© 2021, Gianluca Urdiroz

Des-Memoria (Un-Memories) :
A Spanish History of Photographic Absence

1936 – 1939: Hiding Places

Suitcases, boxes and garages are some of the places in which many memories had to be secretly kept away. After Spanish Civil War this became the case of renown
photographers like Robert Capa, but also of local reporters like Antonio Campaña. This chapter will start looking at how this particular war is usually remembered. Then it will look at new discoveries and delve with the possible reasons and effects of their prolongated absence.

Between 1936 and 1939, Spain was seen as a battlefront of broader ideological fights, a ‘rehearsal’ (Sontag, 2002)  for some, and a prelude for other countries that could sense a broader conflict looming. In an era of recent photographic development people were starting to be informed through photographs of the event. In her 2002 article for The New Yorker, Susan Sontag explained that ‘the Spanish Civil War was the first war to be witnessed (“covered”) in the modern sense’. She goes on to explain how war photography of that time had a more humanistic approach than contemporary images, and she highlights the shift on the depiction of war. Sontag writes that these images shaped the way war was ‘experienced’ (Ibid.) by the outsider, and transformed people’s way of remembering events to a more visual one.

The Falling Soldier is a great example of the way Spanish Civil War is remembered and probably one of the few that reached such historic and symbolic altitude. Shot by Robert Capa (Endre Friedmann & Gerda Taro), the photograph was presented as the instant in which a republican soldier is being shot. In its website The Metropolitan Museum of Art explains it’s the ‘proliferation through newspapers and magazines’ that engrained the image in the viewers mind, not only the quality of the photo. It can also be seen as a symbol of the way this particular war is often, through the images of non-local photo reporters sent by US and UK picture magazines to cover this small but significant war.

In 2007, the International Centre of Photography finally got hold of the, so called, Mexican Suitcase that contained 4500 unseen negatives by some of those international reporters (Robert Capa and David Seymour) and that was thought to be lost since 1938. Since 1978, 7.000 negatives by Spanish photographers of the same time have been found in boxes, suitcases and archives of the time. While the first have been described as ‘some of the most innovative and passionate coverage of the Spanish Civil War’ (Ibid.), news about the latter discovery were only national. Sontag (2002) wrote that, ‘The memory of war, however, like all memory, is mostly local’, and as mentioned before she makes an exception for conflicts of international interest like the Spanish Civil War. Surely, the absence of most of the local photographers and 40 years of fascist dictatorship have complicated local memory in Spain.

Valencian born Agustí Centelles was one of the most known local photographers, one of the few that reached international publications. Now a days he is considered a pioneer in European photography of that time, often called the ‘Spanish Robert Capa’ (The Guardian, 2009). His depiction of the Republican soldiers is one of the most recalled in Spanish society, and for this reason he ended up  escaping the country and hiding thousands of his images in a house in France. These remained hidden until years after Franco’s death (El Mundo, 2006). It could be argued that the temporary absence of these images has made it possible for them to be seen now. However, Figure 1 is a good example of the way people like Centelles had a role of documenting daily life while also influencing it through press and propaganda.


1939 – 1975: A New Spanish Family Album

Once crushed any opposing voices Spanish history started a new period of pseudo-fascistic dictatorship under Francisco Franco’s rule, which, in a pendular movement, started at it’s most oppressive, which then evolved to a global aperture, only to return to  it’s hardest oppression in the last years. This chapter looks at the control of the public gaze under Francoism, and it’s use to justify it’s own narrative and worldview.

During the first period of the Francoism (1939 – 1959) the state apparatus dedicated its efforts into consolidating the basis of the new regime, and this required of a rewriting of both history and present in photographic terms, it can be compared to the making of a family album, as Pierre Bourdieu explained (1996, p.30):

To photograph one’s children is to make oneself the historiographer of their childhood… The family album expresses the truth of social remembrance.

Like in a family album, presence and absence of certain events people  and topics are revealing of internal tensions. This was certainly of the new generations of the time, which grew up with the regime’s education and the press’ re-telling of Spanish Civil War, both manipulated to voice the ideology of the state.

