‘This is our cultural heritage’: Spanish photographers seek national archive

Spain’s best-known photographers have thrown their weight behind a new campaign to establish a national centre to catalogue, share, protect and promote the country’s rich and diverse photographic history.

The Platform for a Centre of Photography and the Image – whose members include Ramón Masats, Isabel Muñoz, Alberto García-Alix, Juan Manuel Castro Prieto and Cristina García Rodero – points out that Spain is one of only a handful of EU countries that does not have a centre exclusively dedicated to photography.

“Comparisons are always odious but when it comes to photography, they’re even more odious,” Castro Prieto, the platform’s president, told the Guardian.

“Basically, photographers have always been left to our own devices. Governments have never bothered about the needs of photographers, who take the pictures, maintain their archives, and then try to get their work out there. Governments haven’t helped them promote their work abroad or worked to safeguard their archives when they die.”

The platform’s manifesto argues the continuing lack of a permanent hub means that individual archives are being lost forever, and urges the government to act before even more visual fragments of Spain’s social and cultural heritage disappear.

A man wearing a face mask looks at an exhibition of works by Spanish photographer Ramón Masats in Tabacalera last August.
A man wearing a face mask looks at an exhibition of works by Spanish photographer Ramón Masats in Tabacalera last August. Photograph: Miguel Pereira

Their appeal for a national centre is not new, but successive attempts to secure one have come to nothing. The financial crisis of 2008 put paid to plans for the centre to be established in Madrid, while another attempt to set it up in the north-eastern city of Soria failed two years later.

“We’ve always been promised it but it’s never happened,” said Castro Prieto, who won Spain’s national photography prize in 2015.

“In the past, people looked on photography as a minor art form. But today, the opposite is true. The problem is that people now say there’s no need for a dedicated national photography centre because photography is so amply represented in museums alongside other art forms. But as photographers, we have a problem when it comes to archives.”

Castro Prieto tells stories of archives being left to rot in dusty chicken coops and of photographers tossing their lives’ works into rubbish bins because they don’t have the storage space and aren’t able to digitalise them. Other archives, meanwhile, are being snapped up by corporate buyers or ending up in the hands of foreign private collectors, robbing Spaniards of the chance to see them.

“If governments won’t look out for all these archives, then there needs to be a national centre that will look appreciate their value and look after them and digitalise them and show them to the world,” he said. “At the end of the day, the problem is money and political will.”

Castro Prieto said the centre and its proposed virtual network of regional archives would serve to promote photography, generate national and international interest, and help to reflect and celebrate the work of female and younger photographers.

The platform is also calling for a greater focus on university degrees in photography, saying the lack of options and investment leaves “numerous photographers having to teach themselves or paying hefty amounts for private teaching”.

Sandra Maunac, an independent curator and member of the platform, said the support of all 17 living national photography prize-winners, together with that of dozens of arts workers and cultural organisations, gave the campaign unprecedented clout.

“What we’ve managed to do this time is create an association that represents the multiplicity of roles within this complex photographic universe. We’re going about things the right way,” she said. “It’s time to stop working separately and to start working together.”

In a statement, Spain’s culture ministry said it had supported the foundation of the platform, had met with its members “and remains open to maintaining a fluid contact to find out about any future projects they may propose”.

García-Alix, who became famous for his photographic chronicles of Madrid’s post-Franco cultural boom, said he had no idea why Spain still lacked the means to celebrate and preserve a vital aspect of its visual past.

“There’s a huge gap in Spanish photography that needs to be filled – this a really important part of everyone’s cultural heritage,” he said.

“We need the centre to safeguard that heritage so that it can be developed and used as a stimulus. This should all have happened in the last century, but the platform presents a unique opportunity to fight for a national centre of photography.”

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