Next Plane to Spain, Please!

By Hans Staartjes

Photographs, like powerful experiences, can leave an indelible mark in one’s consciousness. It was impossible not to be affected in such a way by Cristina Garcia Rodero’s images of Spain. Though we know Spain as a great culture with what many consider somewhat barbaric traditions such as bullfighting, few people other than Spaniards themselves could know other peculiarly Spanish rituals and customs. There were more than a few open mouths among those viewing this work.
The show began with images of men and women in strange hoods and robes parading ceremonially through rural roads and small towns, often bearing a crucifix or a candle. These images had a dour medieval quality about them that was beautifully enhanced by the dark gritty character of the prints. Many of these images were taken in the southern province of Andalusia, a largely poor region (unlike the tourist ridden coast) historically wrenched by Christian and Muslim faith. Profoundly Catholic, the Andalusians are also known for their revelry. Some of Garcia Rodero’s most poignant images reveal the juxtaposition of strong religious devotion and drunken abandon. Such an image is one of two robed men, one wearing a pointed hood with a pigeon haplessly perched upon it, and the other holding a bottle and glass, clearly well inebriated. In the background stands a man dressed in what looks like a Roman soldier’s outfit holding a spear and smoking a cigarette. This photograph, almost surreal in the absurdity of its situation, is a wonderful encapsulation of a rural Spanish festival.
In her opening statement Garcia Rodero tells us: “I have focused my photographic interests on producing a social document about life in Spain through her local festivals, rituals, and beliefs, researching our way of being and reality. I chose the festival because of its wealth of symbols and varied content. It represents a duality at several levels: religion, paganism, life-death, and natural-supernatural. When celebrating their festivals, people forget their inhibitions, and all the emotions of the human condition converge, tragedies and banalities, laughter and grief, hope, dignity, love of life. I have tried to photograph the mysterious, real and magical soul of popular Spain with passion, love, humor, tenderness, anger, pain, and truth. I have tried to capture the most intense, most expressive moments of certain characters with all the original inner strength. These are simple people who are quite irresistible, and I have devoted myself wholeheartedly to this personal challenge which has given me energy and inspired my understanding.”
The festival is an indispensible feature in any culture and reveals in the most intimate and yet public manner the core beliefs and customs of a particular group of people. Not only does the festival represent a release from the humdrum reality of day to day life, it is rooted in a most ancient way to a people’s set of beliefs. Participating in the festival gives a feeling of belonging and well being, and a reassurance of a certain order in the world. The annual reaffirmation of the festival reflects the cyclical nature of the world and its seasons. Festivals are celebrations of hope for a productive agricultural season, and a healthy regeneration of life, but they are also reminders of death. Unwittingly perhaps, the photograph of the jocular man holding a large curved piece of wood around his crotch is, in its simplest form, symbolic of the fertility everyone celebrates and hopes for in this festival. Another image of a man jumping over a bed with five babies on it seems a curious and comical ritual of good fortune and health. But some of Garcia Rodero’s most moving images are probably the images of Death. Sometimes there are ironic reminders of death, such as the photograph of a soldier mock-executing an old peasant who is being held by a jovial man in an outlandish costume. Death, as epitomized in the death of Christ, is a critical aspect of the religious festival, and most of Garcia Rodero’s images are reminders of it; for example the image of an old lady holding a little girl up to kiss the feet of Christ on the crucifix. The picture of a little boy sitting behind a large black casket, or the image of a little dead boy in an open casket on the side of the road with his parents standing beside him. But an unforgettable image was that of a dead boy’s face in a glass case behind a statue of the dead virgin. Death is written on the faces of the elderly, and strangely, frequently on the faces of the children as well. But life and rebirth, as epitomized in the resurrection of Christ, is simultaneously reaffirmed in these pictures, just like the children’s faces squeezing through the furrowed adult expressions with their playful beaming smiles.
Garcia Rodero has the knack of revealing life’s complexity with almost deadpan simplicity. Her photographs are not merely anthropological studies of rituals and customs. They reveal human issues that are tied with politics and religion. The image of a bored priest in an open confessional, situated in front of a cemetery, listening to a pleading and penitent old lady, had a cynical quality that seemed a ghostly reminder of the Inquisition, and the dominating grip of the Catholic Church. Against this grip, is a stubborn attachment to certain heathen rituals and customs that predate Christianity itself, and survive today, probably to the chagrin of the Catholic Church.
The photographs in this show are full of different layers of meaning that is not immediately apparent. The shock value of seeing something that seems bizarre and strange, appeals to the voyeuristic in almost all lovers of photography. Obviously Garcia Rodero is aware of the popularity of her work due to this. It is possible to construe this as a weakness in the subject chosen, but in this case the work shows a deeper integrity. This work was photographed in different regions of the country and on different dates and it probably would have been helpful to have titles and dates under the images. But apart from this, the Ministerio de Cultura of Spain would be happy to have piqued the curiosity of many visitors to this show and (who knows?) to have attracted some more tourists to Spain.

Hans Staartjes is a freelance photographer of Dutch nationality residing in Houston.