The Crisis as a Creative Driving Force in Contemporary Spanish Documentary Photography


In 1956, Beaumont Newhall argued that there were two paths open to photographers: either they could make the uncommon common (the approach of photojournalists who filled the newspapers with exotic and extraordinary images from far-away conflicts), or they could make the common uncommon (the approach of artists, who through a particular manner of looking at the everyday were able to see it in a new way). However, certain contemporary documentary projects lead us to question these paths. During the last decade, Spanish photography has awoken to a representation of reality that is far from the legibility of the classic documentary style, which is ultimately based on the aesthetics of the use of the photograph as a document. These photographs move away from the traditional black-and-white paradigm or the concept of the decisive moment that has prevailed for decades, drawing on Robert Frank’s subjective shift, William Eggleston’s and Stephen Shore’s breaks with formalism in the 1970s, and the vernacular codes used by Martin Parr since the 1990s. The projects we have analysed twist basic principles of photography such as exposure, sensitivity, the figurative relationship with reality and sequentiality, to cast a glance at a world in crisis. The crisis in economic, political and institutional structures is represented by problematising the structures of the hegemonic photographic language to construct messages that denounce political corruption and the media circus (Julian Barón, C.E.N.S.U.R.A., 2011), the invisibility of prostitution (Fosi Vegue, XX XY, 2014), repression of citizens by security forces (Mario Zamora, To the Moon and Back, 2015), or the decline of the two-party political system (Toni Amengual, Devotos, 2015). From these case studies we can start to identify the hallmarks of a new generation of Spanish photographers who have emerged in the context of the crisis, not just to picture it as a theme, but also to portray it through the form, dissemination and the notion of photography itself.


Marta Martín Núñez holds a European PhD in Media Studies at Universitat Jaume I (UJI), where she is a junior lecturer in Theory of Photography and Narrative Design. She trained in photography at Blank Paper School and has attended courses and workshops with photographers like Julián Barón and Joan Fontcuberta. Her research focuses on contemporary photography and transmedia narrative. She has contributed to anthologies like Diccionario de fotógrafos españoles [Dictionary of Spanish Photographers] (La Fábrica, 2014), Narrativas [mínimas] audiovisuales [[Minimal] Audiovisual Narratives] (Shangrila, 2014), (Re)viewing Creative, Critical and Commercial Practices in Contemporary Spanish Cinema (Intellect Books, 2014) and La imagen translúcida en los mundos hispánicos [The Translucent Image in the Hispanic Worlds] (Orbis Tertius, 2016). She has also published several papers in peer-reviewed journals. She has been a visiting researcher at the Digital Cultures Research Centre’s Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, at Roehampton University (London), and at the University of Gothenburg’s Valand Academy and the Hasselblad Foundation (Sweden). Since 2016 she has been the director of the Media Laboratory (LabCom) at UJI. She is a member of the Executive Editorial Board of L’Atalante. Revista de Estudios Cinematográficos, a member of the Editorial Committee of Guías para ver y analizar cine (Nau Llibres), and Associate Editor of adComunica. Revista Científica de Estrategias, Tendencias e Innovación en Comunicación.

Too many photographers are cowards. They kowtow, play safe, spend time looking for “Great Photographs”—we need people who will bend the medium to their aims, to use it, force it into uncharted territory, yet remain committed to it for itself. That is where my passion is, that is where I want to work, those are my goals.

Paul Graham (Empty Heaven: Photographs from Japan 1989-1995, 1995).

In the summer of 2017, two major international photo festivals, Les Rencontres d’Arles and PhotoEspaña, premiered exhibitions that looked closely at the work of some Spanish photographers not very well known to the general public. Blank Paper, Histoire du présent immédiat, curated by Sonia Berger and Joan Fontcuberta was the first group show of Spanish photographers since 1976 at Arles, which is probably the world’s most important international photography festival; Un cierto panorama [A certain panorama], curated by Jesús Micó was held in Madrid, featuring the work of around 50 emerging photographers. At the same time, the 20th Fotopres “la Caixa” festival opened the exhibition Nueva imagen documental [New documentary image], displaying the projects resulting from the grants La Caixa bank had awarded some months before. All three are collective exhibitions that show the work of young photographers who are looking at the world in a different way, and who seem to be picturing themselves—or, at least, are being treated as—a new generation. For this generation, social and political issues—understood in a broad sense—constitute their main interest as artists, and this necessarily entails addressing the impact that the 2008 financial crisis has had on all aspects of public and private life. But we cannot speak of the crisis as merely an economic downturn, as it has given rise to other crises that are much more profound: growing social inequality, political corruption, a lack of transparency in the media, the servility of the judiciary, or the Spanish Constitution’s failure to solve problems of coexistence, to mention only some of those that have shaken the very foundations of Spain’s democratic structures in recent years.

