michael hughes’s blog

The Making of… Our Lady of the Foresaken

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on April 6, 2009

The Ofrenda; Our Lady of the Forsaken at the Falles Festival in Valencia, Spain

There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with spirituality. On the other hand, ever since my intellectual awakening when I was fifteen, when I immediately dispensed with the services of a God, I have never been a religious person. My parents sent me to Sunday School once and I fell down on the way back and cut my eye open, I never went again. Nor did my parents, who considered their Christian duty done having married in a church and christened me. My sister never was (married in a church or christened). It was left to my school to try and inculcate the fear of God into me and they did so with a man who, for eleven and twelve year olds was the incarnation of fear and God. Nicknamed “Jake”, this wizened, bent-over apparition, his collapsed half-moon face permanently stretched in a rictus of anger strode up and down the desks in the classroom, banging with astonishing energy with his walking stick whenever we, his pitiful flock, failed to pay attention. He was a man whose default mood was anger. I can’t remember learning anything from him and as I saw no reason to make allowances for him, my School Religion was a complete washout. I was taking my spirituality to the rational point of the compass; Jean-Paul Sartre and the Existentialists, that was my favourite band, Camus and the Outsiders the backing group.

Photography was the path I took, tolerance became a way of life. The photographers I tried to emulate; Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Koudelka, always involved people in their work. My interest has always been in people and their narratives but I used to be very shy and found it difficult to approach people. Walking through a park with the intention of taking a photo involving people would invariably end up with each potential subject registering my presence in some intuitive way thereby thwarting my intentions. I noticed that walking through the same park without intention, people completely ignored me. What was the difference? Slowly I came to realise that it was because I was not clear about myself. I had put myself on the back foot; I assumed that because I was finding it difficult to approach people, my strategy had been to try and do it without approaching them, effectively “steal” the photo. In turn, this gave me a guilty conscience and this made me act as if I was doing something wrong and this was what was communicating itself to the people in the park. I discovered that people are incredibly sensitive to what is around them, something which, strangely enough, they appear to be unaware. Intuition is a form of human radar whose working is so subconscious as to be wholly transparent, much as speech functions almost without us noticing how we achieve this fantastic trick of translating, on the fly our thoughts into words. After many years of mulling this it was clear to me that I had no intention of doing anything to harm the people I wanted to photograph – in fact I had no intention of hurting anyone at all.

This clarification had two effects; people stopped worrying about me being around and I decided that I would offer anyone finding me photographing them a smile and a possibility to speak to me. I opened up. Soon it became a habit of asking people if I could photograph them when it was clear that they were the real subject of my attention. People seldom say “no”. I have found that many photographers (usually amateurs) think that the best photos of people are when they are unaware of the camera. I utterly disagree; for me photographing people is about a conscious meeting with them, I want them to be looking at me and the future viewer directly in the eye. Later, looking at the picture, the viewer will automatically look at the eyes first, meeting the portrayed person as a person and not as an object which merely supports the composition of the picture. Try it for yourself; find a picture of a group of people – your eyes will invariably be drawn first to the people in the picture who are looking directly into the camera.

It is impossible to photograph people sensitively when one dislikes them or their beliefs. It becomes important to suspend one’s own position and open to another person’s. Fortunately I have never had to photograph Nazis sensitively but I imagine there I would draw a line. One woman insisted I photograph her in an Orgone box (Reich and William Boroughs), which looked pretty funny afterwards, but generally speaking I found that when I respected people and their beliefs that the session would end up mutually beneficial and enjoyable.

Valencia City in Spain had invited a large, international group of journalists to cover their yearly Falles Festival. There is a series of events which culminates in a firework orgy and burning down of the figures which each Falla has built during the course of the year. These are judged and the winner this year (2009) was rumoured to have cost the local Falla committee in excess of €900,000, which shows just how important an event this is. Men and particularly women, roam the streets dressed in silk looking like medieval characters, while the local youth let off fire crackers in a continuous stream. The whole city takes part from the deafening Mascleta’s to the processions from each district carrying flowers to make up the cloak of the Virgin of the Foresaken to the burning of the figures on the last evening. The day before, during my first reconnaissance in the town I had spotted a model of the Virgin on sale, checked that it generally corresponded to the one in front of the Basilica, asked my guides for confirmation, paid €33 and put her into my camera bag; my first Souvenir was ready. There was a feeling of public holiday in the air. The dressed up women, the cool but sunny weather, families gathered around tables in front of the chocolate shops where women were deep-frying buñuelos ( a pumpkin fritter) for customers to eat with their coffee, the occasional explosions set off by excited children, Valencia was at its best.

