Continuing our season of themed content exploring National Identity, Holly Houlton interviews JC Candanedo.
Interview by Holly Houlton –
JC Candanedo’s recent personal project Catalonia: A Work In Progress is a photographic response to the Catalonian crisis.
Catalonia is a region of Spain which has been driving for independence of its country for many years. This has recently been brought to worldwide attention due to the events of October 1st, 2017, when political parties in the area attempted to request independence, which was considered illegal by the Spanish Government. Candanedo’s body of work investigates various opinions held by a diverse group of Catalonian citizens, through a mixture of portraits within their homes and conversations on the issue.
Holly recently spoke with JC Candanedo about the project and his approach to creating the work, and exploring the complex topic.
Holly Houlton: Your work tends to focus on weighty political and social issues with, such as Brexit or the Catalan conflict. What was it that drew you to the latter as subject matter?
JC Candanedo: I was born in Panama into a Catalan family who had emigrated during the Franco dictatorship, in the aftermath of the Second World War. Fifty years later, I made the journey back to the Motherland when I moved to Catalonia in my early twenties. I lived there for 14 years before moving to London. While I lived in Barcelona, I experienced the independence movement become stronger, but was also aware that many people were undecided. I thought that if you are trying to create a new country, there must be space for people from all sides and opinions, even those would have supported staying in Spain. That’s what led me to start this project and photograph as many people and views as I could, to spread the message that the conflict wasn’t as black and white as portrayed in the media.
HH: It’s a difficult conversation to contribute to effectively, so congratulations on doing so and engaging with such a wide and diverse demographic of participants with their views on the conflict. Catalonia is a vast region of Spain, it must have been hard to locate people to take part, what was your process behind this and did it come with challenges along the way?
JCC: I agree. Having access to people willing to pose for a project is challenging enough, let alone immortalise their political views. I was lucky, I lived in Catalonia for 14 years, so I already had a vast network to pull from. I started contacting relatives and friends, asking them if they knew anyone who’d be interested in taking part and then if they could ask their own networks as well. I didn’t get to photograph as many people as I wanted to, mainly because of distances, but also because lots of people would back down at the very last minute. Something that influenced people’s decision to take part in the project was that new developments on the conflict were taking place every day at the same time. One day people would be proud of their views, the next day they would be scared.
HH: I’ve noticed you address the situation in Catalonia as a ‘conflict’, why have you used this term?
JCC: A conflict is an opposing action of ideas, interests, or persons. In the case of Catalonia, this manifests as the fight between a country peacefully trying to claim their right to self-determination (which is an integral part of Human Rights law and has a Universal application) and another country using force instead of dialogue to keep their territory. But it’s also the struggle of a population who’ve been forced to choose sides, being asked to position themselves within both extreme opinions, which has, in turn, alienated a large group of people caught in the middle.
HH: With each participant you’ve paired their portrait with a quote regarding their views or comments on the crisis. They appear very relaxed, which is often difficult to achieve. What was your method of collaboration with your participants in hearing their opinions. Did you attempt to make it a casual rather than a formal interview?
JCC: I think because I’m not a journalist, it’s easier for the sitters to have a conversation with me. I discussed my plans with every participant before the meeting, either via phone, email or chat, and I never gave my political views. I remained neutral and non-judgemental to everyone’s opinion because, in the end, the project had nothing to do with me or my own views. The project is about the people and their position in the conflict, and I think all this transpired in our conversations.
Also, I didn’t interview the participants. With the majority of them, we had coffee or lunch or a very prolonged conversation, so by the time we got to take the photo, we had already become acquaintances, if we didn’t already know each other beforehand. I did tell them, however, that I wanted to include a quote from our conversation with the images. So, I wrote down phrases that they said during our talk which I then shared with them for their approval. I didn’t want to misrepresent anyone, especially because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter.
HH: You detail how the portraits represent the participants’ political positions on the conflict, which you’ve recreated visually. Those wanting to leave Spain have been photographed from the inside of their homes whilst standing outside, those who want to stay are photographed from the outside of their homes whilst they are inside and those unsure without a definite stance stand on the threshold of their homes. I noticed one of the participants quotes commented on your method of photographing them. How did you direct the shoots, did you collaborate with the participants in the process of portraying them?
