Go Spain!

“Valley of the Fallen” (1949)     Marc Riboud

MARC RIBOUD is one of the great French photographers of the second half of the twentieth century. A photojournalist belonging to the Magnum Agency who has traveled the world to bring us images with very important testimonial value but also blessed with a great esthetic sensibility. He is the author of a phrase which defines and still establishes the boundaries of photography’s capacity to reflect social reality: “photography cannot change the world but it can show it”.

From his work I have chosen this picture because in my opinion it perfectly synthesizes the story of these very sinister years in Spain’s history. It was shot by Riboud during a visit to Madrid which I guess couldn’t have been very comfortable for a photographer of a notable antifascist ideology who formed part of the French resistance during the German occupation. It’s difficult to imagine how the photographer ended up in the Valley of the Fallen on the day of its inauguration. This temple had been build by prisoners of war condemned to hard labour. Probably the regime felt satisfied with itself at having invited a foreign journalist to show the world the marvels that it was capable of building … A funerial monument to the Spanish dictator which took the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of republicans who, in this way, paid for their “sins”.

The temple built in the shape of an immense tunnel excavated from the rock must have been full of soldiers and falangists dressed in dark clothes and blue shirts, every thing dark as befits an underground pantheon destined one day to hold the dictator’s corpse. He was still alive and with his cold and distant smile he must have been surrounded by a gang of generals and bishops all elegant in their best uniforms and robes.

After a solemn mass, officiated, among other prelates, by the ambassador of his Holiness and the Cardinal of Toledo, the “Generalisimo” slowly advances under the canvas on his way to the main door to the music of the national anthem. Around him hundreds of excombatants cannot hold back their emotion and when the “Fuhrer” passes by they shout out feverishly the ritual cry –“Long live Franco!”-, -“Go Spain”-. The shouts resonate under the immense space of the volt creating a climax of collective hysteria.

And there, at that precise moment, Riboud appears, probably very uneasy, indignant and furious with the act and the people. Located near the exit, squeezed among the audience he turns round without care and between two of the audience shoots this image which has preserved for our collective memory that odious ceremony.

And he obtains an image of extraordinary force. In the first place the composition has a notable modernity. Blurred elements and incomplete faces that today are familiar but were unusual at that time. Regarding its contents the fascist salute immediately stands out, the open raised hand in the foreground seems to come out of the photograph, as if threatening the viewer. It’s very important that the photograph was taken without flash. The natural light only comes from the left, probably from an entrance partially illuminating the faces and some of the raised hands in clearer tones. The rest of the photograph remains in the shadow and this gives great drama to the scene. In the center of the image a single face is seen just at the moment that the war cry is uttered; an open month and a face with an expression of contained violence. On the right an undefined piece of a face that almost hits us. All of this brings us inside the temple to share for a moment that feeling of anguish and tension that the author must have felt. It’s only a photograph taken long time ago, we think, and this relieves us. But recent developments in European politics remind us nevertheless that sometimes those ideologies and those times are not so distant.

Fortunately we have these images of Riboud that manage to show us these dark corners of reality …