The next day the press group was bussed around the city, getting orientated and making notes on where to be at which event, press passes at the town hall and then out to the outskirts for a late lunch. It’s fun being in a group of people, getting to know them, exchanging ideas but my Madonna was beginning to burn in my bag and there was no apparent urgency for anyone else in the group to go to see the Ofrenda. I set off on my own, using my press pass to get onto the street which was kept clear for the communities in their fancy dress to parade through the streets, carrying their offering of flowers for the Virgin. A tradition called the “Ofrenda”. I had the ultimate press pass which allowed me to go anywhere at any time, it was in two pieces and even had a colour photo of me on it. The Virgin stands in the middle of a medieval plaza surrounded with ancient buildings. There is a fountain and a small park at the top end. Standing in the middle of this space, shadowed with blue and white tarpaulins stretched across the plaza stood the Virgin of the Foresaken. She stands about 25 metres high and is made out of latticed wood which a team of “flower-stuffers” fill out according to the design which makes up the Virgins robes. Atop this tower is the head and halo which is combined with the figure of the baby Jesus. Columns of people in traditional clothing made their reverent way to where the men took their flowers and tossed them in a sportive manner to the men positioned up the flanks of the Virgin to the stuffers, who beginning at the top, worked their way down to the bottom. This is all scheduled to take place over two days and involves great gardens of flowers to be brought to the plaza. Over-bidding themselves in fervour, some communities bring not just the flowers to be stuffed but also floral arrangements of baroque taste and proportions. Flowers and arrangements that are left over are given to old people’s and children’s homes, hospitals and asylums. To get an idea of the scale of the operation; a continuous column of people, five and six abreast and about three metres apart flow from the different communities of Valencia and beyond, starting at 13:00pm in the afternoon and ending at 2:00am in the night, for two whole days, each of them carrying flowers.

I arrived about six hours after the Ofrenda had begun. The columns of people were progressing, a few square metres of Virgin had been clothed, some excess flower bunches were lying around, it was early days and the atmosphere was that of the beginning of a Marathon. The lighting was a bit tricky because, standing directly in front of the Virgin (who was facing south) the setting sun was lighting up the sky still and the Virgin was already in shadow, the searchlights had just been switched on. Some other photographers were there but not many and I observed how they weaved in and out of the arriving groups taking their pictures. I was standing in the space between two flows of arriving people those coming up behind me veered to the left to go around the (my left, her right) side of the Virgin to drop their blooms and the stream from the right was being funneled about twenty metres to my front and right. I was in the lee of movement and pretty much alone. I took some general shots of the scene and then pulled out the Madonna. Holding it in the time-honoured fashion in my left hand I began adjusting the shot. The first shot of the Virgin shows 19:32:50 and the last of the first series (36 shots, again, a roll of old film) at 19:34:57, so just over two minutes. I was aiming to get the Virgin lined up with the background so that the flower stuffers left and right on the real Virgin would appear to be hanging off my model. You can see how few people there are, none between me and the Madonna because the crowds were tethered behind fences at the perimeter of the plaza. Nonetheless one of the organisers, a bearded young man with a fallas.com windcheater, asked me to desist, “I was getting in people’s way.” Flashing my press card I told him there could be no question of that and to let me get on with my job. He told me to go and stand behind a fence and to take my photos from there and because I wanted to look at the shots I had taken I moved in that direction and he moved off.

At 19:44.30 I was taking the next set of shots of the Virgin, getting off 27 shots ending at 19:45:08 in less than a minute before retiring to my position to check the results. (Exif information makes this reconstruction so much fun.) A scant five minutes later at 19:50:24 I am making my next shot, four shots later at 19:50:29 and five seconds into the shoot my man in the red windcheater is gesticulating at me and rips off my press accreditation, disappearing through the flower bearers to the side of the square. Stumbling after him with two cameras and a camera bag I tried to grab it back off him so we arrived at the side of the plaza in something of a shambles. He calls for a policeman who comes out of an office and grabs my arm. I have discovered that there is a universal sign language when you want a policeman to take his hands off you; stand still hunch your shoulders, raise your arms away from your body, not in surrender but rather with the suggestion that these implements could turn into bludgeons of steel should anyone try anything silly. It worked; the policeman let go and I found myself in a dual language shouting match with one irate and three interested Spaniards and one irate Englishman on the other. A Spanish photographer who had heard the altercation came over and in a collegial way offered me his services in translating, not before telling me that the Ofrenda is a very sensitive occasion and implying that I had somehow not conducted myself in the manner that was expected of me. My nemesis claimed that people had complained and there is no way to disprove this, but, given my position, the light and the arcane nature of what I was actually doing; holding a 24cm high figurine up to a figure one hundred times bigger – I doubt if anyone, even my interlocutor, knew if what I was doing offended the sensibilities of the people of Valencia.

I got my pass back by saying that I would leave the area. I knew that I had my picture, the last shoot was just the perfectionist in me, speaking. I shook hands with everyone, and went on my way. I write this as honestly as I can and I have tried hard to see the other side, but I can only interpret the event in one way; it was obvious that I was no Spaniard and the not-knowing what I was doing was enough to rouse the suspicion that no matter what it was, it was better to stop me doing it in case I might have been insulting the Virgin.

Perhaps this is precisely the reason that making a photograph is always a highly charged act when it tales place in the public arena. The public decision to make a photograph always raises the question of the intention of that act. When a person is being photographed it is relatively easy to establish a mode of conduct, but when it is a question of symbols, the photographer has a tough time giving good reasons, particularly when he or she belongs to the “outsider” group.

I have to accept the argument that what I was doing, no matter how respectfully I was doing it, would be felt to be disrespectful by the religious of Valencia. So I hereby apologise to the people of Valencia for offending their sensibilities but not for taking my pictures.

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