Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
VLADMIR DAMIANOS (# 19)
Born in Açu, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil
Father & Mother both born in Brazil
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Brazilian
Brazil is a country of extraordinary biodiversity: in the 16th century, before the European invasions, there were estimated to be 2,000 indigenous tribes living in the country’s magnificent virgin forests and on its vast plains. With the Europeans came a period of extermination, ethnic cleansing, and the theft of land and property, an indelible stain on what we think of as European ‘civilisation’. In 1997, just over 200 indigenous tribes might still be identified and, of these, 60 were yet to be contacted.
Vladmir was born into a lower middle-class family in Açu, Rio Grande do Norte, in the northeast region of Brazil. He has one younger sister. Although both his parents have a Portuguese surname, the family has lived for several generations in Brazil and are Brazilian. Açu, or ‘Big Tribe’, is actually an indigenous name, given by its first inhabitants, the Janduis Indians. Vladmir’s father was a local government ‘supervisor of income’ and while his maternal grandmother lived in Açu, Vladmir’s family had to move frequently as his father was posted to different cities around the region. “I always felt like an outsider: between the ages of four and eighteen, I lived in nine cities, so every time I was beginning to establish new friendships, we had to move”. Not surprisingly, his grandmother’s house was in many ways the focal point of Vladmir’s young life: it was a welcoming household, always full of life, but very Catholic and conservative.
Vladmir attended three different primary schools in three different cities and having excelled nonetheless, he was able to begin his secondary education at the age of ten, entering a local Catholic College run by nuns. The College was very strict and maintained high educational and moral standards. Vladmir thinks of it fondly even now though he recalls that at school he was never taught anything about the indigenous peoples of Brazil or the true story of the colonisation, let alone any indigenous languages. The College was also the place where he started to learn English, his first foreign language, and it delighted him. Aged 13, he took the next step in his education, High School, first in Açu, then two further years in another two cities, Mossoró and Caicó, while the family lived nearby.
Between those years, the family had lived on the coast, in the magnificent city of Areia Branca. “It was the place that was to have a profound influence on my life: as an older teenager, I met there a group of rather remarkable friends, six of them, and they played a part in my life for many years - they are in my thoughts even now.” At that time, Vladmir was not only a good scholar but also a passionate volleyball player. For his final year in high school he lived in Caicó, and his life there revolved rather too much around volleyball, to the neglect of his studies, and he failed his finals. “I had already experienced, at the time, living in student hostels, but this was different because my father was in another nearby city, so I could run my own life at only 16! I believe that made me independent quite early on.”
Having been educationally very advanced up to that point, he was expected to go on to university at the tender age of 16, but this was now not to be; Vladmir had to repeat his final year. “At the age of 18, I dated girlfriends occasionally but volleyball was the great love of my life, followed, of course, by the company of my six remarkable friends. There seemed to be something magical about Areia Branca, and people there had broader horizons, felt happy to express themselves more freely, and generally embraced life as it is. My mother said that it was not a good city to raise children in but for me it was paradise.”
Vladmir and his new group of friends, seven in total – five boys and two girls - enjoyed dressing originally and for themselves, listened to an eclectic range of music, and watched foreign films; they were happy to be different. “We looked unconventional and we loved it, of course! Then, as I approached 20, it turned out that everyone in our group was gay. I thought the seven of us would stay friends forever, but some had to move to other cities and nowadays only two of them remain amongst my best friends. Areia Branca was accepting in many ways: we were all ‘outsiders’, but it didn’t feel that way. Life felt good, challenging and surprising, yet we were happy, young and free.”
As in most poorer families, Vladmir’s parents were aspirational: they expected their son to go to university, get a well-paid job, get married and to bring grandchildren into their lives. Vladmir, on the other hand, lived for his dreams of becoming a dancer, for his sport, and for the company of his dear friends. “To this day I still feel sad that I never had support from my family on this point, as dance was not a boy thing.” However, Vladmir did continue his studies at a private university in the local capital, studying Tourism, which had the benefit of allowing him to improve his English further. It was also a time of discovery and, as he was living in a student hostel, of meeting interesting people from all over the world, most of them enjoying their gap years - for the first time, Vladmir started to harbour thoughts about a life outside Brazil.
“It was at that stage I realised that while I respected my parents’ expectations of me, it was only I alone who could determine the course of my life. I also felt that Natal had nothing to give to me: Brazilian society can be quite hypocritical and homophobic and I had experienced bullying at first-hand as a teenager.” During his time at university, Vladmir managed to get a job in the offices of a corporate lawyer, which was a helpful and enjoyable introduction to the law and the world of work. He industriously continued working there for one more year after graduating, since there was little prospect of getting an office job or a job within tourism at that time in Natal - “unless you were wealthy or were supported by a politician or society person, you did not get to work in travel agencies or hotels.”
Then, at the age of 25, Vladmir saved some money and came to London; it was his first trip abroad. The cool, temperate climate of England was such a pleasant change from the unpleasantly hot Natal: “I loved London’s amazing cosmopolitan feel, with peoples from all over the globe, seemingly happily coexisting; I was equally amazed by the great diversity of styles seen on the streets, all of which appeared to be acceptable; so I felt from the start that I wanted to live here, specially for the cold climate. During that year in London, I enjoyed life to the full, clubbing and dancing to the early hours, but also attending school and improving my spoken English, as well as experimenting with different clothing and styles - these were never designed to shock, but were always in harmony with my spirit and how I felt.”
