Documentary Program at the International Center of Photography
Joao Lutz: Baptism


Heidi: You came to NYC as a filmmaker with a handful of international clients. What drew you to the Documentary Program at the International Center of Photography?
Joao: My transition from film to stills was driven by a desire to explore a different form of storytelling. As a filmmaker, I was used to working with motion and sound to convey narratives. However, I became increasingly fascinated by the challenge of telling compelling stories through single frames and the magic space that breathes in the gaps between them. Photography offered me a new way to capture moments and emotions more intimately and immediately

In filmmaking, I often create stories, but with photography, I had the opportunity to discover and reveal the unexpected narratives that exist in the world around us. This element of surprise and discovery is exciting. The amazement of realizing situations a documentary project can take you is extremely fulfilling.
I was drawn to ICP because it provided an opportunity to deepen my understanding of visual storytelling through real-life narratives. The program’s emphasis on developing a cohesive narrative through still images resonated with my desire to hone my skills. Although I transitioned to still photography, I haven’t stopped working as a filmmaker. I continue to pursue both fields. I believe they don’t have to be set apart and are exceptional tools to create rich, multidimensional approaches to storytelling.

How did the Baptism project come about?
Baptism began from my fascination with the resilience and dedication of open water swimmers in Brighton Beach, New York, during the winter months. Growing up in Brazil, I spent most of my time on a farm or in a small town by the ocean. When I moved to New York, the beach became a place of comfort and familiarity. It made sense for my first documentary project to focus on a location where I felt somewhat at home. The project involved waking up at 3:30 AM two to three times a week to be at the beach by 6:00 AM to photograph these swimmers.

Initially, I was drawn by the extreme nature of their practice and the stark contrast between the bustling city of New York and the serene, spiritual connection these swimmers found with nature at Brighton Beach. This juxtaposition of city life and nature’s tranquility fascinated me. As I spent more time with them and engaged in deeper conversations, I realized it was much more than that. The project evolved to capture a community of people who come together to find spiritual solace and connection in the water.

Was it difficult to connect with the group of swimmers during their swim ritual?
Initially, there was a gradual process of building comfort and familiarity, both for myself and the swimmers. As with any natural human connection, it took time for us to get to know each other and for me to understand their ritual and stories. By consistently showing up and respectfully observing, I gradually gained their trust and became more familiar with their practices. Engaging in conversations, sharing my intentions, and showing genuine interest in their experiences helped build a rapport. Once they understood my goal was to document their journey authentically, they became more open and enthusiastic about participating in the project. I needed to approach the project with sensitivity and respect for their personal and often meditative practice.

How did the ocean inform your photography; what did you learn from this project?
The ocean and the elements played a significant role in shaping my approach to this project. The ever-changing conditions of the ocean and the weather influenced the mood and composition of my photographs. When I started, it was cold but still sunny, and as time went on, it became cloudy, snowy, and extremely windy. Adapting to these conditions was an incredible learning experience. I also began getting into the water myself, which helped me connect with the swimmers on a deeper level. By putting myself in their shoes and feeling the cold water on my skin, I gained an understanding of their experience. This project reinforced the importance of being present and responsive to the environment, allowing the natural elements to guide the visual storytelling. Most importantly, I learned that the practice for these swimmers is not just about physical endurance but a spiritual journey through their connection with the ocean and their surroundings.

What made the most impact for you at ICP? What surprised you?
The most impactful aspect of my time at ICP was the exposure to diverse perspectives and the rigorous critique process. Engaging with a community of passionate photographers and educators pushed me to refine my vision and technique. Coming from a filmmaking background, where I worked for five years, I had never worked on a documentary project. Moving to New York and starting ICP, where I had to work on a long-term documentary project, was challenging. I was used to creating stories rather than finding them in the world.

I struggled with going around and finding stories, which made it challenging. However, jumping into the “Baptism” project made sense because of its connection to my background. Once I opened myself to the project and trusted the process I was fascinated. I felt lucky to have access to such a new world. The more I do it, the more grateful I am to have a camera. It almost feels like a free pass or a passport to stories that I would never be able to see or live.

I was pleasantly surprised by the collaborative spirit and the depth of feedback I received at ICP. The opportunity to learn from industry professionals and peers alike was invaluable. The critiques, though challenging at times, helped me grow as an artist and understand the importance of narrative and emotional connection in my work.

How did the portfolio reviews go?
The portfolio reviews were an enriching experience. I received valuable feedback that validated my efforts and provided me with new directions for my work. Reviewers appreciated the storytelling and visual metaphors in my “Baptism” project, and I gained insights into developing and presenting my work.

How did you prepare for the reviews?
To prepare, I curated my portfolio carefully, ensuring it showcased a cohesive narrative and represented my artistic voice. A significant part of my preparation involved studying who my reviewers were, and understanding their backgrounds, interests, and the kind of work they do. This allowed me to adapt what I showed and how I presented my work to better connect with each reviewer. Knowing and planning how to engage with each person was crucial since every reviewer comes from a different background and interests.

What’s next for you?
I plan to continue exploring subcultures and communities that come together for unusual reasons. My work focuses on capturing these unique groups and the beautiful stories that emerge from their interactions. One of my ongoing projects, “Wheelie,” documents the city stunt bikers in New York City. I’m excited to dive deeper into this project and continue discovering and sharing the compelling narratives within these communities. I also look forward to potential collaborations and assignments that challenge and inspire me to grow further as a photographer.

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