Every year when the Tour de France kicks off, I’ll spot a few improbably enthusiastic fans scattered along every extremity of its route, waiting for a chance to wave and scurry alongside the riders, to participate in some way in the grand promethean event. They often offer the riders some respite from their endeavours by proffering water bottles, so that these people become mobile way-stations or pit stops for the herculean men as they cut up through the mountains, down the snaking descents and along the seemingly interminable flat sprints.
One of the defining and deeply violent anachronisms of the pictures that make up Txema’s “The Waiting Game” is the way that these girls and these women, arrayed like floating buoys along the curving lengths of the nondescript highways and lanes that run the length of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, take on the air of watering stations: portable truck stop relief for any driver who might happen to pass by. Txema’s pictures, which depict these desperate people with an almost unilaterally ruthless impersonality, illustrate precisely the way in which they are as disposable and instantly forgettable as those earnest fans who momentarily clutter the routes of the Tour. They are perishable parts of a much bigger and far more savage machine.
The pictures are ruthlessly impersonal in their refusal to privilege an imagined individual psychology over the larger desecration of the circumstances in which we find these women. Perversely, it is that pictorial indifference that invites our thoughts so irresistibly toward the implausible hopelessness that their lives embody, by means of the places where they are obliged to wait in order to work. The longer I spend imagining my way into the spaces of expectation in which Txema has photographed these girls and these waiting women, the more desolate and acute their predicament appears. There is undeniably a game at work, but the pictures make plain that we could never hope to photograph the winners.
If we look slowly and without agitation or eagerness at these images, it seems that the world has conspired in secret to make of these girls and their situation an object lesson in irony. On a slower viewing we would see a young African immigrant girl crouched beside a byway awaiting a chance to sell her flesh, seated in the shade beneath a sign declaiming “LOW PRICES ALL YEAR” – a truth so literal as to be almost sadistic; we would see the profusion of roadside stoops these women have fashioned beside business parks and truck stops – spaces constructed for the most routine form of bleak and often mindless drudgery; we would note the brutality of an irony that so often sees them seated in the shadows of signage announcing to passing drivers that some service or leisure is nearby, and wonder a little at how profoundly and how nakedly the camera can show the depths of this type of wretchedness. It is in a slow, measured reading of the images that we begin to conceive of the outer edges of utter precariousness on which their lives teeter, warmed by the coldest and most unrelenting of suns, prey to whichever €20 note might pull up or pass by.
The Waiting Game is a very frank and profoundly bleak body of work, even in this truncated form. In all there are around 100 such images, a volume that I believe is testament to at least two factors: on the one hand, it seems to be testament to the inordinate emotional difficulty Txema must have grappled with at stepping finally and decisively away from these roadsides after 5yrs spent hunting down and deceiving these young women into an unwitting and involuntary declaration of their wretched vulnerability; on the other hand it is an unbending affirmation of the scale of a woeful depravity, of the depths of a seemingly intractable problem. That prostitution is legal in Spain should not lead us to suspect that these and other similar young girls are not trapped in similar cycles of vicious dependency at the margins of our own societies.
The fact that Txema came to this work in a truly unplanned and undogmatic way, in the process of continuing his long-term study of the median forms of leisure enjoyed by his fellow Spaniards, seems to me to have tempered any inclination he might have had toward evangelising with his images or descending into some inarticulate moralising quicksand. The utter isolation of his subjects is sufficient. However it is, I think, because Txema sincerely sees this work as forming part of his overall study of the cultural landscape of modern day Spain, and because he photographs these women within that landscape – a space strewn with remnants of the same faded jamboree of cheapness and luxury we all now know with such remorseless clarity – that the photographs do not stop at the point of observing a travesty, but manage to double it back onto ourselves. The interlocking economic cycles so productive of rapid growth and devastation draw together those immigrant women vulnerable or desperate enough to fall prey to the men who traffic in them, the conglomerate businesses who operate the length of this stretch of Mediterranean coast, the bilateral ‘free trade agreements’ that rob the grain from these former colonies, and the working class men who labour and seek their leisure along these roads. Txema’s photographs suggest that we are none of us entirely blameless, all of us in some fashion either voyeurs, fellow countrymen, accomplices or unwitting beneficiaries of the self-same inhumanity.
