In 2014, the Belgian and Portuguese photographer was exploring Tokyo in the early hours of the morning, as he was suffering from jetlag, and captured as much of the city as possible. But when he returned home, he wasn't bowled over by his pictures. "I was not really satisfied with the result because it was flat... I couldn't reproduce the emotion in your guts when you stand in the middle of the cross path of Shibuya or in the streets of Akihabara and the world moves around you," Portela explains. "That chaos, all those people around you, the noise, the temperature, this vibrant atmosphere, it was all gone, my images represented the reality of those places but not the perception I got while being there."
Portela archived the images from his Japan trip and it wasn't until two years later that he decided to do something about them. "I was inspired by the way Japanese anime is colourised," he says. "I remembered the work of Zhang Bin, aka Benjamin, who is a Chinese manhua artist and illustrator. That's when I started to think, maybe colours can help me bring back the atmosphere and the emotions of my compositions."
He began playing around with his Japan photographs and then launched Tokyo's Glow – the first of many series to follow, all featuring cites captured at night "where the colours try to activate the brain in order to reproduce the variables you don't have on a photo, such as temperature, noise, motion," as Portela puts it. "Simply said: Glow is what you remember instead of what you've seen."
So far, we've witnessed Hong Kong, New York and Bangkok enjoy the same "glow" treatment; now Portela has launched his latest – Dubai, the UAE city that he visited in 2019 for a photography festival. "I like that you can really see the urban choreography in every shot, even the ones at Dubai Marina, in which the boats are doing some nice curves," Portela says. "I didn't have time to explore the entire city and to be honest the temperature was crazy hot, I mean it was a nightmare for my lenses with all the condensation. But I guess I'll have another chance in the future when it's fresher."
What is it about night photography that Portela loves so much? "If the sun doesn't light up your composition then it means someone did it, a neon, a led, a street light, a car passing by, all the lights you get at night are there for a specific reason, because someone at a certain time thought about lighting something. Night photography is capturing what people want you to see.
"During the day, the sun takes over to show us everything, which is too much to focus on. That's why most of us just wait for sunrise or sunset to take pictures, when the sun creates shadows and gives a direction to focus on, that's why we all know good spots for sunrise and sunset. I guess I like to capture what humans choose to light up."