One of the main ideas that Franco wanted to communicate was the effectiveness of the State and of the only party, Falange Española, in the improvement of Spanish society. Photographs like Figure 4 were used to show an apparent abundance of food served by Falange (Mar Alberruche, no date), without really showing any evidence of what the children were being fed. Censorship was so brutal not even Photographs like Figure 5, which shows children sitting on the floor enjoying their meal, were not to be neither published nor released by the agency EFE under any circumstance.

Mar Alberruche Rico, in an essay for PhotoEspaña, uses the term ‘pauperist photography’ (Ibid.), coined by Art Historian Juan Antonio Ramirez, to refer to all the imagery that the pseudo-fascist dictatorship manufactured around the idealization of poverty. Since Spanish photography of the first half of the 20th century was influenced by pictorialism, there was a likely connection between the two. A romantic view of poverty was also fostered by the Catholic church’ narrative of Jesus Christ and the virtue of a non-materialistic lifestyle.

Citizens, with special power in small communities and towns, lead their lives under observation of the Falange and the Church. There was a great emphasis on control over sexual desires and a constant prevention from lust, which enforced a strict censorship of anything considered erotic within popular culture. This was the case with film posters and certain press photos, usually involving international actresses dressed in what was considered provocative. Censors had to become creative to ‘cover up’ any insinuation of a naked female body, as seen in Figure 6. This situation of imposed political and religious fundamentalism showed particular brutality toward women (Hochschild, 2012).

Historian Roberto G. Fandiño explains that women were a preferential target as they were a key figure within the idea of the family, therefore the regime allied with the Church to ‘construct the female prototype that would best adapt to the ideological, social, political and economic project’ (2001, p.67 cited in Delgado Idarreta, no date, p.122). Anyone that did not fit into this type was repressed in various ways. If Fig. 6 purposely hid parts of the female body, other methods of repression involved the opposite, this is, showing. As documented in figure 7, when women didn’t conform to the regime ‘thousands of women had their heads shaved and were force-fed castor oil (a strong laxative)’ (Hochschild, 2012) after which they would be paraded around their town.

These examples are taken from the first decades of the regime, when The Suñer Law of 1938 was the ruling mentality over freedom of speech (Delgado Idarreta, no date, p.224). However, by the 1960’s the government had changed to the hands of technocrats in an attempt to improve the country’s economy. These changes were reflected on the new press law, The Fraga Law of 1966, which was best described by the writer Miguel Delibes (J. J. Sánchez Aranda, C. Barrera del Barrio, op. cit., p. 411 cited in Ibid.):

before they obliged you to write what you didn’t feel, now they conform forbidding you to write what you feel, we have won something (p. 228)

By means of this law, the regime was adapting to the intrusion of the outside world (ibid.). The traffic of new photobooks, specially Klein’s New York (1956) and Steichen’s Family of Man, arriving with the US deals shook the Spanish photographers views (Alberruche Rico, no date).

It’s clear that during the Francoist dictatorship, photography became one more tool in the making of a pseudo-fascistic nation, and since the medium wasn’t very trusted it was always under tight control. Their use of images reflect the ideology and the importance given to the public gaze, whether as evidence or as punishment. This helps to see how the gradual aperture to countries like the U.S, with a incoming flux of external influences, made it more difficult for the establishment to justify the ruling ideology.


1975 – 2019: Tied and Well Tied

Franco was buried in 1975, and in 2019 it was relocated reviving a national debate of the importance of doing so. This chapter will be looking at the way Spain transitioned to it’s contemporary Democratic state, and how the nature of it has affected the perspective in which the events of the previous two chapters are now seen.