Interview with Txema Salvans
It should be said first and foremost that since I discovered your project, it has attracted me greatly in essence for everything it encompasses – aesthetically, photographically, politically and so forth. I would be interested in talking a little about how The Waiting Game reflects your photographic, cultural and political interests, and how one might draw together and locate this work in terms of other significant works of art in the history of photography. It seems to me that the theme of ‘The Road’ in photography runs through this work, but in a very distinctive way to the normal manner in which we see it, above all in the United States. On the other hand there is the question of portraiture and of a refusal to psychologise one’s subjects if I can put it that way. There is also the issue of immigration, of poverty, of luxury and vice, and I’d be interested in exploring these things and others that seem to you interesting and important.
Okay, look – I’ll give you some prior history so that you understand where I come from. I studied biology, and my passion since I was very young has always been science – as much physics as astronomy, the animal world and so on… Myself as a child, my heroes were Carl Sagan and Darwin, they weren’t photographers. I began and directed all my studies toward the world of science. Here in Spain, when the time comes to decide demarcate and decide which subjects you’re going to study and you focus more on Humanities or Sciences, I was always more inclined toward the world of science and I began to study biology. Once I was in the institute, which is the step immediately prior to entering university, I began a little by pure chance with photography – with a photography workshop. A girlfriend of mine had an aunt who was a photographer and I began assisting her. What I’m trying to say is that in the end, where I find myself now, I’m developing a kind of photography that is very much based in the idea of anthropology – so that my pictures, in the hands of an anthropologist or historian, are also interesting. I sometimes see myself as a naturalist, like one of those guys who travelled in the 19th century, who went exploring other territories and who documented in a very objective and formal style what they saw.
To begin with, I decided quite some time ago to work from that which I know, which is Spain, which is my culture. You know that in photography people can begin to work or can start out in photography from that with which they empathise, so if it’s a person who does a lot of sport and is a cycling fan, then they photograph the world of cycling or climbing or travel, or if it’s someone who loves to party and spends much of their time in nightlife then they start with that. I basically realised straight away that that about which I could speak would be that which I could understand. So, when I go to a Spanish wedding I can understand, I don’t need it to be explained to me what is the particular choreography of that wedding, and which are the important characters in that wedding, or what is happening and the cultural specificity of what it is that I’m seeing. I suppose that also owing to my more scientific or pragmatic way of seeing, I happen to love to photograph that which I understand. So, within that which I understand or in terms of photographing the society to which I belong, I have concentrated on that which is contemporary leisure – holidaying people and leisure spaces. In a moment I’ll get to the issue of the prostitutes and explain how it was that that idea emerged…
So, why holidays? First, in part due to practical constraints. I mean to say, I can go out and photograph unconcerned – well, not so unconcerned now because when people see a camera they’re spooked – but let’s say that during the months of spring and summer I can go and take photographs when I want because I know where those leisure spaces are, I don’t need..
…a guide of any kind?
Right. I don’t need some grand production. If I were to want to make work about what work Spaniards are doing, I would need the permission of companies to be able to make photos and so forth. So let’s say due in part to these circumstances, and because in fact it’s a subject that interests me greatly, I have addressed myself above all to study the world of leisure – of holidays – and I’ve done this since beginning with the universal first step with the 35mm film camera, passing on to medium format and now with the large format camera and in colour. Always circling around the same project, working on the same obsession, but due to the fact of changing the camera format and the fact that I’m maturing, I create different pictures. When I, for instance – do you know my work “Nice To Meet You”?
They’re photographs where I really seem to be right on top of people, where I’m part of my subjects, they’re very close intimate photographs, very framed. It was a project that I made beginning with various commissions from the newspaper El País and La Vanguardia, where I tried to make it so that they would always ask me to make work about holidays and the world of camping, of swimming pools, of the beach La Barceloneta, which is a beach a very popular beach in Barcelona etc etc. I expanded this project with a project in which people invited me to spend a day with them on their holidays, after an exhibition I did with the Camper brand (the shoe brand). In the exhibition you would see photos of people on holiday and there were pieces of paper that said “Invite Txema Salvans to spend a day with you on your holidays. The result to form part of his project ‘Nice To Meet You”. So people signed up, and I simply called them up and arranged a day with them, and went with them to the beach or the swimming pool or camping or wherever it was. I collected that whole group of pictures together in the context and the form of a book that I published with the imprint Actar, entitled “Nice To Meet You”. In the end the book wound up being a book of family albums, by which I mean ‘what do the Spanish photograph?’ – well, their weddings, their birthday parties and their holidays. This book brought together that group of images – it was a book that could be the photographic imaginary of an average Spaniard.
