…is the one you don’t have with you.
On Sunday past I was standing in the Placa de Sant Jaume in Barcelona together with a few thousand other people. Serendipitously, we had chosen to visit Barcelona during the city’s Festival of Saint Eulalia, Eulalia being the co-patron saint of Barcelona whose feast day falls on February 12th.
All of us in the Placa de Sant Jaume were awaiting the arrival of a parade of colles castelleres, the clubs who maintain the Catalonian tradition of building human castles. On a stage in a corner an excited master of ceremonies announced each of the clubs as they paraded into the square accompanied by musicians playing the gralla and timbal – an old Catalan wind instrument and a small drum.
I say paraded but that’s not entirely accurate. There were no ropes, no barriers, no crowd control of any sort, just a mass of people milling around like us. Into this already packed square the colles castelleres arrived asking, encouraging and cajoling us spectators to move a little this way, a little more that way until they created a space just big enough for them to work in. In all six groups, I think, formed around us in the square.
The leaders of each group did a little shouting, presumably explaining which of the various kinds of castles would be built first, then the grall and timbal sounded once more and the castle took shape. The great mass of people form the bottom tier, leaning in, hands on each others shoulders bracing the whole construction. Next four men, strong men, for they take the direct weight on their shoulders of all those above them. Then successive tiers – three, four, five, – of lighter, smaller people, often women. On top, tiny little children. Really, really, tiny. They are fearless, climbing up via shoulders, hips, knees, bums, heads, until they reach the top where, raising an open palm to the sky the castle is complete. The kids wear helmets similar to riding helmets but that apart no-one has any protection.
The groups did not appear to be working to any particular order. As they were ready they started building and as we stood there, the towers were being raised all around us. It was spectacular. We had seen castle building once before in Washington DC when the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival had featured Catalonia. However in risk averse, litigation wary America the audience was kept well back from the castellers. In Barcelona nobody worried about such things. We were part of the event. I could have stretched out my hands from where I stood and joined the bottom tier. We could see the stress and strain, the sweat and the bulging veins of the men holding everyone up, with their collars gripped between their teeth. We had to lean back and stare at the sky to see the little kids at the very top. It was magical.
I have no pictures of it though, because I didn’t have a camera with me. There was a time when the prospect of a trip somewhere new would have me pulling out photography gear, charging batteries, tracking down stray SD cards, long before I worried about minor considerations like what to wear. These days, not so much. Sometimes I still do. I took a lot of pictures in Iceland on our recent trip. Sometimes I don’t. I did take my compact camera, a Panasonic LX5, to Barcelona, but after carrying it around the first day I left it in the hotel and never took it out again.
At one point in the square I looked around. We had been fortunate to be in the part of the square where most of the groups were building their towers and the bulk of the crowd was behind us. All I could see was a forest of arms, each one sprouting a mobile phone or, rarely, a camera. Many of the people in the immediate vicinity were also filming and photographing on their phones and I did wonder at one point if some people there might experience the entire event second hand through the medium of a tiny screen. It seemed a little pointless to actually be there and yet spend the time staring at a screen.
If I had been there with my camera I would not have been shooting video. Instead, I would have been observing this incredible event through a viewfinder, worrying about composition, focusing, waiting for the moment – the right gesture, the right expression, the moment of tension, the moment of relief. I have no doubt that I would have taken some great pictures but instead of taking those pictures, these incredible people had my full, undivided, awestruck, admiring attention. My memories of the day will fade and I won’t have pictures to remind me it (or rather, I won’t have my own pictures; there are plenty of others) but free of photographic distractions my experiences on the day and my memories while they last are and remain richer.
Does this mean I’m abandoning photography? Not at all. Next month I’m going to Amsterdam and I’m already considering what photography gear to pack, long before I’ve thought about what else to bring. It’s not about all or nothing. It’s just that sometimes nothing beats the simple, unmediated, carefree encounter with the world in all its splendour.