Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Spanish Cemetery

For some years I have tried to capture the architecture of the Spanish island of Menorca. Not known as a party island it is quiet and retains many of the influences of its former governments, including the Spanish, French and the English. What we have then is an eclectic mix of European styles from the 16-17th century with contemporary styles, especially in the non holiday housing.
A walk through the streets of Mahon (the capital) gives the feeling of an unregulated place with little or no consideration to the juxtaposition of the old and new. I find this rag tag disharmony an irritation and therefore difficult to photograph. This may be (almost certainly is) my inability to choose images that could tell the Menorcan story through the architecture. There are also the problems of styles from the place having been ruled by a number of countries and my Englishness in wanting a clear pattern. The Port of Mahon had a strategic importance for those fighting in the Mediterranean with the Spanish, French and English all having made it home for their fleets due to its secluded deep harbour. So the mixture, when it occurs is somehow messy and I struggle with the laid back approach of the culture and its "Manyana" (tommorow) feel that one day it will be sorted out, but not today. One particular feature of the Spanish culture that has interested me for some years is their cemeteries. I have seen nothing like these in the UK and the burial method (above ground) has created architecture that is visually interesting and culturally different. The burial spaces (crypts) all being above ground is thought provoking and the eclectic display of portraits of the deceased make the experience of visiting a very moving experience. The feeling that you are walking amongst the dead is tangible, as apposed the UK graveyard where you quite literally walk on the dead. The images below are from the town of Es Castell and on arrival the entrance into the walled area is bright and fresh. The level of maintenance is sublime with a clear message that this is not a sinister place. Probably due to the age and size of the original buildings there was a need to construct a new part by way of an extension. The new cemetery is frightful place, physically and emotionally. There is no architectural style whatsoever, or perhaps there is, it is a style of the nuclear age. The walls, the above ground crypts, the paving, the buildings are all constructed of reinforced concrete, with no attempt to soften the visual impact of this engineering material. I have spent 30 years working with reinforced concrete, building bridges, water treatment, sewage treatment, waste disposal, petrochemical and marine structures but none of that prepared me for the concrete cemetery. It has given the place a feeling of industrial utility with its engineering and lack of any human intervention in the design to take a step beyond its purpose to please the eye. All of the exposed steelwork including doors and handrails are not painted or coated. The steel is bare, it is rusting and it contrasts with the white concrete to make a monochrome place that has a binary existence. The photography of the old part was a delight, the shapes, the names of the deceased, the flowers, the curves of the cornices and archways, the haphazardly placed chair, have a harmony with the needs, not of the dead perhaps but certainly the bereaved or the visitor. The birds sang and the trees whispered in a warm breeze and strangely I felt a warmth there, I was not intimidated by the faces looking at me and I did not feel as though I had trespassed. I had taken the precaution of asking a local Spanish friend if there were any restrictions in terms of etiquette or local bylaws about making photographs, and was told there were none, so I did not feel obliged to work quickly and then escape. When I walked towards the new part I felt a chill.  This place has no character, well thats not true, it has the character of a Stephen King film. Desolate, grey and waiting for death. The rows and rows of spaces waiting for their coffins is the equivalent of pre dug graves in a UK graveyard. A loud noise breaks the silence as I work my way around taking the photographs. I can see nobody and it is difficult to position the noise, an engine, maybe a grass cutter, but there is no grass. I then glimpse a man with a blower machine moving along the rows chasing leaves. Maybe I could have stayed longer, tried something else with the photography, a wide angle perhaps, but no, I left. I was not at ease and I have never experienced two similar places with so totally different atmosphere than the old and new cemetery. The architecture, the change from classic Spanish with its gentle curves and finials, its textures and warmth, its apparent empathy with the dead and then the cold stark construction with  reinforced concrete and the dark rusting steelwork. I did venture too far and at the back of the buildings found various empty coffins which I did not photograph. There is a limit to what I needed and this seemed a step too far.

Over dinner with some friends I outlined my shoot. Needless to say not everyone sees this type of behaviour as normal (the English) but my Spanish friends love the place and agree that it is a special. Photographers, sometimes misunderstood or a bit weird, who knows.

I had spent some time considering how I wanted the images to convey a place that is different. Different in as much as however you look at them cemeteries are a place where we go to for a limited number of reasons. It is mostly for reflection to visit a loved ones grave and remember them so there is a focus on a single grave. I didn't want the images to be as if from an undertaker or the local authority. My photographs needed to show the atmosphere and the architecture without being overtly clinical. I choose to use a standard lens  (50mm on FF sensor) so that my vision (and therefore my perception) was not distorted. My selection to shoot with a wide aperture was made so that limited detail is shown, except where I specifically desired it.  

The outcome as far as a learning experience was significant. The emotions I felt at the time were extreme and this affected the photography without doubt. I should perhaps have made a second visit, hoping that the "place" had less to say directly to me and then I could have explored it more thoroughly photographically, but my instinct is that any fear I had is somewhere in the original photographs and a second visit would be too contrived. I could have done better but I was not prepared for the emotional impact and that is something I will need to overcome if I find myself in a similar situation in the future.

The photographs shown below are the start of what one day could be a larger body of work, which requires more travel to Spain !!.

Old Cemetery 5

Old Cemetery 1
Old Cemetery 2
Old Cemetery 3
Old Cemetery 4
New Cemetery 1
New Cemetery 2
New Cemetery 3
New Cemetery 4

Old Cemetery 6


  1. My sort of subject. I really like the fourth image with the chair.

  2. I am pleased you appreciated it Duncan, its not everyone's cup of tea.