João Urban is a Brazilian photographer of Polish origin, and author of a series about Polish immigrants in the state of Paraná. He was born in Curitiba in 1943.
He has been taking photographs since his youth. In the 1960s, he was involved in politics: he took part in the opposition movement against Brazil's military dictatorship (1964-1985), and he was interrogated for taking pictures of the military during demonstrations. Next, he started working as a photographer in the advertising industry. However, he did not lose his sensitivity to social issues at his job, and they remained of the utmost importance in his artistic work. He took part in various exhibitions both in Brazil and abroad. In 1999, he received the J. P. Morgan Award, and the Bolsa Viate de Artes scholarship a year later.
The German photographer August Sander, known for his portraits, had a big influence on the Curitiba photographer's work. People close to Urban also played a big role in his artistic journey. His uncle – an amateur photographer – had a laboratory in his parent's basement. Urban visited him many times in this improvised dark-room. When his uncle bought a new camera, he gave his old one, a Brownie Jr., to his nephew. Urban cannot recall if he actually took any pictures with it or just pretended to.
One of the main themes of his photographs is the day-to-day life and work of landless peasants. This theme was close to him due to his own family’s situation: one of his close relatives worked on a farm. Urban's photographs documenting the situation of landless peasants at work are some of his most recognizable. Another important series is one documenting representatives of the Polish diaspora in the state of Paraná. At the core of his work of documenting people (whether field workers or Polish immigrants and their descendants) lies in a close connection with fellow human beings and an interest and concern for their fate.
"It’s possible none of this [photographic career] would have worked out if it weren’t for the rural crisis in Paraná," Urban says, recollecting the great exodus that exiled many people from villages to the cities in 1960s. "Any sensitive person was interested in what was happening there at the time", he explains.
He had good contact with the second-generation Polish immigrants, whom he photographed in centres like Cruz Machado, which had a high concentration of Polish people. This was surely in part due to the fact that his mother Janina was from that region in the south of Paraná.
João Urban is the author of numerous photo albums: Landless Labourers: A Partial View (Curitiba, 1988), Tropeiros (São Paulo, 1992), Aparecidas (together with Suzana Barrreto) (Rio de Janeiro, 2002), Here and There – Memories of Polish Immigrants (Curitba, 2004), The Rivers I Walk through – Mother Nature (Curitiba, 2007), Seas and Forests – Mountains, Woods and bays (Curitiba, 2009).
He took part in the 14th Biennale in São Paulo (in 1977), the 15th Biennale in São Paulo (in 1979) and the 5th Biennale in Havana (in 1994). A retrospective of his work entitled Temporary Demarcation: João Urban – 40 Years of Photography was presented at the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba between 2006-2007.
Author: Aleksandra Pluta, July 2015, Translated by: Zuzanna Wiśniewska