How does a photograph that’s depicting history creates new history itself? A Spanish documentary El Americano (Trinidad, 2020) is about Eugene Smiths’s influence on some lives in the small village. In this documentary, Smith follows mainly two families, the Larra and the Curiel-Montero. The girl with the beautiful face in the photograph The Spanish Wake from the series Deleitosa, A Spanish Village is called Josefa Larra, the deceased man’s granddaughter. She is “engaged” with a local boy end destined to marry him. After Eugene Smiths publication in Life, Josefa started to receive letters from an American named Charles H. Calusdian, who had instantly fallen in love with Josefa by seeing her face in the magazine. In his letters, he offered her a beautiful life in California USA with him. She fell in love with the American, and they seriously decided to marry as soon this was possible. The rumour spreads and tensions grew, as did jealousy towards Josefa and potential life in paradise. Her family prohibited further contact; she had to marry the local, as was agreed, she had to obey. While she refused, the pressure grew and became unbearable for Josefa. In desperate love with an unreachable American and under enormous social pressure to marry someone, not her choice, made her flee emptyhanded to Catalonia, far away from Deleitosa, her compulsory marriage, the social anxiety and impossible love.
Josefa still lives in a village called Sant Feliu de Guíxols in Catalonia, together with her three brothers who followed her later, she never married. Charles H. Calusdian lives in Fresno, California. His relatives are entirely unaware of this story. Charles himself can’t remember anything from this love and tragedy; he has Alzheimer. Josefa still carries the picture Charles in her wallet.
Another protagonist in this documentary is the Curiel-Montero family. They are the goatherders family in the Eugene Smith documentary, and all family members appear in the magazine. The day after publication of the Eugene Smith documentary in Life Magazine, over a hundred goats, belonging to the Curiel-Montero’s were found dead in the fields, killed by unknown. After losing their goats, the family migrated (fled?) to France to work in a factory. To this day, they believe that it was the Civil Guard (ES: Guardia Civil) who killed the goats as punishment for their collaboration with Eugene Smith. Eleuterio and Genaro Curiel, the two children in Eleuterio, one of the brothers, still dreams of returning to Deleitosa.
Although Smith’s “Spanish Village” is not the course intended work, it is typical for his work. In an article by Dutch photographer Banning, he describes how he went back to the village in 1986 and 2013—talking to the people from that period in 195. He came to a conclusion that, as perhaps to be expected, Smith was in search for the most drama, the images were maybe not that close to how people living there experienced it. Was it a representation of the situation or a search for the most dramatic images? When showing the Life magazine from 1951 in a bar, a woman commentates: “Those photos again! All lies. That photographer has dragged the village name through the mire. Look at this: a communion, and a naked child there. As if we are savages! And that photo beside it, showing the entrance to the village: the ugliest place he could find. There, a little boy who is sweeping up manure and – she continues to leaf through the pages – here they are sitting around a pan eating that manure. Lies, all lies, nobody ever ate manure here.” (Janbanning.com, 2014).
His article continues with his findings during his visit in ’86: “…Meanwhile, other café-goers have gathered around the reproduction. One of them leafs through it until the communion photo appears. He looks at it for a moment and says: “Maybe that naked child just happened to be there. I remember when I was a child, I also played naked in the street during the summer.” “It’s still manipulation”, the mayor’s wife believes, “if that little lad just happened to walk there, you still don’t have to publish that!” (Janbanning.com, 2014).
Indeed strong reactions. Why did those people oppose so strongly to the good intentions of Smith? An older man, Pepe, responds to Banning: “Well, it was probably intended as an attack on the regime. However, for us, it was an attack on us personally, in our village and on our dignity. Nobody wants to be portrayed as a medieval pauper. I’ve always felt that report was insulting and I’m still ashamed of it.”
Why did Smith not see or sense this at that time? He did not depict how the people felt or saw themselves but only followed the most dramatic, most spectacular from his personal cultural stance. It was not helping those people; they felt not helped. As if their pride, self-esteem, this life was painted. If not helping the people, what was Smiths intention, his aim with this documentary?
