State of Independence

Torn poster promoting the Catalan Government’s referendum on independence. The population was evenly split over the question of independence, and many posters were defaced almost as quickly as they were posted.

State of Independence was a project to document the Catalan Independence movement, from the build up to the referendum held on the 1st October 2017, through the failed unilateral declaration on independence, to the final establishment of a new government some six months later.

I have been photographing independence related events using colour digital photography for many years. The events are highly colourful and the instinctive reaction is to produce gorgeous images that make the most of the colour and energy. However, doing so misrepresents the divisive nature of the movement and glamourises the separatists.

Less than half the voting population actively support independence in Catalunya. The voting system for the Catalan parliament is based on proportional representation, but unfortunately weights votes from rural areas higher than votes from urban areas such as Barcelona. The result is that despite having only a minority of the popular vote, supporters of Catalan independence are able to claim a workable majority in the Catalan government and have attempted to push through a unilateral secession from Spain in direct violation of both Catalan and Spanish constitutional law.

I chose to shoot this project on 35mm black-and-white film. By eliminating colour, the subject matter becomes dissociated from the careful attempts to manage the image of the independence movement and renders the events more dispassionately. The choice of film was also deliberate, with the aim of recalling historical photographs of revolutions in far off places. Almost all the images were made using a wide-angle prime lens in close quarters to give a sense of engagement. While the intention was to use a conventional street photography approach to making the images, in practice the density of people meant that the process was very different and there were many shots where I had to hold the camera up high and frame the scene largely by guesswork.

The use of monochrome images has been a double edged sword. One issue was the adoption of a colour – yellow – as a political symbol. It is difficult to depict this with monochrome images, although the symbolism can be seen in shots showing people knitting yellow scarves in support of independence.

This series is particularly important to me because the Catalan independence movement is an example of the populism that is being harnessed more widely to drive extremist and nationalist agendas in the western world. The same techniques are used by the Catalan secessionists, Brexit groups such as Nigel Farrage’s UKIP, Trump, and the growing power of groups such as AfD in Germany and Savini’s La Lega in Italy.They exploit exaggeration and plausible falsehoods to harness popular outrage in order to drive the careers and wealth of those that drive these processes. A common factor behind these movements is that of Putin, whose anti European agenda lurks in the background just as much in Catalunya as it does in Trump, Brexit or Savini’s rise to power in Italy. As such these movements represent an existential threat the peace and prosperity enjoyed in Europe since the Second World War.

Protesters and Catalan police clash following the arrest of Carles Puigdemont in Germany. The protesters are trying to reach the Delegación del Gobierno Español. Carrer de València, Barcelona. The flag is a far-left variant of the flag of the 2nd Spanish Republic.

One of the techniques that all these movements have in common has been to harness the power of social media to distort truth. In Catalunya, the frequent  social media cry that “Spain is a violent fascist state that oppresses Catalunya” recalls the Brexiteer claims that the “EU is the German 4th Reich”. Neither is true, yet repeated enough on Twitter and Facebook, such falsehoods can sway votes or referendums. When people in Catalunya agree with tweets from current Catalan president Quim Torra that describe Spanish people as little better than animals, they aim to dehumanise opponents rather than to engage in debate. Simple words such as “Democracy” and “Freedom” are hijacked to become little more than political slogans that justify the righteousness of the cause. Catalan politicians that are held pending trial for financial corruption and open violation of constitutional law are termed “political prisoners” rather than politicians accused of crimes.

Anyone who opposes the current independence push is automatically labelled a fascist and someone who opposes the “will of the people” – that much dreaded phrase that also pervades Brexit. Increasingly we see attempts to use these sentiments to justify elevating politicians above the laws that were put in place specifically to prevent a return to extremism in Europe.

These photographs should not be read as a rejection of the general idea of an independent Catalunya, and equally they should not be seen as an endorsement of Spain, whose democracy still struggles to escape Franco’s shadow.

They should, however, be read as a warning against the rising tide of populism and nativism that has torn Catalan society in two and which threatens the stability and peace that the EU has bought.

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All the images here were originally published as a set of sequential documentary blog posts, the originals of which can be found here.