A figure, face hidden, emerges from the dark water. The notches of her spine are visible under the silky expanse, her hair splayed across her back in thick stripes. The outline of her form feels electric, alive to touch as she breaches the surface. The photograph is titled Alvorado (Dawn); the rebirth of a day, or perhaps a life. A baptism.

Baptism is a rite, most often a religious one, that symbolizes purification, admission to an institution, or a form of renewal. One can be baptized by water or fire, a plunge into the holy or a challenging rite of passage towards endurance. The ancient Greek word, a latinized ‘baptizein,’ meant not only to dip or immerse, but also to sink, overwhelm, or disable. This particular definition encompasses two extremities, for to baptize can mean to bring one to faith as much as it can seemingly push one under and away.

Alvorada. Rio Negro, Amazonas, 2018 © Gleeson Paulino

Gleeson Paulino’s evocative body of work Batismo takes the concept of baptism as one of immersive reconnection. Born in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Paulino was raised in a conservative Evangelical family. His childhood and early adolescent experiences were bound by the strict rules of religion, overwhelming his sense of self.

“Photography allowed me to escape my reality,” notes Paulino. Leaving Brazil at 17 was a way to explore the world at large and the one closer—the world within himself. “I felt caged for many years, inside of this religion. I never had a chance to actually get to know Brazil.” He decided to move to Europe, and began to work at photography studios, assisting on shoots and accepting editorial work. At 19, a friend took him to the seaside, where Paulino was too shy to admit that he had never seen the ocean. “I grew up in the middle of Brazil. I had never seen the beach before moving to England.”

Frutos. Manaus, Amazonas, 2019 © Gleeson Paulino

He built a career, an artistic practice, and a community in England. Yet after living there for a number of years, he had the sensation that he “didn’t belong to this place” and so, he returned to Brazil. This homecoming proved to be complicated in its own right. “Brazil is almost a continent unto itself, it’s so large, there is so much culture. When I got back here I thought, ‘I need to find a way to try and understand, to answer the questions on my mind. What is Brazil and who am I?’”

Identity is a complicated, ever-shifting notion. It can be an unwieldy moving target. Brazil is the fifth largest country by area, sixth largest by population, and one of the most multicultural and ethnically diverse societies in the world. Over 214 million people reside across its 8.5 million square kilometers. Upon his return, Paulino began to travel, crisscrossing the country to see it and engage with it for the first time. Guided by a certain degree of impulsiveness and intuition, he plunged into the challenge of finding a new understanding of himself and his country.

Renúncia. Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul, 2019 © Gleeson Paulino

Tracing bodies of water across this vast terrain, the route of his journey was shaped by a curiosity about this ritual. Batismo is rich in symbolism and atmosphere. Across the images, the process of baptism emerges as one of reconnection; an exploration of past and present. Tying together religious and secular elements, water runs through the work. It is a medium of renewal, forgiveness, encounter, and play.

Refúgio. Rio Negro, Amazonas, 2019 © Gleeson Paulino

For Paulino, it was the photograph Alvorada that unlocked the relationship between baptism and the environment. Whilst traveling to the Amazon, he received a call from his mother, informing him of the death of his grandfather. Conflicted over whether to stay or go, he told himself, “I’m going to stay here and feel connected to nature.” Describing the experience, he explains, “the next morning when I woke up, I took this picture. It reflects the circle of baptism, as if he was going into another dimension. And at the time, I started to realize that a type of religion can also be a connection with nature, with this immersive universe.”

Spanning different places and people, the project explores manifold expressions of this ritual. In Brio, an Indigenous man stands in the water, wearing a necklace made of animal teeth, his Oakley sunglasses reflecting the sunlight, dazzling in the river. To Paulino he represents the in-between spaces of Brazil, the multiple worlds that exist and co-mingle, confounding easy interpretations of identity and political realities.

Brio. Rio Negro, Amazonas, 2019 © Gleeson Paulino

In another image, two boys float in the water, sun dappling the surface. The photograph is titled Memórias que não me pertencem (Memories that don’t belong to me). It radiates the heat and dreamlike quality of a summer day. In reconnecting with Brazil through the process of making photographs, Paulino found himself reconnecting to his early years. “It reminds me so much of my childhood, the traumas of childhood and how they affect you, but it also touches on this new circle of my understanding of where I am right now.”

Temor. Quilombo Kalunga, Goiás, 2019 © Gleeson Paulino

The photographs that make up Batismo are arresting, the result of a searching, exploratory eye. Paulino’s compositions are simple, direct. Juxtaposed against the beauty of their color they draw the viewer in. In Frutos (Fruits), hands grasp eggs in a bowl whilst a red hammock, slashing through the frame, cradles a figure. In Temor (Fear), the image is filled by a hand clutching a green shirt, twisting the religious image into a vortex. “I’ve always been fascinated by how light enters a space and shapes it. As a child I was always interested in how light changes everything. When I was in England, visiting the national museums and looking at paintings, I was so amazed how artists could perfectly capture how light enters through a window. In Brazil we have so much color, it’s a very natural, intuitive process to photograph it.”

In returning to Brazil, Paulino has completed a circle—creating a poetic vision for himself, composed of his own experiences and explorations, his memories and fantasies. If photography originally positioned itself as an escape, the artist has transformed it into a means of access. For Paulino, Batismo is just the beginning. “There is so much to explore about my childhood, Brazil, the environment. Photography is the process that has made me,” he reflects. “It was therapeutic in the way that it helped me see the things I needed to see—including the beauty of Brazil.”

Editor’s note: We discovered Gleeson’s work through LensCulture’s Critics’ Choice Awards 2022. For more award-winning discoveries, take a look here.