Summer 1950. The American photographer W. Eugene Smith sets off on a trip to Spain for the renowned weekly magazine Life.
Eleven years earlier, the civil war ended there with Franco declaring victory. However, his position within international politics is precarious. The Second World War ended with the defeat of his fellow dictators Hitler and Mussolini and the Spanish dictator narrowly escaped being unseated by the Allies. Since 1945, Spain finds itself in diplomatic isolation. Reluctantly, the regime is reaching out, initially to the United States of America. The Cold War has led to a climate that isn’t unfavourable for this.
Apart from this, it seems a good idea to do something about Spain’s image, which in the public opinion is still associated with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.
A suitable location
As part of a goodwill campaign, Eugene Smith is allowed into the country. With his assistant Ted Castle and interpreter Nina Peinado he covers approximately 10,000 kilometres over the course of a month, searching for a suitable location for his representation of life under Franco. He finally ends up in Deleitosa: a village of 2,300 inhabitants in the Extremadura region, one of the most underdeveloped regions of Spain. Almost a year later, in April 1951, his reportage appears in Life magazine, under the title: Spanish Village; it Lives in Ancient Poverty and Faith. In photographs and text, Eugene Smith sketches an image of a primitive, still almost medieval hamlet, living in poverty off an unforgiving earth. It is still severely deprived of the blessings of modern civilisation; no water supply or sewage system, hardly any electricity, dirt roads smelling of manure and no telephone system. The police and the church look after postponing earthly longings until the hereafter. Surely this was not the image the Spanish regime had in mind to use as propaganda.
36 years later, Smith’s photographic report is a classic within photojournalism, and the photographer himself is generally praised for his integrity, commitment and empathy. Spain has become a democratic country. Several million Spaniards left their native land during the years in between, as emigrantes as they call themselves, searching for a better life in the big cities or across the borders that are now wide open. Many foreigners now visit the country’s sunny coasts each year.
What has changed in Deleitosa? What do its inhabitants think of the depiction of their village back then, which received so much praise? With a reprint of Spanish Village in a Time/Life special edition about photojournalism and two cameras, I retrace Eugene Smith’s footsteps.
I enter Deleitosa at the same place as Smith’s photograph showing the village entrance; then heavily populated with people and hinnies, now silently slumbering. On the other side of the road, a handful of people have gathered in front of a large barn; children in their Sunday clothes and for the rest primarily older women in black waiting for Mass to start. It turns out the old church has been abandoned for over ten years already due to its crumpling state and danger of collapsing. While strolling through the streets of the tranquil village, I encounter four old men sitting on a bench in the shadow. I ask if a lot has changed in 36 years. “Look at those hills over there, all that land used to be cultivated” one of them replies. “We worked our fingers to the bone and yet barely produced enough food to eat. Now the land has been abandoned. The young people no longer want to work there. Many have left, to the Basque region, Catalonia or France. The new houses that you see here have almost all been built with money from emigrants.” Disapproval can be heard in his voice.
A dozen new “chalets” can be found on the main street, some still unfinished, and almost all with closed doors and shutters; typical emigrant houses, only occupied during the holidays. There is a lot of new estate elsewhere too. Numerous old premises have received a face-lift; new balconies and doors, new wrought iron lattice in front of the windows and of course TV antennas. Street signs show that Franco and his generals have been replaced by Juan Carlos I, Picasso and Doctor Fleming. No street named after Eugene Smith. Parts of the village still breathe the atmosphere of his report; rough-hewn walls and small streets, the smell of manure and traces of sheep and goat droppings. Cattle can be heard snorting and grunting from behind coarse wooden doors.
Bar Pepe is owned by the mayor of Deleitosa. He’s having his siesta. His wife is behind the bar. I order a cup of coffee and take out the Life publication. One of the people present, a fiery-looking woman of about 50 years of age, comes to have a look. Her reaction is surprising: “Those photos again! All lies. That photographer has dragged the village name through the mire. Look at this: a communion, and a naked child there. As if we are savages! And that photo beside it, showing the entrance to the village: the ugliest place he could find. There, a little boy who is sweeping up manure and – she continues to leaf through the pages – here they are sitting around a pan eating that manure. Lies, all lies, nobody ever ate manure here.” I point out to her that this claim isn’t made anywhere. However, that doesn’t seem to register with her. “Why didn’t he photograph any beautiful things? At that time there were already several good houses here. There was the procession. We weren’t that shabby. Okay, right after the civil war we were hungry but that was the case all over Spain.” Upset she turns away, hesitates and then turns around again. “I have lived in Deleitosa for 43 years now but I wasn’t born here so I have no interest in defending this village.”