JCC: The visual narrative of the project was fundamental, all the sitters knew this beforehand. I only directed them by telling them where I was photographing from and where they would have to stand (inside, outside, threshold), but their poses and actions in the photos are their own. I’ve been asked about symbols many times, it’s something I left optional to the participant. There are no Spanish flags in any of the images, but there are a few Catalan flags. I think it speaks of the bad reputation displaying a Spanish flag has in Catalonia, that those in favour of staying in Spain didn’t feel comfortable displaying it. Some of the pro-Stay participants were proud of being Spanish, but few of them showed the same level of passion as those who were pro-Leave. The participant mentioned in your question didn’t really mind how I photographed them. All they wanted was for everyone to see how proud they were of being Catalan.
HH: From the interactions with your participants, did you come across any revelations or particularly shocking comments that you felt were important to include for the message you’re trying to communicate through the work?
JCC: There are two key lessons that I learned from this project.
The first is the idea that in any conflict the only two possible positions are useful for politicians and the media, but don’t reflect the reality of public opinion. There’s a big grey area, where you can see how some in favour of leaving had doubts about whether the repercussions of the independence movement were worse than staying in. While some of the people in favour of staying had concerns about what the future situation inside Spain would look like.
Secondly whatever the outcome of any conflict, the future situation must include everyone disregarding their stance. If Catalonia becomes independent, there will still be people living in the country who won’t agree or will always be doubtful. In the same way, the Spanish central government will have to find a way to guarantee everyone living in Catalonia today can coexist peacefully. Taking into account everything that happened on October 1st, 2017, they are doing quite the opposite.
HH: As this work is a response to Catalonia’s national identity within the wider context of political world crisis’, how do you feel its been received? And do you have any comments for other artists wanting to attempt to raise awareness of similar issues?
JCC: This is interesting because I’ve had very mixed reactions to the project depending on when, where and who it was presented to. I haven’t approached organisations in Catalonia or Spain yet because the situation is so tense, I don’t want that to taint the image of the project. It’s a photography project about a political conflict, but it is not a political project. I’m not taking a stance. The project started as a way of showing to the international community the reality for people everyday caught in the middle of the conflict, especially since the media portrays the extremes.
However, whenever I’ve presented the project here in the UK, the similar situation with Scotland makes it hit too close to home. For a group exhibition a few years ago, I was told I couldn’t present this work because it was too political. Another time, I submitted the project to a well-known political magazine, and the editors liked it. But, told me that they couldn’t print it because the situation in Catalonia changed so much every day, they didn’t know if it was the right time or worth waiting. And here I am still waiting. So, one of the lessons from this project in terms of outcomes has been that timing and audience are essential.
HH: It’s interesting to hear what those from the creative arts in the UK and Catalonia have felt about the project, I’m curious to also know what have your participants thought about the work and taking part?
JCC: In general, all the participants are really pleased with how the project has turned out and are happy the conversation is taking place outside of their borders. I always try to keep them in the loop about exhibitions and features. I know a few of them expected a little bit more exposure, as I did, but they are all happy to have been given a platform to express their opinion.
HH: On the topic of giving advice, were there any photographers or artists who inspired you to create this work – in terms of the concept or your creative process?
JCC: I based the visual narrative and the composition of this project on my previous project called Brexiters. For that project, I framed the subjects between doors or between elements that suggested that I was peeking into their lives but, at the same time, that they were trapped within some borders that they were trying to escape from. I got the idea of placing people outside, inside or in-between when I heard the phrase ‘doors open journeys’. I thought that, depending on where you are in relation to a door, you have decided to begin a journey, to think whether to go on a journey or not, or to simply not embark on a journey at all. I also showed the project during Photo Scratch while I was still shooting it and got a very positive response and fascinating feedback.
HH: Finally, as we’re living in a time of historical political changes taking place all over the world, such as leaving the EU, do you have future plans to pursue more topics? If so, what are your ideas to give the work an effective platform to engage with viewers?
JCC: When I finished the Catalonia project, I thought about focusing on the Scottish Independence movement for my next project. The idea of joining three projects on national identity in a book seemed appealing. But, I’ve ended up working on projects relating to Mental Health, and they are taking more time than I had anticipated. Now the Scottish movement has had a resurgence, I will definitely focus on the subject for 2021.
As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve become interested in collaborating with participants in my projects to create something more significant than a portrait sitting. I’m keen to work with groups that could help me take the participants of my project on a journey exploring their identity but also their place in society, having to live peacefully with neighbours who might have contrasting political views.
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Holly Houlton is a writer and photographer. Her photographic work mainly explores the subjects of people and place. She is also a passionate writer of photography in both the journalistic and academic form.