Country Doctor seems far closer to his personal reference. It is more an intimate portrait than a “foreign situation” (Spanish poverty) that needs improving. But again, the images seem a search to the most dramatic ones or at least the ones elicit the most emotions, almost romantic if not the subject wasn’t, or is it?
The Dad Project of Bryony Campbell’s Dad project is intense and open. An emotional directness without the intention of doing so, almost the opposite of Smith, who is continuously searching for that emotion.
The struggle, the doubts, all the ethical questions Campbell had to process internally result in a sincere, moving and almost recognisable story. The viewer can practically project himself into the situation as part of the story. When looking at the work of Smith, you sense, a mood but you never get drawn into the life. Smith was an outsider, searching for typicalities of the other that might draw emotion, Cambell is the ultimate insider, looking as close as can be, sensing as much as can be, this reflects in both projects.
As with the weird interpretation by the journalist/writer from “Die Zeitung” it is perhaps too sensitive or inappropriate to answer a question only Campbell can answer: “This was the big unknown moment, one we will all have – one that nobody can envisage, but everybody wonders about. Ours was now, and it would be gone, but here was a chance share it in future.” (Campbell, 2013)
The sustainability of a photographic moment seems endless; the recording of the process of her father’s death is therefore endless; the process is endless. She used (uses, hence the endlessness) it not as instant closure, an end, although death is in some form, the outcome she sees is a continuous presence.
So to answer the first question I posed here to my future self; ‘am I postponing my grief?’, I don’t think I did, but rather the life of the project enabled me to spread it, so that it has become a continuous presence, but never a heavy one. (Briony Campbell, 2020)
Banning, J. (1987). Deleitosa. FOTO, [online] pp.90–97. Available at: https://www.janbanning.com/wp-content/uploads/Deleitosa-New-small.pdf [Accessed 2020].
Banning, J. (2014). Eugene Smith’s “Spanish Village” Revisited: the villagers’ struggle with being an icon. (1986/2014). [online] Janbanning.com. Available at: https://www.janbanning.com/my-writings/eugene-smiths-spanish-village-revisited-the-villagers-struggle-with-being-an-icon/ [Accessed 7 Jun. 2020].
Briony Campbell (2020). The Dad Project – Briony Campbell | Photography & Film. [online] Brionycampbell.com. Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/ [Accessed 8 Jun. 2020].
Campbell, B. (2013). The Dad Project. [online] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 10 Jun. 2020].
Google Books. (2010). LIFE. [online] Available at: https://books.google.nl/books?id=4E4EAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=nl&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 8 Jun. 2020].
Hagen, C. (1994). Review/Photography; Re-evaluating the Work Of W. Eugene Smith. The New York Times. [online] 27 May. Available at: https://nyti.ms/29j4Fc3 [Accessed 8 Jun. 2020].
Janbanning.com. (2015). BS-TBS (Japan), December 2015. Comfort Women. | janbanning.com. [online] Available at: https://www.janbanning.com/about/television/bs-tbs-japan-december-2015-comfort-women/ [Accessed 8 Jun. 2020].
LIFE. (2012). W. Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor”: Revisiting a Landmark Photo Essay. [online] Available at: https://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [Accessed 7 Jun. 2020].
Magnum Photos. (2017). Country Doctor • W. Eugene Smith • Magnum Photos. [online] Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/society/w-eugene-smith-country-doctor/ [Accessed 7 Jun. 2020].
Pittsburgh Magazine. (2016). A Masterpiece: W. Eugene Smith’s Photos of Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh Magazine. [online] Available at: https://www.pittsburghmagazine.com/a-masterpiece-w-eugene-smiths-photos-of-pittsburgh/ [Accessed 7 Jun. 2020].
Trinidad, M. (2020). Documental El Americano (2006) – Eugene Smith en Deleitosa. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGxzuzmQBiU [Accessed 8 Jun. 2020].