Meanwhile other café-goers have gathered around the reproduction. One of them leafs through it until the communion photo appears. He looks at it for a moment and says: “Maybe that naked child just happened to be there. I remember when I was a child I also played naked in the street during the summer.” “It’s still manipulation”, the mayor’s wife believes, “if that little lad just happened to walk there you still don’t have to publish that!”
Pride and regret
A new visitor comes in and joins us: “I was the first person to meet that photographer. I was playing with a friend outside the village when his car stopped. A woman who was sitting beside him spoke to us in Spanish and asked us if we wanted to get in. My friend didn’t dare. There were stories going around in those days about people who kidnapped children to tap their blood and sell it. But I was too curious so I got in and showed them the road to the town hall. Of course a visit from foreigners was something very special in those days so they were welcomed in a grand manner. The Guardia Civil immediately came to record their names and the mayor invited them to his home.”
He seems to hesitate between pride and regret because he’s unhappy when it comes to Smith’s result: “He depicted us as stupid farmers. For example, he has a photograph of someone sitting on the back of a donkey with a heavy plough on his shoulders. As if you wouldn’t put it on the donkey’s back! Also, dancing around a dead person – as if we would do such a thing!” Together we leaf through the report. The photographs that he described can’t be found. Is it possible that pages have been left out in the reprint? I point out to him that the page numbers all flow in sequence. But he’s still doubtful: “There were more photos, I’m sure of it. I heard it myself.”
The impasse is abruptly interrupted by the mayor’s entrance, a gruff 50-year old man with a thundering voice: “We in Deleitosa now have the same standard of living as any other European population. We are modern, we have a new swimming pool here, a beautiful school, a new police station, all built since I became mayor. Why all the fuss about those old photos? I guess photographers like you earn a lot of money with these type of things. Otherwise how could you ever pay for a trip to Spain?” With a triumphant look in his eyes, he starts to tell a story about a German photographer who came to Deleitosa and left 20,000 pesetas (nowadays, 2014, about € 180 or US$ 250) for the restoration of the church. At the end of this story he stares at me with a penetrating gaze.
Aesthetics of poverty
So many years have passed and still such strong reactions! Are these villagers so backward that they haven’t understood anything about Smiths’ good intentions? After all, wasn’t the report an indictment of their lousy circumstances? Now they come, deeply offended, with reproaches about photos that never existed of events that never took place. What does Smith’s involvement in the fate of these people mean if they themselves experienced the result as so hurtful? Is Smith’s famous integrity and sensitivity no more than a false front? Is he ultimately an aesthete of poverty who used this miserable but quaint village for his own artistic purposes?
Or does this pertain to all documentary photographers? In any case, that’s what Susan Sontag believes in her book “On Photography”. Her theorem: Documentary photography is often indiscrete, unaffected and rough. Photographers profess to reveal truth instead of beauty but that is nonsense. Perhaps it’s photography’s biggest gift to give beauty to the humble, the slovenly and the measly.
In the austere bar/restaurant of a returned emigrant I find Deleitosa’s social worker: “Here in Extremadura, we have the feeling we’re considered the butt of the whole world. We’re like uninvited guests at a party. It seems like Spain is ashamed of us. Let me give you an example; the 8th of September is Extremadura Day. There is a huge feast in Guadalupe on that day. The celebrations of the Day of Madrid, Catalonia and other regions are covered extensively in the national press and in the evening there are reports about them on TV. But on the 8th of September there’s nothing! That creates bad blood.”
The people in the photographs
The postman was a teenager at the time of Smith’s visit. He looks at the report in a tacit manner and finally he offers a comment timidly. “That photographer was at the former mayor’s house. That was a beautiful house but I see no evidence of it here. What I do see is the Curiel family eating from a pan on the floor. I think that’s denigrating.” I wonder out loud what the people who were photographed think of it themselves. The postman: “The photographer paid those people a little. Like that, he helped them a bit.” Continuing to browse, he stumbles upon a photo of a man who is laid out and surrounded by grieving family members. “That was Juan Larraz. There was a man at his funeral, a man from the village who wasn’t right in the head. He used to wear a really strange hat. The photographer tried continuously to get him in the shot. You see, he was looking for the bad things within the village.”