From that point the next work I made was to make a portrait of all that which is the Spanish Mediterranean coast, which is really a space that has a connotation for other cultures as the birthplace of Western Culture – of the Greeks, the Romans… All that occurred under the umbrella of the Meditarranean world. Moreover it’s a world where you find Europe, Asia and Africa, right? So, in the collective imagination it holds a significance of great value – people think of culture and beaches. But what is happening along the shoreline of the Spanish Meditarranean? Real estate speculation, the corruption of the political world and of the developers have turned it into a business, and they have wound up destroying it – building…
Yes, exactly. Areas of secondary or tertiary homes where nobody lives, large developments that they’ve been unable to sell that are part of this crisis we’re all living through. What’s serious about this is in the sense that, once these macro-complexes exist, who will tear them down? Tearing them down implies a cost that nobody will take on – the government won’t take it on. So what I’ve dedicated myself to is photographing along the length of this Meditarranean highway from Catalunya to Andalucia, looking for those spaces and apocalyptic skylines, but always including in the photography the human figure. If I were an a more contemporary artist, or I wanted to do a more artistic project, I would definitely eliminate the human figure from my photography because I was gel more with what is popular at the moment. But in this sense I prefer to follow my own guidelines, and I believe that the human figure within this this context gives it the magnitude of a tragedy.
There’s this new project I’m now doing also in colour, and I’m working with the title of “Spain, Based on a True Story”. You know when there are those films that want to give veracity to what has happened they use the epigraph “Based on a true story” – it’s a phrase that makes me laugh, that I find amusing for this group of images, as if I were to want to say ‘no, no, what you’re seeing here is real! It seems impossible, but it’s real’. So, under this epigraph I’m collecting this whole series of images. I was working in black and white and now I’m working in colour. So, basically, what’s important is that I never make a critique of individuals but rather…
Of the wider cultural phenomenon?
Right, of how we’ve seen ourselves obliged to live like this. Or of what we were for good or for ill. What I mean is, when a person sees one of my photographs, and sees a person stretched out on a beach and behind there’s a petrochemical plant, the problem isn’t the individual, it’s not that Señora Maria who went there, for me that’s not the critique.
It’s the conjunction of forces, as much social, political, and cultural that have brought us to such a situation.
Right. The analysis is how has that person, what has happened in their life so that that person in her free time, which is that space of time in which she decides ‘now I’ll decide what I want to do’, takes as good that particular situation? And definitely, if you have a shitty job and you live in a shitty neighbourhood, and earn a shitty wage, and don’t know what will be of your future, well Sunday comes and you’ll throw yourself on a scrap of a sandy beach with a petrochemical plant behind you simply with the dream of being able to see the horizon, and full stop. That would be the conclusion, right?
So, through these photographic studies you arrived at the idea of following let’s say the luxury of buying women, of prostitution?
The theme of prostitution arose because, the distinguishing fact about these prostitutes is that they’re not in the cities, they’re not in red light districts, which has been true historically since the Romans or before, but rather that you find them in the middle of nowhere – on highways, whether they’re the highways for exiting big cities like Barcelona or Valencia, but above all in secondary highways and small byways that run from town to town, where there’s lots of traffic because people don’t take the highway because they have to pay, and they take these roads instead. So on these roads and highways that run alongside the Meditarranean coast, you find these women. Why in the Meditarranean? Because in winter it’s not so cold that they can’t keep working, and because along the whole Meditarranean coast there’s a great deal of traffic, of trucks carrying goods and fruits from Andalucia to France, and there are many business parks. So the prostitutes need that – secondary highways and byways where they can be, and where they can pass for a moment off into a wood, and where most of all there’s a sufficiently favourable climate. If you go to Galicia, you find a few but not so frequently because in winter it’s very very cold.
Okay, but then one question would be… because it seems to me that using the symbol of The Road, of the route, you see the economy that has produced this same situation passing by alongside the women who are seated there.
Hmmm, right, yes – I guess it’s that in the end everything comes together, no? I mean, in an ecological niche… Everything is interrelated, so that when of an instant there arising this phenomenon of prostitution on the highways, it’s related with economic factors and a whole series of other factors. In reality, when I travelled to make my photographic projects I used to see those girls, and obviously I passed by in my car and said ‘Damn, that’s an incredible photograph!’ Because, in the end, my work with the prostitutes is also landscape work. What happens is that tragedy is not so much in the fact of prostitution, because if you decide to be a prostitute and you can control with which clients and the environment in which you work, and the rates you wish to charge, that is your own decision. But these girls don’t even decide, and the tragedy is in the environment in which they work. They are absolutely unprotected…
…and abandoned, and totally vulnerable to whatever might be happening to the client who comes to seek them out right?
