Manuel Bruges wears many hats, but when asked to pick one, he tells people he is a photojournalist.
“It’s the most concise way to explain what I do,” says the 52-year-old.
To call him a modern-day Renaissance man may sound like a cliche, but looking at all the jobs he has done and continues to do — photographer, writer, chef, athlete, inventor, product tester — it’s hard to think of a better description.
His work has taken him across the globe, including to most of Europe and Asia, the U.S. and Canada, a few Caribbean countries, South America and Africa, and often for considerable lengths of time — not that he’s counting.
“For me, the important thing isn’t the number” of countries, he says, “but the length of the visit. I want to spend enough time with the locals to have an idea of their daily lives, pleasures and pains.”
Now living in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, with his Japanese wife, whom he met in New York, and their two children, the wanderer has called Japan home for the past 20 years.
Bruges first felt a strong desire to see the world when he was growing up in Portugal, where he has an interesting pedigree. On his father’s side of the family he is related to the first Marquess of Pombal, who is famous for helping rebuild Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake, and his maternal grandfather was a well-known doctor.
“Pictures in the National Geographic magazines my father subscribed to fascinated me and I loved to dream about wild animals and exotic destinations,” he remembers. “I was also intrigued by the various foreign languages I heard spoken by relatives that came from various European countries on my mother’s side of the family.”
Bruges got a chance to travel to the U.S. when he was a teenager working at an organic restaurant.
“I joined a group of volunteers exploring the healing power of food,” he says. “We visited prisons, giving the inmates holistic food, hoping it would help them turn their lives around, when I met the macrobiotics pioneer, Michio Kushi, who invited me to come to Boston to live in his house and study under him.”
Kushi helped introduce macrobiotics to the U.S. in the 1950s, and along with his wife, Aveline, founded the Kushi Institute.
After a year and a half working with Kushi, Manuel went to Brazil, where he continued his studies of holistics and macrobiotics in the jungle. It was there that encounters with the local fauna got him interested in photography.
“While walking along a trail I encountered a huge toad, and stopped when the beast didn’t move,” he explains. “Curious, I tossed a pebble at it to see what it would do, and to my surprise it jumped toward me. I did it again and the same thing happened, so I went around it. When I told my colleagues about what happened, they said the toad was poisonous and I could have been blinded.”
On another occasion, he says, “I was assigned to care for a sick horse on our ranch that was dying. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with it. Eventually I noticed that vampire bats were sucking the blood out of it at night and we were able to save it. I thought pictures would be the best way to tell my family and friends about these and other amazing things I had seen.”
Moving on to New York in the late ’80s, Bruges worked as a chef at the renowned organic restaurant Angelica Kitchen, where he created what The New York Times crowned as the best organic dessert in the city.
“The dessert was a tofu pie,” Bruges recalls. “The crust was made from oatmeal and almonds, then I added four or five layers of two kinds of sweetened tofu.”
After that, as a tenzo “Buddhist chef,” he was put in charge of the kitchen at a monastery in the northern part of the state.
“We prepared meals for around 25 people on weekdays at the monastery. The number would go up to about 100 on weekends and during o-Bon, as high as 300,” he says, referring to the Japanese Buddhist summer festival.
It was in New York that Bruges honed his skills as a photographer.
“I studied photography at a major school but quit after a short time and became a paid assistant for two world-class photographers,” he says. “I also picked up techniques by observing photo shoots that I was invited to by a designer friend.”
While working on his first photographic assignment in the U.S. for The Washington Post with Charlotte Forbes, an O. Henry Prize winner, Bruges was inspired to master the English language and become a writer.
“Charlotte’s English proficiency highly contrasted with my lack of it. At the time I never thought of becoming a writer, but right there I vowed to improve my English language skills,” Bruges says. “Today, after a long and continuous effort, I’m a published writer. Writing in a second language still doesn’t come easy, but the rewards stimulate my efforts and keep me going.”
Manuel has had a wealth of interesting experiences on assignments with numerous companies and publications, including FujiFilm, The Discovery Channel and the Asahi Shimbun.
One of the places he felt the most welcome on his travels was Iran, where he worked for a month under the sponsorship of camera and lens makers Cosina and Ricoh.
“People in Iran are very cautious as there are many rules that must be followed, the police are quite strict and I could sense a tension in the streets,” he says. “But after working and living with Iranians, I found they are a very kind and welcoming people once they get to know you.”
Another experience that left a lasting impression was a pilgrimage Bruges joined in his home country of Portugal. He was amazed by the deep faith of the group of about 20 people from a poor fishing village he accompanied on a journey to the holy city of Fatima.
“Some of the pilgrims were barefoot but we walked all day, sleeping in gymnasiums at night,” says Bruges. “The most devout lined up to take turns crawling on their knees more than 100 feet down a sloping path to the chapel at the end.”
At the other end of the spectrum, his job has also afforded him the odd spot of luxury and taken him to beautiful places.
“Portugal is not a rich country, so they often preserve old castles by turning them into hotels,” he explains. “When photographing and writing about some of these castles I ate in dining rooms under beautiful fresco and slept in beds next to intricate tapestries that were hundreds of years old.”
One constant throughout Bruges’ life has been boxing. Bruges started when he was 14 in Portugal, where he won some regional championships, and continued fighting in New York and after coming to Japan.
“I trained at the legendary Gleason’s Gym and fought in Golden Gloves matches in New York and New Jersey,” he says. “I continued training at the famous Yonekura Gym after I moved to Japan and often sparred with Japanese world champions. Yonekura encouraged me to go pro, but I declined.”
Manuel invented an innovative internal combustion gas turbine that could be used in a thermoelectric power plant when he worked for an inventor in Japan.
“The turbine was patented in Europe and Japan but it was never sold, which is a shame because it has the potential to create more energy than a nuclear generator,” Bruges says.
Testing products such as cameras, motorcycles, outdoor wear and equipment is another one of Bruges’ jobs.
“I did the 88-temple pilgrimage in Shikoku to test rainwear, and it’s true what they say about the kindness of the locals,” he says. “I remember an old lady gave me a ¥1,000 bill. When riding Triumph motorcycles in London and Paris I experienced brutal city traffic and torrential rain.”
A modest man, Manuel says that from a young age he hasn’t cared much for prizes, diplomas, awards and the like.
“I’m just a small guy surviving the best I can. My aim is to grow personally and learn as much as possible about the world. I think my greatest achievement is having been able to maintain friendships back home,” Bruges says.
“Even after long absences — one of them about nine years without returning to Portugal — I still have tight relationships with my childhood and teenage friends. I treasure these friendships far more than any of my pictures, writing, publications, sports achievements, patents and so on.”