Most of the people who were photographed are no longer to be found. Mr. Curiel is deceased. His wife and four children left and went to Madrid and France. The doctor and the priest are both dead, as are several others. What about the family members of the laid out Juan Larraz?
The mayor’s wife looks at me a little suspiciously but eventually tells me: “This girl – she points to a young woman with an angelic face in the image with the deceased Juan Larraz – is Josefa, his granddaughter. The report had quite an impact on her. Some American fell in love with her after seeing her photo. He wrote several letters to her and eventually even asked her to marry him. She wanted to, but her family wouldn’t allow it. In fact, she was already engaged to a boy from the village but she wanted to marry the American and nobody else. Together with her niece, beside her in the photo, she left for San Filiu in Catalonia. She runs a guesthouse there now. She never married and as far as I know she has never been back to Deleitosa.”
Pointing to a photo of a gesticulating man with a shiny, round forehead and deep-set eyes she continues: “That was Juan’s son Paco, Josefa’s uncle. He was a radical, a communist but also a man with a heart of gold. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you were in need. Two of his brothers were executed in the civil war by Franco’s Falangists and a third was killed at the Front. Paco himself seems to have saved the life of a priest in the red zone who pleaded in his defence after the war. Otherwise they definitely would have killed him as well. Paco Larraz helped that photographer, more than anyone, to make his report.” To my great disappointment it appears he moved to Barcelona in 1963 and died there in 1985. Only less prominent characters are still alive today and living in Deleitosa.
In an image of two spinners, a woman who seems to be called Maria Tejero can be seen in the background and I decide to seek her out. Around about where her house should be, just behind the church, I come across an old woman who is sitting crocheting. When I inquire about the woman in question she shouts at me loudly de eso queremos nada, we want nothing to do with it. She stubbornly refuses to answer each following question I ask her, including if she is Maria Tejero. After a while I give up. Another villager points out the house to me. When I knock the door is answered by a very old man with a wizened face. When I explain to him what I’m inquiring about, he answers in a timid tone: “No, we cannot give you any information.” I want to ask something else but then a female voice screams: “Close that door”. In a flash I recognise the voice of the obstinate woman that I’d just met. A short time later I meet her for the third time when she comes out of a subsiding shed adjacent to her house. She mumbles something in a friendly tone to me; a semi-understandable story about two fellow photographers who had been threatened to death by the local butcher and then something about coffee. I have no idea what she’s trying to say but as I attempt to follow her into the house she slams the door in my face. I walk away with a nasty, hollow laugh ringing in my ears.
Attack on the regime
Slowly but surely I begin to feel a little uncomfortable here. It’s as if the ghost of Eugene Smith is nipping at my heels. What did he bring about with that reportage? Are the villagers outraged because they have been presented as being miserable while they themselves didn’t see it that way? Did they want to keep their poverty hidden? Or maybe there wasn’t such lack here at all as Smith wanted us to believe?
Back in Bar Pepe I meet Juan Cuesta, a 50-year old man with a left-wing background: “It was backward here, there’s no denying that. However, the villagers here thought it was much worse in other villages. There were villages where people ran and hid if they saw a stranger. A photographer wouldn’t know where to begin there. We have now been portrayed as the paragon of backwardness. We were already suffering enough here but this dragged us further through the mud. Everyone in this village had something to eat and had a piece of land. Take for example that sweeping up of manure. That certainly went on. In fact, some people still do it. As far as we’re concerned that’s just a handy way to keep the streets clean but that report made it out to be something bizarre, something medieval.”
At his request, I translate the accompanying text into Spanish. It certainly doesn’t improve his mood. The quote that many of the villagers had never seen a train causes him to explode: “Rubbish. Half the village fought in the civil war. How do you think we were transported?” Later, when he has calmed down a bit he says: “Well, it was probably intended as an attack on the regime. However, for us it was an attack on us personally, on our village and on our dignity. Nobody wants to be portrayed as a medieval pauper. I’ve always felt that report was insulting and I’m still ashamed of it.”
Photography has profoundly influenced human self-perception, argues Susan Sontag. We have learned to see ourselves photographically. How we perceive ourselves, whether beautiful or ugly, attractive or repulsive, is derived from how we think we look in photos.