Precisely, and things do in fact happen, from killing the girls to beating them up, or simply the fact that the client leaves without paying because he’s always a man, and he can always use force to get his way. So for the me the scale of the tragedy is in the environment, you see. The first basic idea I had was to okay, to go and explain to them my intention and take a photograph, or get to grips with the prospect of paying. I realised that in reality if I paid, if I said ‘hey, I’ll pay you €50 and I take a photograph of you and you won’t be recognisable’ then obviously they’d say yes. But obviously I would then have to orchestrate the photograph, telling them to sit like this or like that, sit by the chair or make this gesture, and I didn’t like that because once again in terms of my inclination as a biologist, where you don’t have to modify the proof to be able to talk about something, I never orchestrate my photographs, I never tell someone to sit like this or like that. What I do is to walk a lot, and to cover many kilometres, but I don’t modify anything. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just explaining what I do.
So all of a sudden I came up with the idea of disguising myself, of disguising myself as a topographer. This is once again an idea taken from the world of biology: the idea of camouflage. There are animals that camouflage themselves in their environments, they have the colours of the tree where they live or the space in which they live and so on. But there’s a type of camouflage that’s even more sophisticated, which is that you acquire the the colours of an animal that’s venomous. So, for example, you know the coral snake which is very venomous and is yellow and black, and so the animals don’t eat it because they know it’s venomous. So at the same time there’s the fake coral snake, which shares it’s ecological niche with the coral snake and has evolved so that it has the same colours as the coral snake to protect it. So in the ecological niche in which these prostitutes work, there are many road workers, because they’re always changing the signage or tarmacking the roads or fixing something. So I saw those workers there. What I did was this experiment: I bought a topographer’s tripod, one of those yellow ones, and I had a mount installed to be able to sit my large format camera on top, and bought the helmet and the vest and that’s it. And I realised, then, simply what I did was to approach the girls to say ‘Look, I’ll be around here for a while near my van’ and that was it. What I tried to do in the majority of the photographs, although there is a small minority where you can see their faces, was to photograph the context of these women. For me the faces of these women weren’t useful to me at all, the project doesn’t stem from this, it’s not a work of portraiture, so that in the whole project – of which there are between 70 and 100 – there are maybe 6/7 where you could clearly recognise them.
Yes, there’s one I’m looking at right now of a woman seated beneath a billboard that reads “LOW PRICES ALL YEAR”… which seems to me a very powerful kind of irony.
What’s more, I’ll tell you as well, that at the beginning I made some of those types of pictures waiting for a car to stop or looking for those kinds of word plays or puns, but with time I realised that what was interesting was to photograph that moment of waiting, of expectancy that was 99% of their time. The moment in which they’re not doing anything at all.
The boredom of waiting?
Exactly. Simply seated, or with a gesture of waiting. That photograph, in a moment I’ll find it… It’s part of that problem of giving coherence to a body of work at the cost of taking out some photographs that you really like. I’ll have to evaluate it all later when I have the chance to do an exhibition or a book, I’ll work it out then. But basically my methodology of working has been to keep going out in the car, making trips, talking to people, with those prostitutes from Cataluña I could find them talking to friends of mine who travel a lot or taxi drivers of truck drivers, from people who move around a great deal so that they would tell me ‘Look, on this highway between this place and that place during these hours, there are usually three or four girls’.
At the same time, it’s been the work of 5 years, because I think that sometimes I did 500 kilometres sometimes probably because that day the police had told them that they couldn’t be there, because that day a politician was passing by… They’re circumstances that you’re no longer in control of, right?
But you’ve already been working at this project for 5 years? I didn’t realise.
Yes, but look – the last year or year and a half’s work I would say produced between 70% or 80% of the final photographs. Why? Because the other two or three years I was making tests, testing theme, does it work, doesn’t it work, looking for the optimal distance from the girls – you know, learning how to do this kind of photography. You don’t have to capture or retain everything you intuit in some way or other.
I suppose you were entrenching yourself in the work, right?