These major crises have shaped the vision of this new generation of photographers, not only in terms of the themes and subjects represented—the most obvious feature—but also in formal terms, since they have inspired different creative approaches that question the traditional documentary language of photography, and generated new forms of disseminating photographic works that would never see the light through the traditional channels. The crisis is apparent in the content, but also in the form, subverting the traditional languages ​​and structures of photography itself. And to these crises, which may be more conjunctural, we can add a third crisis, this one structural: that of photography itself understood as an autonomous artistic medium in Spain. Isolated from international developments during the Franco dictatorship, it has lagged behind the rest of the world for decades. The British Journal of Photography dedicated its July 2014 issue to Spanish photography, introducing it to its readers as follows:

For our July issue we’re heading for Spain. But don’t expect any straw donkeys or sun-and-Sangría stereotypes. You know better than that. Instead we want to introduce you to a “golden generation” of photographers who have swiftly risen to international prominence, growing to maturity under the shadow of a worldwide recession that has gripped the Spanish more tightly than their northern European cousins. Austerity has hit Spain hard and arts funding has vanished – yet young Spanish photographers (…) have published highly acclaimed photobooks, leading Martin Parr to comment on a “new generation of Spanish photographers that has to be taken into account”. Yet they have all done so without the support of the Spanish photography establishment (Padley, 2014).

In this paper I intend to offer a critical analysis of the impact that this threefold crisis has had on the understanding of new photographic manifestations in the Spanish context. Specifically, I will analyse the work of four photographers—Julián Barón, Fosi Vegue, Mario Zamora and Toni Amengual—whose projects I see as a response, sometimes direct and sometimes indirect, to the threefold crisis. If these photographers have anything in common, it is that for all of them the crisis can be understood as a creative driving force which, while having torn at Spain’s social fabric and destroyed public confidence in Spanish institutions, has provided an ideal breeding ground for projects that push beyond the established limits and that question, through the photographic medium, both what is represented in images and how it is represented and disseminated. This analysis, although obviously subjective and difficult to extrapolate, can help us to better understand how Spanish photography is evolving as a response to economic, social, political, institutional and even historical disorder.

1. The changing nature of documentary photography

One of the most difficult problems when analysing and researching photography is probably the different uses that photography has been put to over the years, and especially the changing nature of those uses. So-called documentary photography is no exception. Beaumont Newhall attempted to define documentary photography in 1938 in his article “Documentary Approach to Photography”, when he noted that “within the last decade a number of younger photographers, sensing the artistic strength of such photographic documents as these, have seen in this materialistic approach the basis for an [a]esthetic of photography” (1938: 4). In this article, Newhall strongly defends the idea of photography as an art form, but not in the way the Pictorialists had been using it, or in the way that it had been used by Le Secq, Matthew B. Brady, Alexander Gardner, Charles Marville, Eugène Atget, or Lewis Hine. He even suggested that “it is undeniable that the documentary method, as opposed to the abstract desire to produce Fine Art, has resulted in significant photographic art” (1938: 3).

In his definition of “documentary photography”, Beaumont Newhall draws quite an accurate map of its—until then—undefined practices. He argues that documentary photography should be “taken with seriously sociological purpose”, as an “approach” rather than as an end, emphasising the original spirit of this way of looking at the world, against the mere imitation of style or technique. As he describes it, documentary photographers are purists (in the most technical sense, I understand), but don’t limit themselves to any one procedure or camera, using the most suitable ones for each job. Since the value of the photo document lies in the directness of its technique, retouching the images should not be permitted. However, he stresses presentation and editing as vital: adding a few words can give an image greater specificity and force, and working with a series of photographs is the richest manner of enhancing their significance, as each picture reinforces the others. For Newhall, this “is the logical approach to the medium”, so “trimming, quality of reproduction, its relation to text and other reproductions in size and spacing, these are all as important as the photographer’s work on the field and in the darkroom.” In his article he even mentions books as the natural context for photography. In his definition, he also insists on the “visualizing” role that a documentary photographer should play. This means the photographer “puts into pictures what he knows about, and what he thinks of, the subject before his camera. Before going on an assignment he carefully studies the situation which he is to visualize. He reads history and related subjects. He examines existing pictorial material for its negative and positive value, to determine what must be re-visualized in terms of his approach to the assignment, and what has not been visualized” (1938: 5-6).

While his definition of documentary seems to be perfectly contemporary, we might question it through the work of photographers such as Robert Frank or Paul Graham, who associated the term “documentary” with the photographic style of Walker Evans and the Farm Security Administration, but not with their own work only a few decades later. Paul Graham, in a conversation with Kevin Moore, offered the following observation:

(…) Documentary Photography refers to a particular genre, which peaked in the 1930s-60s, with work produced for photo magazines of that period. It was great work of its time, but really it is best if we use the label when referring to that specific period and genre. It certainly is wrong to use it to refer to what Arbus did, or Winogrand or Eggleston or Stephen Shore or Robert Adams. You cannot simply label anyone who goes out and photographs the world as a “documentary photographer”. (…) No, this engagement with the world is the core of the art of the photographic medium, this is where its unique qualities lie and are powerfully employed, so just let’s call it “Photography” plain and simple (2011: 127).

Documentary photography had not been labelled as such until Newhall’s definition, which he explains is taken from the film genre. At the time, John Grierson was speaking of Flaherty’s Moana (1926) as a documentary, as a “particular type of film which is based upon natural factual material (as opposed to artificial studio sets) presented in an imaginative and dramatic form.” (Newhall, 1938: 3). But the fact that “the factual world” provides photography with its raw material makes the relationship between the two more complex rather than easier. According to Sarah Hermanson Meister, “there is no word more closely associated with photography throughout its history than ‘documentary’ and this association is both appropriate and misleading: appropriate because photography is uniquely and inextricably connected to the real world (…) and misleading because throughout the twentieth century artists and art historians have struggled to define what ‘documentary’ means. It can be understood as a style, a means of communication, a signal of authenticity; most photographs can function as documents, proof, records, or evidence” (2015: 22).

