William Rice is a Northern Irish photographer who, with a fear of staying in one place too long, quit his job in the London music industry in and found his way to Rio de Janeiro. Wanting to document his travels, he bought a camera at the airport that quickly became far more than a documentary tool. Focusing on Rio’s queer community under a right-wing government, his zine O Novo Rio is a powerful ode to queer resistance as queer existence under homophobic governance, assuredly proving that the personal is political; unavoidably so.
O Novo Rio captures Rio de Janeiro from 2015 to 2022 in a political climate dominated by the far right and culminating in the authoritarian presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, a self-professed homophobe, who held four years in office from 2019 to 2022. The zine speaks to issues facing Rio and its youth – religion, politics, sexuality and gender – and documents their resistance to oppression and suppression through intimate escapism and proud self-expression. The zine will be published on 16 February 2024, and will be stocked exclusively in Dover Street Market.
Your zine was created in Rio de Janeiro, yet you grew up in Northern Ireland and worked for some time in the London music industry. It seems like a fascinating geographic trajectory, could you tell us a little bit more about your relationship to each place, and how that eventually led you to Brazil?
For me, it was a journey that evolved slowly and made sense at each point in time. In many ways Brazil is the polar opposite of Ireland (and that’s why I love it) but there are some social similarities, Brazil today reminds me of growing up in Northern Ireland as they are and were both hyper religious and hyper political. Any minority community becomes collateral damage in the machinations of organised religion and politics. For me seeing how Brazilian queer people were spoken about by right wing politicians, and the evocation of religion to denigrate them, reminded me a lot of my own upbringing. In terms of London, I’d lived and worked there for a long time. After I left to go travelling Rio was the first stop.
What prompted you to leave your, seemingly exciting, career as a London music consultant to artists as renowned as Björk, Prince and Sinéad OConnor, and go travelling with a camera instead?
I adored all of the artists I worked with. Looking back I really can’t believe my luck that I got to work with people I admired and respected so much. Ironically it was the artists themselves that made me question my own life and career - one thing that they all had in common was a determination to be totally and uncompromisingly themselves and to never repeat anything they’d done before or do anything that didn’t challenge them. I kind of felt in danger of staying in one place for too long so I quit to go travelling, taking those artists as my lead. I didn’t initially plan photography but I got a camera at the airport on the way (I had an old iPhone at the time and wanted to make a record of my travels).
After leaving your job, Im interested in how you ended up in Rio de Janeiro specifically – what of its culture especially inspired you to create a photography zine documenting your experience there?
Rio always had a strong allure to me. It probably started when I saw the James Bond film Moonraker as a kid. The film was cheesy as anything but I remember thinking that Rio looked wild - there was a fight scene on the cable car up to Sugar Loaf Mountain which made the whole city look incredible. And of course in Europe we would see images of football, carnival and so on which made it look so electric and exciting. Once I started travelling I would often use Rio as an entry point into moving around the rest of Brazil and South America, it was relatively easy to get to from London and I could get a cheap flight with air miles. Each time I would arrive I would think how much I’d like to spend more time there and on subsequent trips ended up spending a few months at a time. There is so much to see there and so much to photograph - the people, the streets, the landscape, nightlife and so on. I didn’t set out to make a book about it but over time this zine kind of revealed itself to me.
Do you primarily work within the realm of portrait photography, or do you pursue a range of styles? What kind of photography, or art more generally, are you drawn to most?
I’m relatively new to photography. It started out as a tool to simply document my travels so that initial stuff was mostly landscape and cityscape and I still love making those kind of images. As I grew in confidence and interest I started shooting people on the street, inspired by old school straight-ups I used to see in i-D Magazine. From there I began some experiments in studio photography. The Rio zine is mostly portraiture and with elements of documentary. For me the photos I’m drawn to always elicit some kind of emotional response, that can come from any type of photography. A feeling of connection to person or place is something that comes naturally to me in Brazil.
Who are some of your artistic references or inspirations?
My frame of reference is usually musically based. Much of  the culture I love I’ve come to through the music and the artists I like, I grew up loving Grace Jones and through her I came to Jean-Paul Goude, similarly New Order and Peter Saville, Björk and Alexander McQueen. The first time I became aware of Robert Mapplethorpe was though a picture he took of the Pet Shop Boys in New York in the mid 80s - the list of musical entry points into wider culture is endless. Funnily enough my favourite photographers don’t usually inspire the pictures I take, I don’t want to make a copy of something someone else does better than I ever could. My favourite photographers are mostly Japanese, in particular Tamotsu Yatō who shot in the late 60s and Eikoh Hosoe. There are elements of physical closeness in their work that might bleed into my own pictures. In Brazil I was introduced to Walter Firmo and Alair Gomes who have both produced fantastical imagery and provided an eye-opening education about Brazilian culture.
The zine is described as part diary, part anthropology and part fantasy. The first descriptor seems clear enough, but could you expand on how the work becomes also partly anthropological and fantastic?
I think the fantasy elements come through most clearly in the pictures of The Week nightclub. It’s a colossal space, everyone is completely out of it and the atmosphere is wild. It’s incredible - like the best clubs it lets you totally forget the daytime. The escapism felt especially powerful inside a queer space exploding during a right-wing government. I think some of the pictures of togetherness elsewhere in the zine reflect certain elements of personal fantasy. Travelling a lot, and alone, I sometimes feel a bit disconnected and lonely and the togetherness in my photography taps into fantasy or feelings about things that might be missing in my own life. I think the anthropological elements come through in the incidental images that come between each chapter, shots of street life, signage, food etc. The things that signify everyday life but are unique to Rio.