The 20th of November of 1975 official photographs of the dictator resting in his coffin were published all around national and international media, and the future of Spain was supposed to continue as planned by the dictator: ‘tied and well tied’ . However, it is clear by the photo of the same event published in 1984, as seen in Figure 9, that the country had changed routes. This period is now known as the ‘transition era’ and only in the recent years it’s starting to be discussed in terms of how it has influenced the contemporary state of Spain. The transition in itself was also a moment of reflection, the very fragile situation of the country there was a consensus to overlook justice so long as it helped to build a stable future for a country that was trying to re-invent itself (Shevel, 2011, pp 144 -145). As a consequence of this decision, the issue of the many victims of war and Francoism was not raised. Only in 2007 the issue of historical memory was brought up in government and materialized in the Law on Historical Memory. This law was pushed by a generation politicians that were only teenagers when Franco died, proving that the trauma of the past was not forgotten but passed on from the previous two generations to that one. This situation is better understood through the term ‘post-memory’. Marianne Hirsch first used this term to name the trauma and memory built by the generation after the one who suffered it, in other words, a generation that remembers only by means of the stories, images, and behaviours told by their parents and grandparents (Columbia University Press, 2019). Connecting it with Sontag’s idea that people now recall events through photos, it’s clear how the images and ideas discussed in the previous chapters played a role in the generations that lead the newly democratic government.
Shevel (2011) explains that the Historical Memory Law was more an attempt of making a democratic memory than ‘replacing the previously dominant paradigm’ (p 140). This meant that all victims of Francoism and civil war were acknowledged, and had the right to ‘personal memory’ (BOE, 2007), which also meant it didn’t acknowledge the scale of the repression. The conservative and far-right parties still today criticize this law as ‘dividing’ and not relevant, as it disrespects the work done during the transition era (El Pais, 2019). This same party released a Citizen Safety Law in 2015 that is currently known as ‘Gag Law’ for its focus on reducing freedom of expression under the pretext of social safety (ElPais, 2015). This law, currently functioning, forbids among other things ‘the unauthorized use of images or personal or professional information’ (BOE, 2015). 

Artist Daniel Mayrit saw this law as intentionally vague and open to police’s interpretation, so he took it to the extreme, creating the body of work of Authorised Images. Mayrit manipulated the photos so they fulfil the law in every sense, creating surreal images that express the absurdity of the law as seen in Figure 11. These photos are of more interest when compared to the images of police clashes that Manel Armengol took in 1976 as seen in figure 10. Not only they share a very similar content but it’s even more striking to know that the first photograph became renowned for its multiple national and international publications (anamasprojects, 2019), whereas the other one had to be manipulated to be safely published.

In 2018 the European Court of Human Rights declared that Spain was forbidding freedom of speech to the two men sentenced to jail for burning a photo of the king Juan Carlos in 2007, as in Figure 12 (New York Times, 2018). That same year the photographic work of Santiago Serra Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners, Figure 13, was vetoed at an international arts fair in Madrid as it could ‘deviate’ the discourse of the rest of the fair (Ney York Times, 2018).

These are all examples, culminated in 2018, of a Spanish government that seems to try protecting its establishment: police forces, the head of the State, Catholic figures and unity of Spain. It would be a simplification and a banalization of the Francoist dictatorship to compare it to contemporary state of Spain,  however it is worth noticing the regression that Spanish democracy is being faced with, and as explained previously, part of it can be explained by the nature of the democratic transition.

The last three chapters have been an attempt to remember an absence. Remembering things that were hidden at the time but have now re-emerged from suitcases and archives for new generations to re-contextualize. In Spain’s 20th century history there are still many blanks that need filling, not with myths, but with a meticulous research into what those holes reflect and why they’re there. Some of these blanks have been filled with images of the Civil War that, due to trauma and repression, were hidden until recent years. The Francoist regime would leave out of the picture anything that didn’t follow the ruling ideology. The democratic transition had silence as a pact, as a way to move forward amid national tensions. Finally, all of these silences have deformed collective memory with such depth, that it’s echoes can still be heard in contemporary conservative narratives. In Archive Fever, Jaques Derrida emphasizes the importance of looking at the past since (cited in Bate, 2010, p 249):

It is a question of the future, the question of future itself, the question of a response, a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow (p 36)

As new generations are born under a democracy, it’s important to look back at history and give it the voice that it lacked when it was built. Franco coming out of his grave both physically and metaphorically, through the rise in far-right parties, it seems more urgent than ever to clear the mist of amnesia.