As Quentin Bajac points out, even Evans himself, nearing the end of his life, revisited his definition of documentary style in an interview with Leslie Katz in Art in America: “‘Documentary’? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style” (Walker Evans, in Bajac, 2015: 239). This classification was also adopted by historian Olivier Lugon in his book The Documentary Style: From August Sander to Walker Evans, 1920-1945 (2016).

Documentary is a slippery concept, and may be difficult to define due to its changing nature, as the documentary style itself evolves from one generation to another because of photography’s peculiar relationship with reality. As Paul Graham points out, “photography is a medium with a unique and particular link with reality”, as “the old consciousness” was to observe reality and put the camera in front of the world. “The problem is that over the past two decades our perception of reality has changed from something ‘out there’ to something ‘within us’”, and this “new consciousness” has been hard on photography, because of its addiction to the observable world (quoted in Grosenick, 1995: 2). Indeed, Graham’s work over the last thirty years has been pointedly metaphorical, where the apparent or superficial subject both parallels and illustrates a more profound one.

2. The “new consciousness”

A gob of spit on Franco’s grave set against a laughing androgynous woman with electric red lipstick is one of the diptychs of New Europe (1992), where Paul Graham’s “new consciousness” is made manifest. The images can be read literally, but there is another layer that emerges when the two pictures are woven together that speaks to how our recent past colours our present. Stahel recognises that “the pictures and their arrangements are unsettling (…)”, but adds that “pictures are and must be more ambivalent, must disturb, worry, without prompting an automatic confirmatory response from the viewer. This Graham understands, and for precisely this reason his multinational journey encourages the thoughtful response” (1992: 50-52).

We can probably trace this “new consciousness” arising from “within us” back to Robert Frank’s subjective shift in The Americans (1958), as he acknowledged that ”he wanted to create an art that was dense, layered, and opinionated, yet multivalent. No longer willing to simply reflect what he saw around him, he wanted instead to express his opinion of America in his photographs and reveal nothing less than what he perceived to be ‘the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere’” (Greenogh, 2009: 176). Indeed, The Americans, looks like an contestation to Edward Steichen’s universal point of view in The Family of Man (1955) and can only be read as Frank’s personal experience as a foreigner in the heart of America, depicting the contrasts and inconsistencies of his journey around the country. Years earlier, in 1951, he had remarked: “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice” (quoted in Van Reis, 1997: 6). Although The Family of Man was a commercial success and received millions of visitors around the world, while Robert Frank’s work was harshly criticised, young people eventually started to read and understand the language the latter was using. Frank himself describes it as follows in The Lines of My Hand (1972):

How much I wanted then to have a show, have these photographs reproduced, hoped that the magazines would publish them. In due time all this happened. But that wasn’t IT either. Young people and students picked up THE AMERICANS. They recognised and understood my language. They listened to voices that had no part in the system. Aware of hypocrisy around them, dissatisfied with slogans from preachers and patriots, they began to question everything. The Americans became for many an affirmation of what they felt about their country… that’s what I cherish the most.

While photography was evolving rapidly from the documentary form Newhall had labelled in 1938 to more subjective and poetic positions both in Europe and the USA, Spain under Franco’s dictatorship was isolated from the rest of the world, especially prior to the 1960s, and photography was no exception. As professor Jesús Micó extensive research has shown (2008: 65), Spanish photography during this era was locked in a form of late Pictorialism and most artists were restricted to photographic societies and photo clubs that encouraged frivolous, mundane and traditional themes and aesthetics. These clubs were run by people who had very little critical spirit and even less interest in what was happening beyond Spanish borders, and who therefore limited themselves to repeating the same formulae. While Pictorialism had waned in the rest of the world, in Spain it was (with very few exceptions) not just the dominant form, but the only one. Photographic creation was thus not disruptive to the fascist regime, as rather than an artistic activity it was considered merely a recreational pursuit for amateurs. There was no criticism, apart from contest juries who assessed the technical perfection of the photographic images and who had no artistic background or interest.

The AFAL photography group (1950-1962) was a surprising exception to this dismal environment. This was a club of young photographers who decided to move away from Pictorialism and embrace different aesthetic ideas from outside Spain, mostly associated with straight photography and humanism. Although the group was quite heterogeneous, its members shared an interest in a personal approach to photography, and in the photographic essay as a mode of expression, based on a view of photographs as instruments of culture and communication. They published a magazine (1955-1963) that featured their own work alongside the work of the big names in European and American photography; they also brought an Otto Steinert exhibition to Spain and exhibited their own work outside the country (Martín-Núñez, 2013: 12). The group dissolved in 1962, and the innovation it promised never spread beyond its own circle, but as Micó points out (2008: 67), this group represented a breath of fresh air for Spanish photography, and a movement which, in the context of the dictatorship, was way ahead of its time.

