn’t a secondary school in Angolares and therefore only privileged kids from richer families, who can afford to send their children to the capital, are able to continue school. The rest are getting a bad break. To go to university, the students have to move to Portugal because there is no university on SãoTomé. I hope that they’re using some possible profit from the oil production for the development and modernization of the school system that in the future all kids are having the same chance on a solid education.

Will the kids’ photo project be continued after your departure from the island? If yes, is there already a website about the project?
There isn’t a website so far, but I’m trying to find a magazine that is interested to cover the entire story. I definitely want to continue the project and hope to find some financial support. Right now I’m collecting old instruments for Joao Carlos Silva and his cultural center C.A.C.A.O. He’s also supervising the donated cameras because the C.A.C.A.O. owns a computer, where the kids can watch and work on the photos. I’m collecting Portuguese photography books too, that I can give the C.A.C.A.O. library when I go there next time.

Is there any experience on the islands that changed your own perspective on photography?
My perspective on photography is somehow under a constant change and I will always try to develop and expand the knowledge on my profession. It’s definitely important to have the know-how and some role models, but there comes a time when you have to follow your own creative instinct. Of course that’s not that easy from time to time, but as I almost spent a month on Sao Tomé, I have even been able to work myself off on certain topics. Time and muse are pretty important for a project like this and helped to satisfy my own expectations on the entire mission. Jobs like that are as well necessary to revive your creative and artistic impulse, and collect new ideas for your own career.

The highly valued Rene Burri once said: “One of these days I’am going to publish a book of all the pictures I did not take. It is going to be a huge hit.” Your pictures on SãoTomé and Principe are completed and have just been published as App with photos and documentary. I wish you all the best for the App and of course many, many downloads! Get your hands on the beautiful and brilliant Over the Islands of Africa – SãoTomé and Principe App here.

“Over the Islands of Africa” is a five-part documentary series about the islands of Africa. Accompany five renowned photographers, who discover the islands of Africa: Zanzibar, Mauritius, Madagascar, São Tomé & Príncipe and Cape Verde or visit the project site here!

Rui Camilo - Sao Tome and Principe