Sure, and at the same time ending up believing in it – whether or not this project really has any strength or not. At the same time there was another economic problem, because I spent a whole heap of money on this.
Because of the large format and the travelling, I guess?
Exactly. The fact of having to travel, to be swept up in a kind of photographic movie – all of that. Everything was very expensive. Here in Spain it’s not like in France or England or the United States where there are grants and foundations and that sort of thing.
I wanted to ask you a little about how you see the relationship between your project and the history of photography of The Road. I’m not asking as though yours were a project begun with the end of interrogating that history, but obviously following along the development of the project it seems to me that there’s an edge to it – more conceptual than aesthetic – that extends the conceptions of how The Road works in photography.
I think that in this work there are various resonances, right? There is, obviously as you say, the photography of The Road, there is landscape photography – there’s the American tradition of that type of photography – there’s another vision of the world of the world of prostitution, there’s also that relationship with those people who have made photographs from StreetView, which has a direct correlation with this image that I’m presenting, so that when you see one of my photos at 1.5 metres and you see the quality of resolution it has, alongside the other type of photograph it’s very different right? Even though the aesthetic format is very similar. It also has resonance with that type of German photography that’s hyper-objective – I’m not showing the prostitute in a situation of doing something so much as the landscape and the character. I think that the work unifies many different histories – it could be catalogued in many different folders, and I like that too. It strikes me as interesting.
Yeah, because there are a number of photographs that it seems to me could have in a way been taken by Jeff Wall, for example, not as though you were trying to replicate his style, but that there’s a narrative that could almost have been created.
Also in terms of aesthetics, by having been made in a large format camera with a chassis so that I can de-centre, I can move the horizon up and down. This makes it so that this thing that you find with Jeff Wall, who also obviously works with a large format camera even larger still, was also a point of connection – that aesthetic, those incredibly straight horizon lines where everything is so perfectly calibrated.
Yes, so, there’s a photograph I’m looking at right now with a triumvirate in which there’s a woman crossing the road towards us and towards a chair, there’s another seated beside the road, and leaving the photograph from the left-hand edge there’s a car, and there’s triangulation between these three figures. It seems to me like a whole story contained in a single photograph. It seems like it could almost have been designed, even though I know it wasn’t.
It’s true – it gives an effect where it looks as though it were almost applied.
Yeah – there’s the chair, there’s the wait, there’s the woman crossing the street who could be returning from a job…
Right. It’s that, you see, that woman arrived on a bicycle – you see there’s a bicycle behind. She arrived on a bicycle, and in fact I have a picture of her arriving on a bicycle but it’s as I was saying before, it’s too funny. You see that she’s looking at her watch as though she arrived late to work?
Exactly, yeah. It seems to me like a whole story perfectly contained and elaborated in one single photo, and an it’s the aspect I was commenting to you earlier – that there are plural resonances in both the project and the individual pictures, and I’m very much drawn to how you’ve managed to integrate those resonances without lose the focus on what you were photographing as a project.
Right. Here there’s also the problem of when you start a photographic project, all photographic projects have some good pictures, that’s not difficult. The really difficult is to find a group of images, a team of photographs where it’s clear that there will always be a photograph that’s the cover picture, but where the rest of the photographs maintain a certain level of quality and that…
…and that they have a dialogue between them, and that they have a coherence that’s well articulated?
Exactly. I’ve worked on this so long that I now have 100 final images that work. 100 images has never happened to me before – that’s a tonne of photos. It’s very difficult for me to finish making a selection of 30 or 40 photographs, because moreover I want to show something and if I end up showing a series of 10 photographs of this, it will seem as though or someone could think that it’s an anecdote…
…so that in a magazine format it seems to me that you could lose much of the intellectual coherence of the project, because it would be like a short entertaining trip for a reader, like ‘come read a short article on prostitution in Spain and then go out and have a coffee’. But the weight of desperation that runs through the photographs and through the situation that they describe requires a wider and better defined space.
So for me the ideal format would be a book.