The photographs depict the lives of many young people during the rule of the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro government. Would you say the photographs are explicitly political, or else comparatively distant from contemporary Brazilian politics? How do the photographs speak to, upon or against the political?
The personal is political. A queer person standing openly and proudly as themselves in a country run by a homo and trans-phobic president is a deeply powerful statement. It’s also a very simple act of resistance but it might be all that person needs to do to assert themselves and feel like they’ve found a way to live as themselves. You don’t need a t-shirt with a slogan to present a political idea. Photography can either be a piece of political art or simple documentary, either way you’re putting something - an idea, a person - out into the world. One of my hopes for this zine is that the people photographed will be able to take pride in their images being shown both inside Brazil and around the rest of the world. The images show that politically, they could not be beaten.
You mention Brazil reminded you of growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles of the late 80s and 90s. Was it the Brazilian political climate that prompted this comparison, or a cumulation of other factors? In what ways are the experiences of young people similar in Brazil as in Northern Ireland in the 90s?
The main feeling I had in that respect was seeing the dislocation that young queer folk feel in a place dominated by organised religion and conservative politics. The politicians and religious leaders feed off each other to further their own agendas, so the right-wing politicians invoke this horrible sanctimony and the language of religion in order to appear to have some kind of moral superiority. This was the case in Northern Ireland and in Brazil in 2015 to 2022. Minority issues become bargaining chips for politicians, queers especially become pawns in bids to establish conservative and evangelical agendas. However, we know it’s simply impossible to legislate or pontificate against anyone’s sexuality or gender. So its a waste of time that only harms the vulnerable.
Are there any ways in which time has made those experiences, of young people in 2020s Brazil and 90s Northern Ireland, different?
How we communicate has fundamentally changed, the move from analogue to digital has allowed young people to present as themselves and communicate with other similar people much more easily. You can find your tribe online and educate and organise accordingly, in a city like Rio people can gather in a way that in the 80s or 90s wasn’t possible in Ireland. All the queer people I met in Rio were so self-assured and fearless, that’s a big development from the time I grew up.
You mention feeling a kind of dislocation being gay in a hyper religious and political Ireland. If you can, could you expand on this feeling? Do your photos capture a similar feeling in this zine?
To be openly gay in the Northern Irish countryside in the 80s or early 90s would have been a suicidal act. Without any hyperbole or self-pity I’m certain that had I come out at school I’d have been seriously injured if not killed. But that gave me a vivid and rich inner life and an outsider point of view that led to all the good things that have come my way as an adult. I think the people I met and photographed in Rio are able to live with much more agency, and certainly more fearlessly, than I was.
What was your relationship to the subjects of your photos? In what ways did you bond with them, or build some sense of community? (perhaps through the photographic process, through a shared experience, or something else).
I strongly believe in image making as a collaborative process. The days of the photographer being some kind of omnipotent being have long gone (thankfully). So when I’m on a shoot the most important thing to me is that everyone involved either in front of or behind the camera feels like they have agency to be able to be their most creative selves. I think this approach fosters a sense of community on a set. Also many of the folks involved already knew each other - I was lucky to enter existing communities -  all I had to do was hold the camera. There is pain and joy in us all, I think I found that connection with the people I photographed.
More generally, how does photographing other people change the way you see yourself; what kind of self-reflection does it invoke?
Before I started taking my own pictures I’d generally seen photographs as simply images of the subject albeit with a certain style invoked by the photographer. Now I tend to see all photography as, to some extent, self portraiture. I also relate to what Joan Didion said about writing - that she did it to find out what she thought about things. I often take pictures instinctively and then on closer study later I understand a bit more about what drove that instinct and what my feelings really are.
Do you have a favourite photograph within the zine or, if not, perhaps a favourite shoot day? Why is or was it your favourite?
I would find it impossible to pick a single image but I would say that the first chapter in the book Studies in Folklore felt the most at home I’ve ever felt on a shoot. I have the producer Rody Oliveira to thank for that, along with the stylist Rafaela Pinah, they pulled together a cast of their friends and we shot in the most spectacularly beautiful location imaginable, a nature reserve near Rody’s home in Barra De Guaratiba, to the south of Rio’s centre. Rafaela was teaching me about Walter Firmo so it became a very educational experience for me. The three models Beatriz, Cristian and Bruno were so inspiring and brilliant. The shoot was free and creative and a lot of fun, it was a dream for me to shoot like this, I’ll never forget that day.
Björk provided lyrics from her song Wanderlust for the introduction to the zine. Why this song in particular? What does Wanderlust (the song or word) mean to you and your work?
The lines from Wanderlust encapsulate how I’ve lived for the past few years, trying to avoid comfort zones and to be fearless about embracing new situations. It works quite literally - as someone who loves to travel - and metaphorically - about life in general. Björk’s words set the tone for the book far better than I ever could.
Do you have plans to travel anywhere new soon with your camera?
No, I’m London now and will likely be here a while. I’m hoping to make two more books to follow this, one on Japan and one shot across Africa. The idea is to have a city, a country and a continent. I‘ve shot these already. Next I’d love to do more studio work, that’s the immediate goal.