3. The crisis as a driving force for contemporary Spanish photography

Since the 1980s, the Spanish photography world has been trying to normalise its situation and catch up with other European countries, but four decades of cultural isolation are difficult to recover from. As Micó puts it (2008: 75), during the last years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st, various initiatives have contributed to this normalisation. Photography is consolidating its presence at Spanish art festivals like ARCO, as well as in private and public collections; the PhotoEspaña Festival just celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2017, and other smaller photography festivals continue to bring photography to the general public. But the reality is that our artists (with a few exceptions like Joan Fontcuberta or Chema Madoz) still had no international presence as recently as 2008, as Micó lamented (2008:77): “I suppose that, in short, this factor is a new challenge to be faced for the ever unresolved normalisation of Spanish photography.”

The situation only a decade later has turned around. Mico’s analysis of the photographic context cited above is from 2008, just before the onset of the economic crisis that has produced an incredibly aggressive context for cultural and artistic activity but which, at the same time (and maybe precisely because of the difficulties in Spain), has seen Spanish photography flourish as never before on the international scene. The British Journal of Photography, in its issue “The Spanish are Coming” mentioned above, hinted at this phenomenon by describing Spain as “one of this year’s hottest destinations for discovering new photographic talent” (2014: 1).

In the catalogue to the exhibition Micó has curated on this new generation of photographers for PhotoEspaña 2017, he includes an essay titled “A Certain Panorama—Recent Author Photography in Spain” in which he tries to sum up the reasons for this international boom in Spanish photography, and all of the explanations are linked in one way or another to the economic crisis (2017: 276-282). Cristina de Middel, one of the most internationally acclaimed artists of this new generation, who has also been recently nominated as a Magnum photographer, acknowledges the importance of the economic crisis: “I have often had to answer questions about this new generation’s leitmotif, and I have always pointed to the economic crisis as its true driving force. Many of us who took the leap into a new language came from a safe job in a weakened business sector, like the press” (2017: 284). As Micó points out, the conservative management of the crisis in Spain has resulted in a dramatic reduction in funding for social welfare but also for culture and art, and Spanish institutions, for a long time but especially since the onset of the crisis, have avoided taking risks and limited themselves to exhibiting the same already consolidated photographers: Joan Fontcuberta, Cristina García Rodero, Chema Madoz, Alberto García-Alix, Isabel Muñoz, and Cristobal Hara, among others. Institutions have not invested or risked promoting new talents or photographers unknown to the general public. This context helps explain why most of the new generation of photographers received international recognition before being recognised in Spain, as they have shown their work internationally either because they already live abroad—as economic migrants—or because they have been travelling to festivals around the world to show their work. Cristina de Middel’s Afronautas (2012) is a good example of international acclaim preceding national recognition. The work presents a poetic account of the African space dream, creating a fictional universe out of a real fact, playing on the border between reality and fiction, which the author edited with the support of the University of Cadiz’s Sala Kursala gallery. The photobook was not very successful in Spain until it won the Photo Folio Review at Arles and appeared on numerous international lists of the best photography books of the year. In 2012, it was a finalist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, awarded by the Photographers’ Gallery in London to the artist who made the biggest contribution of the year to European photography. Only after this success did de Middel’s work begin to receive recognition in Spain. In November 2017, she has been awarded Spain’s National Photography Award.

Another key concept for this new generation of photographers has been the power of collectives. In the absence of institutional support, Spanish photographers have organised themselves into collectives or groups to benefit from an atmosphere of collaboration (in creation, publication, and promotion). These collectives have developed into photography schools, small independent publishers, photobook clubs, specialised blogs, YouTube channels, etc., while also connecting with each other to form a collaborative network. Teamwork helps the artists evolve thematically and aesthetically, pushing their work—and the presentation of their work—further and further. This new generation, well prepared and internationally minded, have compensated for their inability to break into the existing institutionalised artistic and cultural structures by creating their own. And this is exactly what the Blank Paper exhibition at Arles focuses on. As curator Sonia Berger explains, “Fontcuberta wanted to make a show about Blank Paper, not just as a group of photographers, but as a movement, including the school and everything that has grown around it. They haven’t done collective work [such as a photographic mission], but their most important child is the school. They have worked, since the beginning of the century, as a community, and have had numerous off-springs or spin-offs, such as Dalpine, Book in Progress, La Troupe, FotoAplauso, BookJockey, Fiebre Photobook Festival, MOB, and so on” (Peces, 2017, online).

In this context, photobooks have also played an important role. In the last decade, because of the relatively small cost of printing a limited number of copies digitally, it has been easier to self-publish a photobook than to get access to an exhibition venue, and photobooks can be more quickly and easily distributed than exhibitions can travel. But this has also had an influence on the way projects are being conceived: the book format requires thinking about narrative, rhythm and design as well, which become as important as the pictures themselves. Moreover, there has recently been a number of books about photobooks, the most ambitious project being the three volumes edited by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr (2004-2014) titled: The Photobook: A History. Noteworthy in the Spanish context is the work of historian Horacio Fernández, who can be considered the pioneer in research into photobooks—it was the 1999 exhibition that he curated, Fotografía pública: Photography in print 1919-1939, that inspired Gerry Badger and Martin Parr’s book project. Fernández has continued producing outstanding work on photobooks, with the book Libro (2014), the exhibition at the Reina Sofía Museum titled Fotos & libros: España 1905-1977, produced by Acción Cultural Española that same year, the collection Fotolibros: aquí y ahora (2014), curated by Irene Mendoza, and Fenómeno Fotolibro (2017), coordinated by Moritz Neumüller, both at Fundación Foto Colectania and the second also with the support of the Contemporary Culture Centre of Barcelona (CCCB).