In Smith’s report the inhabitants of Deleitosa suddenly saw themselves through the photographic eye. And that was shocking. Suddenly they were forced to see themselves from a modern Western observer’s perspective. They did not want to be like that and they did not want to be portrayed like that. But now it was too late. Their image had been taken from them. They no longer had any control over that. There was no longer any defence possible. As photos they travelled the world round, shown here and there as part of public exhibitions. They could – even though Smith resisted it to his dying day – be sold to adorn the walls of people who were interested only in their depiction and not the people themselves. They were worth more as works of art than as living human beings.
A dead man
“Why did you photograph that woman doing her washing by the well? Are you just another photographer who has come to portray us as being backward?” With suppressed anger the town clerk, a woman in her thirties, throws this question in my face. “Today everyone here has a washing machine. It’s just this week we’re having a problem with the water supply. That’s why they are washing things by hand right now.”
In a surprised and somewhat sheepish manner I stand in front of her trying desperately to find an answer to her question that will not only reassure her but also myself, but I end up lost for words. After an icy silence she suddenly continues: “Some old women simply have the habit to wash outside. They live alone or with their husband and they don’t have much laundry. Perhaps they think it’s cosier to do it together at the well and it is their tradition after all. But you don’t have to portray us as paupers!” She demands I give her my address and that I send her a copy of my story – no, a summery in Spanish – and my photos. If it is less than positive then there will be a price to pay. What that price might be is not completely clear to her either. “But if you ever show your face here again then you’re a dead man.”
Gradually she calms down somewhat but when the mayor enters she indignantly starts all over again about the women doing their washing outside. However, the mayor has his own line of thinking about things. He starts again about “you photographers who come here to earn buckets of money” and the German who donated 20,000 pesetas for the restoration of the church. He then snatches the Life reproduction from my bag. The two of them start leafing wildly through the magazine; she is upset about the Communion photo with the naked child, and he, while chewing on his cigar, is shouting about the photo of the deceased Juan Larraz that is hanging in an American museum and worth a lot of money. He is now in a jovial mood and taps me on the shoulder wanting me to shoot them both only to threaten to kill me a moment later if I dare to write or photograph anything negative. ” Just take photos of the swimming pool, that’s nice. I had it constructed myself.”
I walk through the concrete streets of Deleitosa. From behind closed windows and curtained doorways I feel distrustful eyes on the back of my neck. In a field between the houses a man can be seen working with a plough that is being pulled by mules; an image from Smith comes to life. From a distance I watch this scene while looking around me frequently to make sure there is no chance of me being caught. I then walk ostentatiously towards the swimming pool, asking for directions needlessly along the way. When I arrive I stroll around in a very obvious manner and again and again lift the camera to my eye. I have to be noticed. Finally I press the button, without being able to find a photographic reason for it.
The artist and the authorities
I walk around as Smith’s heir; as though I must redeem his old debt. I wonder if it might not be better to pack up my cameras altogether. This will be my final evening in Deleitosa. Once again I sit at the end of the counter in Bar Pepe. The TV blares above my head. A little further away a one-armed bandit whistles the Birdie Song. Beside me stands Restituto Garcia, an older councillor. He recalls: “For a long time many villagers only knew about those photos from stories, from the dignitaries of the village. When the publication appeared, the Spanish authorities were furious. Presumably the mayor and the other administrators got quite a roasting. They in turn moaned at the villagers something like: “you have enabled our village to be portrayed as a collection of backward idiots.” There were a few people who realised what was going on; a few progressive people such as Paco Larraz, but the dignitaries kept that report from us. A lot of people only saw it for the first time around 1980, when El País and other newspapers re-published it. Those stories about photos that do not exist more than likely came from the authorities. If there’s something that we Spaniards are sensitive about, it’s insults about our hometown.”
