This book was bought sometime ago, an impulsive purchase influenced by the cover and the repute of Ricardo Rangel a Mozambican photographer who is of some acclaim at least in Mozambique. He was born in Mozambique of Chinese, Greek and Portuguese ancestry in 1924 and is considered by many to be pivotal in the development of the visual medium.
Rangel’s great fortune was that he was an able photographer and journalist during the country’s watershed moments. In the highly stratified society of colonial Mozambique, he occupied a lesser social position than that of a Portuguese man. Growing up in the suburbs of Lourenco Marques, surrounded by poverty and inequality he learned to use his ability as a photographer to document his experiences.
The book is a posthumous release and in its initial chapters contains long commentaries on Rangel’s capacity and intention to highlight unacceptable (by modern standards) social norms.
The histories told in the book by many of Rangel’s contemporaries suggest that he initially kept most of his material that would not pass the censor board private. His foray into journalism began at what is now Noticias for which he would provide photos. Owing to his ability, he was gradually given greater freedoms over his content which he gladly accepted and often used to throw jibes at the colonial administration.
By the independence of the country in 1975, Rangel had become one of a handful photographers in the good graces of the party that claimed to have liberated Mozambique and to have toppled colonialism, FRELIMO. After independence he distanced himself from work related to politics and spent time as the director of the Center for Documentation and Photography CDFF.
From a technical perspective Rangel is a documentary photographer whose body of work differs to that of Saul Leiter or André Kertész who were more concerned with the creative and aesthetic dimensions of photography. However in the early 1970s, his release of Our Nightly Bread was notable for its capture of silhouettes, movement and of course its visual attestation of a vibrant adult entertainment industry.
The latter part of the book is arguably the best, going much deeper into a historical analysis of the time in which Rangel lived. The city of Lourenco Marques, segregated but not as systematically as apartheid in South Africa personified the prevalent double standards of the time which Rangel captured poetically in his photos.
The backdrop for the series Our Nightly Bread was Rua Araujo. A red-light district near the port and in the heart of the city. The Portuguese colonial administration of the time worked very hard to keep an image of an organized city, fast in progress and righteous as the fascist dictator Antonio Salazar had bespoken.
But the colonies of Portugal saw enormous prosperity and were a source of wealth at a time in which reforms in Portugal were slow. It was normal then for Portuguese to immigrate to Angola and Mozambique in search of better horizons and they found a place comparatively dynamic and liberal.
Portugal’s presence in Africa and other colonies gave rise to a cultural existence not possible elsewhere. Here, some distance away from Salazar’s political machinery it was normal to engage in forms of diversion unacceptable in the motherland. One of these was the frequenting of bars and clubs where African prostitutes entertained white men.
Rangel documented the difficult life of the city’s residents, especially the women who lived a meagre life in the outskirts of the city but would travel to the city to work on Rua Araujo each night. Colonialism was hard on the people of Mozambique. while the men travelled to distant lands in South Africa to work in the mines, their earnings were not sufficient to run the expenses of the home.
Women supplemented the household income by working unusual jobs, forsaking their dignity and morality in the name of survival.
These are the themes, jarring and paradoxical which are discussed heavily towards the end of the book: innocence and guilt; providentialism and hunger; wealth and poverty; faith and renunciation; hopelessness and manufactured happiness.