Vladmir also discovered the treasure trove to be found in the myriads of second-hand shops - not really a part of Brazilian culture. He was also astonished to witness how open London’s gay scene already was, certainly in comparison with Brazil. “Perhaps because of my relatively provincial and certainly conservative Catholic background, my approach to it all was very cautious, despite any curiosity or amazement.”
“I had this strange notion that after one year of life in London, I would perhaps return to Brazil and come back here after another year.” Having indeed returned to Brazil, Vladmir felt that he no longer belonged there and, in any case, it proved almost impossible to get a suitable job in Natal. So, after striving to find work for a few months, he finally got an English teaching job, saved, and returned to London, this time determined to stay. The city was already familiar and the practicalities seemed easier to manage – whilst studying English, he worked initially as a receptionist, waiter, and did jobs in retail, eventually creating a home here with his boyfriend.
After living in London for a few years, Vladmir came to realise that although ‘accepted’ by society, things weren’t always that simple for gay men with an extrovert and unconventional mode of dress. He experienced bullying and discrimination in the workplace and lost more than one job, including from supposedly liberal ‘arts’ establishments, because of his attire and hair colour. With these experiences came the realisation that, even in apparently avant garde venues, conventionality still had enormous influence, even in cosmopolitan London. Regardless of these difficulties, Vlad refused to change his appearance and, overall, felt that his experiences had helped to “toughen him up” - he never changed the way he looked or thought.
From early childhood, Vladmir clearly had a creative streak, but being brought up in small places, by parents with no interest in the arts, there were no opportunities to explore these underlying creative talents. He longed to be a dancer, but the more conventional education path was the only avenue that had been open to him. Being part of that group of seven friends gave Vladmir the chance to explore unconventional hairstyles, unusual combinations of clothing and shoes, as well as music, film and fashions. The ‘seven’ learned from each other and pushed out the boundaries; they enjoyed being different from the majority of their contemporaries, who chose to be like everyone else and have no sense of personal style, and they stood up for themselves against what were the ‘over-the-top’, often hypocritical, Catholic beliefs of Brazil. Although Vladmir still dreams of becoming a dancer - he gave three performances last year, all dance-related - his creativity is now also taking different directions, such as his drawing and photography, as well as his acquisition of foreign languages – he speaks four of them.
Now a London habitué, Vladmir stands out from the crowd almost without exception; he is always true to himself and dresses for himself only, consistently presented in the way he finds best-suited to his personality. Of course, Vladmir enjoys being and looking unconventional. Many would argue that this makes him look exotic and marks him as an outsider and, in principle, he would agree; the idea of uniforms and uniformity is senseless to him, he has rejected this since he was a teenager. “I don’t like to follow others or dress the way they do. I would feel uncomfortable being ‘suited and booted’, like a penguin.”
Vladmir enjoys observing fashion but following it slavishly is something he would never do. He doesn’t like the idea of adhering to a single trend or style dictated by others; for him, one’s personal style is something to be experienced and experimented with, changed and rearranged, always in a way that should please oneself, but always so as to be in harmony with one’s inner being. While for him, it is a major form of self-expression, he does respect other people’s choice of revealing their personalities; he just wishes that they too could show respect for individuals who feel they don’t want to follow any particular principles or conventions with regard to their appearance. Often when he goes to work, people still stare at Vladmir’s hair or clothing in a negatively judgemental way, and sometimes he is exposed to the aggression of bullies or extremists who see his appearance as outrageous and unacceptable, deliberately bumping into him in the streets, or even spitting when they see him pass by. Vladmir cannot see such behaviour as anything other than unreasonable and extremely disrespectful.
Vladmir loves London and England but respects his roots too. Brazil is ever-present in his life; it is his foundation and in many ways also his inspiration, especially the indigenous forgotten people. “When I agreed to be a part of this project, I gave considerable thought to how I might present myself in a contemporary way yet also reveal through the portrait some of my true Brazilian roots. Since my childhood, I have admired the most wonderful, colourful appearance of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, their mutual respect and values of brotherhood, their extensive use of body paints, piercings, body markings and hairstyles, not to mention their most amazing jewellery and clothing. They filled me with awe when I was a child and they continue to inspire me to this day. It is such a shame that the Brazilian population is largely so Americanised, seeming to know little (and care even less) about these astonishing cultures and peoples who are the true Brazilians and who still live for their tribes, with their genuine concern for land preservation and their care for nature. In many ways, they seem to be less valued in Brazilian society nowadays, and the fact the current government wants, after so many centuries, to give back some of their land, doesn’t justify the way they’ve been left behind, and even ignored! In none of the cities I’ve been to in Brazil have I ever seen a single monument, or anything that relates remotely to our indigenous heritage. That makes me very angry indeed and I wanted that anger to be expressed in my portrait.”
Interview Date: 3rd July 2013
Updated: 5th August 2013
Now a London habitué, Vladmir certainly stands out; presented always in the most arresting way, he is renowned for his extraordinary sense of style. Vladmir enjoys being and looking un-usual and many think this marks him as an outsider; in principle, he agrees, as uniforms and uniformity seem senseless to him - he has avoided them all his life. Exemplifying these views, Vladmir admires the wonderful, colourful appearance of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, their mutual respect and values, their extensive use of body paints, piercings, body markings, and hairstyles, not to mention their amazing jewellery and attire. Having filled him with awe as a child, they inspire him to this day; their current low status in Brazilian society makes him very angry, an anger which is palpable in this portrait.
Photography: London 3rd July 2013