We’re joined by Jose Manuel, the mayor’s eldest son. He is a self-confident, educated young man, deeply moved by Smith’s report: “Eugene Smith was a photojournalist. However, he was more than that, he was also an artist. He created his pictures with a clear intention; with an atmosphere and the message that he wanted to convey. Look at the photo of the Guardia Civil members; he had them look diagonally into the light so that they had to squint their eyes. As a result, they have a stern and ominous expression. In many photos the people are dark, as if they aren’t allowed to be seen. Smith wanted this village to represent poverty. But also fear, insecurity, feelings that he might have known in America, very universal feelings. That mood is reflected in the work of other American photographers from the same time. In Spain there was oppression and exploitation by Franco and his followers and Deleitosa has become the symbol of that.” A symbol for Smith and for the readers of Life, perhaps. The text accompanying the reprint states: “Smith’s villagers in these extraordinary images are also individuals of course, yet they are more than that; they represent all of humanity – they embody the pure and simple archetypes of all people.” Beautiful, but the inhabitants of Deleitosa are living people of flesh and blood, who are unhappy to serve as pure and simple archetypes of poverty and suppression.
The villagers and their photographs
What can we blame Smith for actually? Perhaps only the fact that he was a photographer. The problem seems to be enclosed in the essence of photography. A photo is partly a depiction of reality and partly subjective imagination. It has a symbolic value. The symbolic value plays the leading part as far as the photographer and his public are concerned. A photographer sees the subjects he photographs primarily as exemplary; he does not capture them for who they are but rather for what they represent. The unsuspecting viewer cannot even compare the image with the original. He searches for his own recognition, for what it is to be human. However, for the subjects being photographed, the first aspect is more important, the image of themselves: their image is inextricably bound up with themselves.
Jose Manuel: “the villagers didn’t want to and couldn’t identify themselves with these photos. They felt their own reality was being humiliated and they felt forced to justify and defend it – against other villages and against themselves. You want to attack the regime, or portray fear and oppression? Fine, but then do it in another village and with other participants!”
In the years since writing this piece the relativity of such views about the photographic self-image became clear to me. An example: between 2000 and 2003 I photographed and interviewed men who performed forced labour on the Burma and Sumatra Railways for my “Traces of War” project. I kept in touch with most of them. On the eve of the exhibition opening and the book release, I called those men who were living in the Netherlands. When I asked one of them, Mr. Muller, what he really thought of his photograph, he replied, “Mr. Banning, now that you ask me my honest opinion, I think it’s the worst photograph ever taken of me.”
Late that same evening I heard that a Dutch newspaper was going to devote its front page the following day to ‘Traces of War’ and with a photo of… Mr. Muller. Oh, oh! It was too late to still call him but I did call him the following morning at nine o’clock. No reply. I only managed to get him on the line that evening. Before I even got a chance to utter a single word, he launched into his story. “Well, Mr. Banning, this morning I went to my local supermarket and already from afar the staff called out to me: ‘Mr. Muller, you’re in the paper!’ After that I had an appointment with my cardiologist and you need to know, Mr. Banning, my cardiologist is also an excellent photographer. I was sitting in his full waiting room when he came out. He saw me sitting there and he immediately said out loud: ‘Mr. Muller! What a beautiful photograph of you in the paper!’
Mr. Muller sounded elated. And now, nearly thirty years after my visit to Deleitosa – which has since become an icon – you can indeed find a street there named after Eugene Smith.
In December 2015, the Chinese Photographers Magazine published my story about Eugene Smith’s Spanish Village (1986, updated 2014).
http://www.hoy.es/20080615/sociedad/deleitosa-spanish-village-20080615.htmlAccording to this article with photographs from 2008, for the photo of the communion girl in Eugene Smith’s reportage, Lorenza Nieto Curiel was dressed up again as she was for the communion one month earlier. It also reports that the population has gone down from 2,650 inhabitants in 1950 to a mere 900 in 2008.
See also: http://www.hoy.es/20080615/sociedad/buscando-denuncia-regimen-20080615.html
Here, Carmelo Pinto, sociologist at the University of Barcelona, is quoted as saying that Smith tried to keep details that might show a minimum of properity, such as electricity cables, out of the picture.
In 1986 heb ik een week doorgebracht in Deleitosa, het dorp waar Eugene Smith zijn beroemde fotoserie “Spanish Village” maakte. Hieronder het in 1987 in het blad ‘Foto’ gepubliceerde verslag van mijn verblijf daar, en van mijn zoektocht naar wat de dorpelingen vonden van hoe Smith hen presenteerde: hoe is het om een icoon te zijn?
Wat er in elk geval is veranderd sinds 1986 is, dat er inmiddels wel een straat in Deleitosa naar Eugene Smith is vernoemd.