But I would say, even though I’ve never seen one of the prints, that if they were printed at very high quality in large format, you could achieve an equivalent level of intensity with fewer pictures, no? I think it must be possible, because if people were to be confronted with one of these photographs at large scale I imagine they’d stop, and begin to imagine how they’d feel being in such a place – and what could it be that happened in order for these women to have arrive there where they are…
Yes, what’s clear is that now that I’ve done some prints of the these photos at 1.2 metres that’s where you really see the quality of working with a large negative, and you reach a different level. You start to see the detail, what there is on the floor like in that photograph that we were looking at, that sofa that’s like half luxurious but now broken and degraded. You’d end up discovering that car, and that tree which has something phallic about it, and the bicycle you’d end up discovering and the half-open window – all of that when you see it on a much larger scale. I hadn’t thought of the possibility of doing a work where the size dominates over the quantity of photographs… But what’s happening is that, if in the end I do end up doing a book it definitely won’t be my book, the book just as I would design it myself, but instead it will be what the publishers also might see. That will be the price of it. The other thing is that I’ve decided to do a book myself with Private Space here in Barcelona. Those guys have an immense digital printer and they do books by to order, they do 10, 15, 20 or 100 or 5 – and the truth is it works really well. Obviously if I can publish the book with a bigger publisher then I would be very interested in that, to at the same time also be able to have my work be known outside of Spain.
Yeah, and I think there you’ve touched on a subject that’s really important to me about this site and that I think is really important in terms of the development of a dialogue about contemporary photography, which is that language limits greatly the kind of photographic encounters that we see and can take part in online, and that therefore you see a face emerging in those dialogues that’s very Western and very anglophone in temperament. I think it’s a shame that we lose the possibility to know work that have been made in other countries and other languages.
Mate, do you think that if this project had been made or mine of Spaniards on holidays, if I had been born in New York would have made this work on the American highways?
No, because that particular culture of using the highways and public space exist there.
Right, but I mean to say that if I had developed as an American photographer photographing my own culture then definitely my photography would have much more resonance. The fact of working from this, from your own world, and that your own world should be Spain – which is the arse end of Europe, let’s say, no?
But, it’s like that surely. I mean, if I were French it would be another thing no? It’s a thing that I am willing to engage with, to be faithful to my beliefs and to talk solely about that which I can understand – which is this. So that I, about this work about prostitution, I know many things and I can assure you that as an Englishman you wouldn’t have been able to do this because at times I’m disguised as a topographer and the pimp approaches me to talk to me, and I know perfectly how to talk to those people – my tone, my accent, the slang that I use with them…
…so that they don’t become anxious.
I have to use what I can, because if I were foreign I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t play this role.
Yes, yes – that’s very clear. There’s something else that I wanted to ask, although really it’s more in the way of an observation. Something that emerges from many photographs, I think more in the photographs in which cars appear than in those where they don’t, is the sense of risk and of danger. There’s, for example, the photograph you took of that car passing through a small wood, and there’s only the trees and the car, and to me it makes me imagine straight away where is the guy driving, is the woman from the street in the car, and what could happen to her? Even though it’s a very beautiful environment, it looks to me like a lovely little wood, but nothing of the aesthetic character of the wood as something beautiful emerges from that photograph, but rather the curvature of the road and the possibility of danger. It seems like a way of subverting the form of landscape photography that really interests me…
Yeah. Basically that comes from the strength of those photos where you see beautiful landscapes but all of a sudden you see the girl, and the thought you have straight away is of danger. There’s a photo in which there’s a trunk in the foreground and you see the girl in the background in a white dress walking…
It’s a space that if I were to see it I’d think ‘this is a good place to go and wander and take a nap and spend a Sunday’ but all of a sudden it turns into a perfect kind of Dantesque stage, a place of murder or abuse or some other thing…
How should we understand or what is there behind the photographs that could better help us to understand and contextualise the precarious existence of these women?
Mate, I think one very objective statistic. They charge €20 for a blow job – to put things in context, it’s not bad. What do I mean – that there can be a type of prostitution where people can earn money and can have some strategic plan of living, and can say ‘I’m going to be a prostitute until I’m 35yrs old, I’ll save lots of money and I’ll buy a business – a bar, a restaurant, some land, a second floor…’ I can assure you that these girls who come from Rumania, who come from Russia, who come from Latin America, who come from Africa, don’t have a strategic plan for the future – they don’t have anything. And don’t believe that they’re all older women or all ugly women. There are beautiful women too, but what happens is that they’re subject to mafias who bring them from those countries, and control them and keep their passports, and they don’t have papers and don’t know where to go. They’re very young girls, who at the best have never left their villages – you could think, why don’t they take the highway to Barcelona and make a life for themselves or talk to the police, but it’s that in their head that possibility that doesn’t exist. Because at the best until a year ago they were living in a small village in Rumania… It’s all very very very difficult.
