Cracking the celluloid ceiling, one day at a time.
Reading time: 3.5 minutes
I recently stumbled upon a fantastic online photography project, launched this year by photographers Jonás Bel and Rafael Trapiello. 2013 comprises a growing number of portraits of Spanish men, women and children in the street, the office, or even the field where they work, who have filled in a form detailing their hopes and fears for the year ahead and stood a moment before the camera.
At a time when the country is on its knees financially, Bel and Trapiello explain on their website that the project was born out of a frustration with their country’s economic and social situation being measured only in terms of macroeconomics. This project aims to portray it differently: to put a human face on the Spanish people’s circumstances. Each photograph is composed very subtley. The subjects look like they have been caught randomly, at any given moment in their daily lives. No fancy clothes or over-thought postures. No contrived backgrounds or phoney smiles. Bel and Trapiello insist that no effort has been made to portray a specific class or way of life – 2013 is merely a sample of Spain’s experiences of the year so far. It’s possible that the photographers directed them a little, asking for a smile to be muted or an expression to soften, just to gain an element of cohesion for the collection as a whole. Yet what makes these figures seem truly kindred is the depth of their gazes. All of them stare straight at the camera, and be their look defiant or sad or jocular or apathetic, it has an invariably entrancing effect.
Beside each portrait is an image of that subject’s written words. I thought this was a wonderful touch. Regardless of what is written, and whether or not you can understand it, seeing the person presented beside their handwriting adds an entirely new dimension. We live in an era where texting and typing have replaced ink and erasers; so much daily written expression is presented in neat black text with perfect lines and spaces. Many of us – and especially young people who have never known a letter-writing culture – will not even know what our good friends’ handwriting really looks like. So to see the handwriting of a stranger seems extremely intimate. Of course, a large number of Bel and Trapiello’s figures describe their attitudes to the crisis and its effect on this year of their lives. The unemployed wish for jobs; the employed wish to keep their jobs and for there to be more work for everybody. A great deal of sadness saturates these little notes, but there are still quite a few positive comments and clear expressions of optimism.
My favourite portraits are:
– No.18 – Antonio. A strong looking man, his eyes shadowed by a flat cap. He’s standing on the ground as if it were his own, conquered territory. The smudged green of the backdrop is beautiful. He says he wishes that pensions would go up. Perhaps his pose is a way of hiding these horrible, gnawing concerns?
– No. 27 – Laura. A startlingly beautiful picture of a young woman dressed in mourning, who seems to have paused in the middle of a funeral mass to be photographed. I stared at it for ages.
– No. 44 – David. Standing tall and lean, surrounded by the brickwork of a gothic courthouse or cathedral. David expresses confidence in the fact that things will definitely get better. He has a law degree and works as a strategic energy consultant. Does he spend his days in buildings like this one in the portrait? If that building is a cathedral, then is it his faith which keeps him calm and optimistic? Does he look confident and strong because he has the education to help him understand how things might improve, or because he feels safe with a steady income?
– No. 70 – Vicente. Fantastic portrait. The lead-grey sky, seeds to be sown in his hand, a face weathered from a life spent out in the fields. There’s something quite biblical about it.
– No. 71 – Carmen. A stalwart old lady standing straight, but traces of fear on her face? Her children and grandchildren are all unemployed, and she has dictated the note to the photographers, because she can neither read nor write. Given her age, if she was born into the working classes it’s likely she received almost no education early in life, and then lived a repressed adulthood under the Francoist dictatorship. I found this portrait the most moving of all of them.
– No. 80 – Deira. The block shadows on the wall, the interesting use of angles in the framed pictures above her head and the textured lighting on the wooden floor. She expresses a wish to not lose the hope that “everything will turn out okay”. You can see it in her eyes, I think.
I left Madrid in March, after working and living there for seven months. It’s not a long time to learn a city and a new way of life. I’m sure I really only scratched the surface, yet it became a home to me very quickly. The economic crisis there is an unavoidable, everyday reality, wherever you go and whomever you speak to. It’s written on the faces of stressed businessmen charging down the streets and protestors chanting down boulevards in droves. Restaurants advertise cheap ‘anti-crisis’ set menus. Some hospitals can no longer afford to buy bed linen, and a public health clinic I visited in the centre of town didn’t dare keep all the lights on at once. In churches, you see prayers pinned to notice boards, the silent cries of children for Daddy to get a job soon. ‘La crisis’ slips in and out of conversations, the words muttered matter-of-factly or hissed in venomous hate. I met agricultural engineers who were planning to go to rural regions to help pick olives, just so they could earn some money. A young, qualified architect told me she’d finally found a job as a cleaner, and was absolutely ecstatic. Neatly dressed, elderly couples rummage through bins at night. There is still happiness, of course, but society’s heartbreak is more than evident.
Jonás Bel and Rafael Trapiello say that there are two key reasons for creating 2013: to understand, and to never forget. I wouldn’t claim to understand how it truly feels to be a Spaniard living in Spain, at a time when your loved ones’ livelihoods, education and healthcare are in perpetual jeopardy. However, I can imagine that this project will strike a chord with countless people there, as well as with any others who come across it. Bel and Trapiello have taken a simple, tragic theme – the fear of an uncertain future – and turned it into something beautiful and emotionally very powerful.
See for yourself here.