This new dawn of Spanish auteur photography during the worst years of the recession can be understood as driven or inspired by a crisis that has helped produce the photographic talent of this generation, empowered by the crisis—and the lack of institutional support—and even drawing on it as a theme for some of their projects, along with the social, institutional, democratic, and media crises that it has produced. At the same time, this generation of photographers are challenging the institutionalised language of documentary photography—if we can classify it as such—and its traditional channels of distribution and exhibition.

4. Twisting the real: Case studies

On his own website, the photographer Olmo González, one of the artists featured at the Madrid exhibition Un cierto panorama, describes himself as a photojournalist until 2013, a documentary photographer until 2014, an artist until 2015, while since 2016 he has been “researching the effects of the distribution of images on the Internet”. This shift in the way of referring to his own work reflects the experimentation that has been happening in the last decade in Spain, and that can be traced back to Stieglitz’s, Frank’s or Graham’s ways of viewing photography. Photographer Cristina de Middel acknowledges that “the language that was blooming was nothing new in the world of photography, but it was still difficult to classify in Spain. It was located in an unexplored territory (Fontcuberta does not count) that lies between the art and the document and seemed to cause problems for both, photojournalists and art curators. It was a photograph, it told a story, but it was not so laden with opinion, plus it used a language that was so non-neutral that it could not be documentary in nature. It took me some time to understand that it was simply a new hybrid genre that could not be pigeonholed at that time” (2017: 284).

In the pages that follow I will analyse four projects that will facilitate an exploration of the ideas discussed above. The works C.E.N.S.U.R.A. (Julián Barón, 2011), XX XY (Fosi Vegue, 2014), To the Moon and Back (Mario Zamora, 2015) and Devotos (Toni Amengual, 2015), speak about social realities in Spain in the years of the crisis in a hybrid language that lies between art and document, and which takes normative photographic language to its limits in order to make it relevant to the way the different themes are approached by the authors. In doing so, their work reflects an activist approach towards the reality depicted, but also towards photography itself. In this way, they use their textual materiality to reinforce their message, while avoiding transparency in the enunciation and immediacy for the viewer. For this reason, I will adopt a semiotic perspective for analysis that allows an approach to the image as a text in which its significance emerges from its own materiality. Following the methodology of the photographic image proposed by Javier Marzal (2007: 171-3), this analysis will be based on the need to understand the photographic text as a significant practice where the contextual details are combined with the morphological, compositional and enunciative elements. The starting point for this method is the consideration that form and content are levels that are closely intertwined and connected. Thus, the substance of the image is where the enunciation is inscribed, the place where the author’s voice emerges.

4.1. Light that blinds us: C.E.N.S.U.R.A. (Julián Barón, 2011)

Opening Julián Barón’s C.E.N.S.U.R.A. photobook1 is an unsettling experience. This project brings together around fifty burnt images on glossy paper that photography purists would dismiss as mistakes from a technical point of view. But as Chéroux shows us in Breve historia del error fotográfico [A Short History of the Photographic Mistake] (2009), errors are a source of creativity. And indeed, some overexposed pictures that Barón rescued from his own archive years after they were taken—and that now close the photobook—enabled him to see further. But the work doesn’t lend itself to being studied closely. We hardly recognise the figures of Spanish politicians and settings suggestive of the public sphere and the symbols of power.

The reader, made uncomfortable by the relentless flashes of light in which Barón douses reality, must make a conscious effort to continue thumbing through the glossy pages of the book. The pages are suffused with a luminous white that challenges our ability to sustain a placid gaze. And amid the flashes we think we can make out the image of certain public figures, so very familiar due to their excessive exposure, their overexposure, in traditional media. As I have pointed out elsewhere, “light becomes a noise in the image that hinders—but doesn’t prevent— the recognition of the figures. But it is this act of negation that heralds a certain awakening. It calls for an ethical and unsettling reading” (Martín-Núñez and García 2015: 338). The text that accompanies it declares the book’s intentions this way:

In that big circus that is politics, photography and censorship are allied to each other in order to manipulate people through the false use of image as a document, using the mass media to subtly but constantly mask those aspects that do not respond to the claims of the parties, blurring and distorting reality.

However, by focusing differently on politics and its leaders, trying to use the camera for deconstruction, photography can in effect censure the censorship, and thus, negative against negative, offer something positive, some new perspectives on politicians and their superficial status, revealing how the state they defend so vehemently is dissipated by their actions, their images, and all the paraphernalia that surrounds the ivory tower in which they believe they live (Barón, 2011).

Julián Barón deconstructs the image and uses its main quality—light—to illuminate the darkness. Except that in this case the darkness is not physical but symbolic, and the political photographs we are habitually exposed to are a powerful way of manipulating the public. Barón uses the image not just to show, but to wake up the sleeping gaze, and deconstructs the image itself to expose the darkness and deceit of the media image of politics. We live in a time in which political communication has replaced politics itself, and the more sophisticated it becomes, the more cases of corruption emerge. The Blasco case (2008), the Gürtel case (2009), the Nóos-Urdangarín case (2010), the ERE case (2011), the Bárcenas case (2013), the Pujol-Ferrusola case (2014), the Black cards case (2014), and the Púnica case (2014) are just a few examples uncovered in recent years and that are now in the courts. This is why the work of Julián Barón is still so radically current today. Released just before many of these cases came to public attention and the masses became aware of the level of corruption in Spain, it was clearly ahead of its own time.