Are there efforts at a state level to save them, to protect them, to do something or at lest to diminish the risk of what they’re living?
In Spain prostitution is legal – you can decide to be a prostitute. What is illegal is to be a pimp. It’s illegal to be a person who benefits from the prostitution of someone else. That’s illegal. And everyone knows and the police know that many of these girls are in the power of pimps and mafias. Why don’t they do anything? I think that in a system that always needs proof, it’s very difficult to prove something that the women themselves don’t want to prove by getting close to the authorities. They girl is terrified because the pimp also has contacts in Rumania, they have networks, and they say ‘you, if you go the police – at best you save yourself. But your parents, we’re going to go looking for them’. That’s the point – that’s the great problem, and that’s what people don’t understand. They say ‘and why doesn’t his girl go to the police?’ The pimp calls his contact in Rumania, and they beat the shit out of the little brother of the girl. So it’s all very very complicated, there aren’t any simple solutions.
Of course, and I suppose that’s more or less what I thought before that there were no simple solutions, even though often politicians would like us to believe that there are and that they are the force of the police that will save us from all this. But another question I wanted to ask you is how is Spanish society confronting this issue, this phenomenon?
Listen, Spanish society – well, I was going to tell you about another thing. There’s another way of exercising police force, which is that given that we can’t do much with these girls because they live in a very complicated situation, let’s exercise some force on the clients. That’s another possibility, to fine the clients or to take them to the police stations and the courts so that they receive a fine in their houses. But what happens? The working class in Spain is so screwed over, people have such problems with work that I think that the politicians decide to give them a some latitude in this area.
So as not to screw up their lives any more.
At least people know that for €20 they can always buy a fuck, or they can go get a blow job. Because if that’s not it, then I don’t understand it either. There are business parks where there’s a lot of prostitution, where there are people who start work at 5am and earn €1,000 – so that I think that there’s an unspoken pact that is to not address this. It’s like the anti-tobacco law here in Spain, which has taken ages to prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants. It was absurd. Why would you let people smoke there if it’s a problem of health? Everyone knows. In the end, since the politicians are very pragmatic and use the rationale of the end justifying the means, well okay let’s say there’s a population – I’m inventing it hypothetically – of 100,000 or 50,000 prostitutes in Spain, and 50% are foreign, but it turns out that 50% of the male Spanish population goes to see prostitutes, then that represents let’s say 10m guys, then they’d prefer that those guys enjoy those women… I think that we should measure it in those terms, because if not then it makes no sense. It makes no sense because it’s very easy to end all this – they’re precisely situated, we know where they are, they have schedules… If you put patrol cars there or start to make public announcements that you’re going to fine all clients of prostitution and you launch a good campaign… Well, look at the the other problem, if you were to do that then the least that would happen would be that they would go out and prostitute themselves on other more hidden routes.
Yeah, the other problem being that one wouldn’t want women who live so precariously to hide themselves completely, because once you’ve lost them you have no idea what will happen to them.
Exactly. There are NGOs that visit them, that give them condoms and give them certain medical tests if they want them and that sort of thing. If you prohibit it, it will continue to exist but within a much more marginal context, and it will be more difficult and expensive to figure out the problem. It’s complicated. It’s both a global and historic problem.
I think that also in this you see the ‘problem’ of immigration in Spain. I don’t know if you’ve seen the work of the Galician photographer Reinaldo Loureiro, who did work in the south of Spain in the invernaderos (hothouses). He did a project investigating and studying the immigrant communities – largely African – who have arrived illegally in Spain to work in vegetable production for the hothouses. Obviously they don’t enjoy any protections from the government, and in fact suffer a great deal of abuse from the communities that surround them, and it seems to me that what you’re presenting in this work is like another face of the same phenomenon that Reinaldo is studying.
Yeah absolutely. It’s more of the same. Prostitution, Spanish people, or the Spanish prostitutes work in apartments because they have papers that permit them to work in apartments. These girls can’t rent an apartment because they don’t have papers, you know? So, they are always subject to these problems because they can’t get out of this vicious circle – in Barcelona, in Madrid or in Valencia. If you pick up a Spanish newspaper, La Vanguardia or El País, and there are adverts for prostitutes with telephone numbers. Imagine up until what point the issue is normalised. But those women with apartments 99% of the time are accustomed to working for themselves, you know? Some of them group together in one apartment and they rent out rooms between them, but it’s another world and another story.
With many thanks to Txema for his time and his patience.