The region of Cantabria is suffering from urban exodus and over-ageing; broad swaths of land are no longer inhabitable. While searching for the causes, the photographer Adrian Alvarez came to understand the meaning of local folklore and traditional lifestyles for the cohesion of a community, and for the passing on of memories. The photographer spoke to us about his connection to the region, about how he, a city dweller, perceives rural traditions, and about how an originally pagan ritual in a village called Silió, is anchoring the people to their homeland.
On your website you say: The fight against disappearance has been one of the most significant social conflicts in rural Spain for the last two generations, despite being a fight almost silenced. Were you previously aware of the depopulation problem?
I was not aware of the problem. I never questioned why small towns and villages were always so scarcely populated. After living in London for a couple of years, I felt the need to come back home and disconnect from the noisy streets and fast-paced lifestyle of big metropolitan areas. My first idea for a project was to travel across rural Spain, taking portraits of its people, folklore and traditions. I was horrified with how little I knew about my own land. When I started talking to my protagonists, I realized there was a story beneath the surface.
Do you have a special connection to the northern part of Spain?
I have a special connection with rural environments in general. I grew up in the mountains of Madrid. My mother’s family comes from northern Spain, and I have always felt more at home there than anywhere else. It is a land rich in folklore and magic, elements deeply embedded in the culture and ethnographic identity.
What is so special about the inhabitants of Silió?
Silió and its people represent all the common characteristics of most rural communities: a strong will, a deep sense of belonging and pride for their traditions. They are incredibly resilient and they reclaim their rightful spot on the map. They are noble and have a kind heart, and some of them have become true friends.
The Vijanera ceremony plays an important role in the life of the inhabitants of Silió. Could you elaborate on it? In what way does it strengthen the sense of cohesion in Silió?
The Vijanera has become a tool for community cohesion, to the extent that it creates a common activity and space where everyone in the town is invited to participate – especially the kids. This is particularly important, since the main problem rural Spain faces is its own generational relief. By developing this tradition, which relies heavily on the inclusion of the town’s youth, Silió has made the Vijanera into something that goes beyond celebration, folklore and masks; it’s now a tool for resilience, a space (both physical and metaphorical) for different generations of people to share knowledge, culture, interests and memory. It creates a bond between the inhabitants of the village, and is something that younger generations can feel connected and attached to.
How would you describe the ceremony in your own words? What did you feel when you experienced it?
The first time I experienced it, the word I would use would be “overwhelming”. The colours, the costumes, the agitation and excitement, the noise, the trance… The second time, I was a bit more aware of what I was going to find there; so the experience was deeper and far richer.
Which camera system did you realize the project with?
I started with an old M9 and a Voigtlander 35mm Ultron lens (the most recent model). The colours of the Leica are just out of this world; Kodak really knocked it out of the park with this CCD sensor. Later on, I acquired a 50mm Summicron, which further improved the work by providing a very capable portrait lens option. Last year, LFI was so kind as to send me a Leica M10 and an M10-R to finish the project. The M system has become my go-to choice for almost everything.
To what extent do you challenge yourself with finding a specific visual language for each project?
To the point that it usually becomes an unbearable obsession. My work has always been heavily influenced by classic photojournalism, but that comes with baggage and limitations. There are narratives that are too complex and rich to tackle through such a restrictive perspective. That is why I always want to try new approaches to photography with each project.
Is The Long Hunt an ongoing project?
The first pictures were shot in January 2018 and the project is 99% complete. There are still some gaps to fill, hopefully in the immediate future. In over four years I have taken around eight trips. I know there are a lot of colleagues that like to do everything in one long trip. For me, however, it’s necessary to create a bit of distance every now and then; let the work rest and breathe, so I can come back and look at it with fresh eyes.
Adrian Alvarez was born in Madrid in 1992. He graduated in Journalism from the Complutense University of Madrid in 2015. In London he earned his MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the University of the Arts. His work focuses on issues involving social justice and identity, as well as the way in which people interact with their environment. Alvarez’s work has been published by El País, ABC and Cadena SER; as well as exhibited in England, France and Spain. He has also worked on commercial assignments for clients such as LG Electronics and Warner Music Spain, among others. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.