The flashes, those mistakes that would be immediately rejected in so many schools, in this case underpin the aesthetic element on which Julián Barón develops his discourse. This is a political flash that qualifies, questions, denounces and awakens. That censures. There is no neutrality or objectivity here; only the photographer’s own truth. He expresses his discourse through an explicit, combative declaration. And it is in this taking a stand his intimate commitment to the truth lies. Barón feeds on media and public images, on events organised for the press, on political rallies, and while camouflaging himself and pretending to be just another photographer, he anoints the pictures he takes with his imagination. His flash is not the product of an automatic mental reaction, but incorporates the critical gaze of the photographer to document a reality that does not appear in its visible dimension. The overexposed image offers an ironic take on the media overexposure of public political figures. Barón sheds light on the bodies of politicians who are legitimised daily in traditional media with the intention of blinding both the photographed subject and the viewer. The visual detachment produced by the images expels us so that from a distance we are able to actually see what the images conceal or let slip. The flash strikes against the transparency of the images to distort the reality documented. In the act of seeking to go beyond, to push past the limits of the visible, and on the verge of making the image disappear by burning it completely, Julián Barón negates the image through a visual excess that prompts reflection. Julián Barón’s flash awakens us. His flash, technically wrong, burns the images and physically blinds the reader, but it is used in his discourse to look beyond and discover the real blindness to which the media and political communications subject the public through their technically perfect images.

By pushing the possibilities of a technical tool to the limit, Barón achieves an ideological plasticity that gives his work an enormous symbolic force. In short, the photographs of C.E.N.S.U.R.A. are current but have not been swept up in the whirlwind of the everyday; five years after the publication of the book it was awarded the 2016 Magnum Photography Award. The pictures are not images for the newspaper or the archives, or even for the memory. Like the flash itself, the pictures are troubling and force you to close your eyes for a few moments, and to open them again and to process the visible in a new and radical way.

4.2. Noise that reveals the invisible: XX XY (Fosi Vegue, 2014)

In XX XY it is not the light that blinds us, as it was in C.E.N.S.U.R.A., but a heavy and unpleasant noise—that same noise that the technological industry sets out to eliminate through its advertising promises—that obscures images that have not even been saved from the most absolute darkness. But in that darkness we can begin to make out some shapes, fragments framed by windows. The fragments, initially decontextualised and distorted by the layer of digital noise—much more annoying than analogue noise because of its geometric patterns—begin to reveal, from one page to the next, what appear to be sex scenes. The reader, little by little, can begin to identify bits of flesh—we can’t speak of bodies yet—entangled in undecipherable postures, fingers digging into backs or facial expressions of ecstasy that allow us to begin to identify what the image quality—sharpness, clarity, light—denies us. The technique seems wrong again, but by stretching the limits of the visible, going beyond the immediate and transparent image, we access its symbolic dimension and hear the voice of the artist himself.

The photographer turns his furtive gaze on a communal courtyard to enter the intimacy of rooms used for prostitution, constructing a voyeuristic frame and point of view, in a clear allusion to the Hitchcockian gaze that can create a story of the lives of others. And this is how it is revealed to the viewer in the text that presents the book:

A communal courtyard is surrounded by rooms where prostitutes take their clients, while the photographer hides in the opposite window observing that which should remain invisible. Issues such as prostitution or pornography only become problematic when the system, or a society at the service of that system, deem them to be so, and they would not exist without a legal framework that lays down the limits of what can and cannot be seen in public. In this context, sex becomes a control mechanism. The overpowering digital noise is our own subconscious, the mental sphere where sex operates as a catalyst for our instinct, our desire, and our contradictions (Vegue, 2014).

The author’s voice reveals itself, showing a critical view of an activity that is not and has not been regulated in any sense in Spain. It is neither illegal nor legal, and is not recognised as part of social life, although since 2010 it has been accounted for in the GDP.2 This darkness is the darkness surrounding prostitution in Spain, which we see in this hidden gaze, a gaze that acknowledges its existence but can only show it in fragmented frames showing disjointed images from which the reader can barely extract an explicit meaning, but which at the same time have a power to suggest and make visible that which lies outside the frame, which is also outside the public frame.

Sensitivity—a curious signifier—is boosted so that we can make out some shapes in the darkness, but this has a price: the annoying noise and the consequent loss of quality of the image, an affront in the era of high definition and 4K resolution. Technological advances have made it possible to reduce this noise in high ISOs, so that the camera can overcome the tyranny of light, contradicting the very etymology of the word photography. But XX XY plays with light precisely to make sensitivity visible, transforming it from a technical procedure into a central part of the project’s discourse. The noise acts here as an enunciative mark that emphasises the author’s gaze. The project uses a very high level of sensitivity to shed light—or rather, visibility—on a form of violence and control that is kept in the shadows of society, while at the same time distorting it through the technical process itself. The visual effect is in fact similar to operations used to render invisible those parts of public images that are not to be seen. These processes are used for two distinct purposes: to protect the people in the photographs from the public (especially children), and to protect the public of some disturbing elements of the photograph. What is its role here? As Vegue himself suggests, the noise here protects neither the subject nor the public, but represents our own unconscious:

Today’s cameras struggle to make digital noise disappear while here it is exploited to the full. The exaggerated increase of sensitivity in order to make the subject clearer only servers to blur and alter the message. The overwhelming noise is our own unconscious; it is the mental space in which sex acts as a catalyst for our instincts, our desires and contradictions (Vegue, 2014).

More than to protect (which implies a concealment), noise is used here to display a disturbing violence that has been naturalised and obviated by society and the State. It is not easy to see, it is not comfortable, and it is not explicit. XY XX uses noise to problematise a silenced reality illuminated for public viewing.

4.3. Body against body: To the Moon and Back (Mario Zamora, 2015)

To the Moon and Back is a project that reflects on the mechanisms of state control and power through the use of the body and physical violence. The title of the book is the motto used on the official website of Spain’s Police Intervention Unit, the office responsible the policemen who control and maintain order at demonstrations. The images contained in the book were all taken during the demonstrations in Spain between 2011 and 2014, during the uprising of the 15-M movement, although looking at the pictures it would be impossible to tell: barely recognisable shapes that take the reader on an almost abstract journey that bears more resemblance to outer space than to the streets of Madrid.

In the complete darkness that moves from cold to warmth, passing through an explosive point of light, we can identify some fragmented bodies, the security forces, that allow us to anchor the images in reality. What is the meaning of the ecstasy in those gazes? What are those boots running away from—or are they attacking? Will those fingers stretching out to touch the helmet make it to their target? What has provoked the rage of those clenched teeth? These disconcerting details scattered through the pages remind us that what we are seeing are not astronauts, and they take us back to the streets, to the demonstrations where people use their bodies to defend their rights. Celso Giménez, who has written a beautiful text that serves to contextualise the book, Nuestra preciosa vida (Our Precious Life, 2015), begins with an emphatic affirmation: “One could say that never before in the history of mankind have so many people, at the same time, and in so many places at once, had the feeling that this system does not work.” And it is against this malfunctioning system that Mario Zamora’s project fights.

The images contained in the book are testimony to the brutality of the demonstrations, but they stretch the limits of the image in such a way that they teeter on the borders of abstraction. Photography, as noted above, is an image anchored in reality by nature, but here it escapes its own cage,3 the cage of detail, sharpness, clarity, or figurativeness to tell us of a journey which, without being fully intelligible, is much more intense, going further perhaps than the projects of Julián Barón and Fosi Vegue, although we can glean references to both of them in Zamora’s work.4

XX XY is present in To the Moon and Back through the immediately visible image itself. The form, the textures, the darkness and the noise emanating from the images remind us of the work of Fosi Vegue. Taking the camera—and the body—to its limits involves moving away from normative language to explore what lies beyond it, where the images convey tension and alarm, and even reveal that they have been violated (enlarged, recovered from underexposure), in a masterful allusion to the very essence of the demonstrations depicted. It is therefore not the figurative that reveals the subject, but the forms that convey those sensations, emotions, essences of what has been photographed. And it is this materiality of the images that troubles and unsettles us, and brings out Zamora’s voice. Bodies are fragmented in close-up frames that overwhelm us, inevitably pushing us back as readers, because we cannot look into the eyes, or the faces too closely.

C.E.N.S.U.R.A., on the other hand, is present not so much in terms of the visual style—although it is true to say that Zamora is not afraid of using a blinding light for the climax of his story—but in the way the author’s experience can be heard through the images. Just like Julián Barón, Mario Zamora uses photography as a tool of social activism, capable of marking a difference in the Other and of weaving a discourse of its own based on the visual quality of the images. The words of Celso Giménez (2015) are very clear in this sense:

And so I imagine Mario’s body taking these photographs, and I imagine him positioned at an awkward angle, his face pressed up against the police helmets, almost sharing their sweat, chasing an image like someone chasing a revelation. An image that might help him understand exactly what he is doing there. And I think that in that exact moment his whole life is there, concentrated in the ability to share a workspace and working hours with those security forces. That photography is only an excuse to get too close, to stretch the limits, to conquer at least that space of freedom where something is at last revealed to us and we can see it all in a different light. And perhaps that is the miracle of this book, to make us see all of this in another way.

4.4. The looped story: Devotos (Toni Amengual, 2015)

Although all the cases analysed so far were published as photobooks before appearing in other media and formats such as exhibitions, I believe that Toni Amengual’s Devotos is paradigmatic in this sense, and the book format itself contributes to expanding the limits of normative language. Devotos shows a series of photographs taken during the regional and general elections of 2011, which took place in May and November respectively, and which were the last elections held before the emergence of the new parties that have turned the Spanish political landscape on its head. The photographs show images that are silenced in the political rallies of the two big parties that have alternated in power almost since the establishment of democracy and that turned the Spanish political system into a two-party system: the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and the conservative Partido Popular (PP). The work features portraits of the party members who attend these events, but it does not portray them in the key moments that we are so used to seeing in those brief scenes shown in the news, where hundreds of people are clapping and cheering on the politicians while tirelessly waving little plastic flags; instead, it shows them at other less decisive moments. What we see are mundane moments of waiting, of boredom. The camera captures them just when they are not posing for the cameras, when they are distracted from their role as party members and have let their masks down. The work is reminiscent of the iconic Beach Portraits series by Rineke Dijkstra (2002), in which the photographer sought to capture her subjects at moments of maximum vulnerability, disarmed before the camera. The expressions captured by Amengual, like Dijkstra’s, affect us deeply because of their authenticity, because the veil we use to protect ourselves in front of a camera—the smile, the look, the controlled gesture—has been lowered, and all that remains is the essence of that person at that unimportant moment.

However, it is not only the portraits that make this work interesting. The design of the book is crucial to understanding the author’s vision. The accordion binding turns this story into a loop without beginning or end, as every page forms part of the next. If we read it by opening each page alternately, we will realise that, ironically, the reds are on the right and the blues on the left, symbolically reversing their positions on the political spectrum. Thus, we move through the book, alternating between the two parties in a manner evocative of Spain’s democratic history; two parties which, as the author invites us to consider, are two sides of the same coin, rendering the left/right distinction quite irrelevant. Indeed, there is no way to distinguish the political affiliation of the party members, except for the colour of the background, since all subjects wear the same looks of boredom and weariness, indistinguishable from one another.

The design of the photobook itself contributes to this project as much as the images themselves, as it is crucial to the communication of ideas like alternation, interchangeability, and ​​endless cycles. The book ceases to be a transparent and immediate format because its function is not merely to hold the content without transforming it, suggesting instead a way of approaching the content that invites us to read the author’s discourse much more critically.

5. Discussion

The four projects I have analysed in this paper all share a strong connection with their immediate reality, but none of them fits easily under the label of documentary photography. The projects present the personal points of view of each of the authors on issues that concern them, but they do not merely translate those issues through the classical, institutionalised photographic mode of representation, based on the aesthetics of a document that focuses on the subject of the picture to make it as visible and readable as possible. These photographers, or visual artists, interpret the events and their own experiences to produce images that are difficult to read but that exploit the qualities of the photographic image to communicate something, although sometimes through the deconstruction of the image itself or by pushing the bases of the hegemonic visual language to their limit. Light, darkness, noise, and the loop become a fundamental part of the voice that the authors want us to hear.

These projects reveal a generation—although without some distance we should not dare to label it as such—which, before the different crises unleashed by the recession of 2008, has found in the most adverse conditions a creative driving force for the exploration of problematic issues while challenging the hegemonic language and traditional institutional structures of photography in Spain. And, at the same time, they have begun to tackle the historical crisis of photography in Spain: the lack of international prominence of our photographers and the lack of consideration of photography as an artistic practice.

These projects also use photographic languages ​​in a totally different way to the banal images that predominate on social media thanks to mobile devices in the post-photographic era (Fontcuberta, 2011, 2016) on the one hand, and, on the other, the spectacular, sensationalist photographs published by the media in the war for one more click, often rewarded in the most important photojournalism contests. These projects speak to us of personal approaches to reality resulting from deep and thoughtful reflections on visuality, and involve photographic and publishing processes that take several years. These photographers thus have no interest in the short-term impact of a photograph that can go viral and put the focus on a specific problem for a few days, but is incapable of transforming the problem in the long term, as occurred with the photo of the refugee Aylan Kurdi taken by the photographer Nilüfer Demir in 2015. The projects that we have analysed here, which in some circles have been accused of being too formalistic, provide visual stories for long-term reflection. It is true that their reading is not easy or even pleasant in many cases, and that the message may be indecipherable for readers accustomed to the visual intoxication of images that are easily digested and quickly forgotten, which, if we are sincere, are the majority. But the mere fact that these projects are being produced is a sign that Spanish photography is evolving. Recognition by the masses is not urgent and will be the responsibility of all those of us who shape the status of photography, from creators to teachers, researchers, curators, museums, galleries, festivals, competitions and even institutions.


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Special thanks

This work was carried out in the context of the research project “The Crisis of the Real: Documentary and Informational Representation in the Context of the Global Financial Crisis” (P1 · 1A2014-05), funded by Universitat Jaume I, through the UJI competitive call for research projects (evaluated in 2014 by the Agència de la Qualitat of the Universitat of Catalunya, AQU), for the period 2014-2017, under the direction of Javier Marzal Felici.

The research was carried out as part of a research stay at the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation and the Valand Academy of Göteborgs Universitet (Sweden) with funding from the Award for Young Researchers of Universitat Jaume I and Banco Santander in 2017. We would like to thank Niclas Östlind and Elsa Modin for their support in the research.

A version of this paper is to be published in Spanish in 2018 in the book La crisis de lo real, edited by Tirant Lo Blanch.

  1. The article published by the author and Shaila García Catalán in the journal Fotocinema, “Un segundo más y los caciques desaparecerían. El flash político de Julián Barón”, offers a much more detailed and profound analysis than the one presented here, where I outline only the conclusions of that analysis.
  2. Source: Documento sobre prostitución. Reflexiones para el debate. Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía. Available online:
  3. A term used frequently by Julián Barón to refer to boundaries that pigeonhole things and hinder our progress. It has also been used as the name of several of his courses and workshops.
  4. Mario Zamora was a student at the Blank Paper School, where Julián Barón and Fosi Vegue are founding members and teachers.