Joan Tomás (Barcelona, 1958) is a portraitist who picked up his camera at the age of 11. He started his official studies in London, at Ealing College of Higher Education, but prior to that he was involved in various photography collectives, and was later one of the founders of the Centre de Fotografia Documental de Barcelona. Armed with his camera and a long and varied career, Joan Tomás wanted to X-ray the realities of Barcelona neighbourhoods, centring on the stories of the people who live there. With this aim, Tomás has managed with his multiple projects to make society aware of its many different faces. Diálogos invisibles and Paper Actiu are two of the projects on show at DOCfield>15. These works show us how photography isn’t just for galleries—it comes into its own in the street.
Why did you choose Barcelona and not Syria?
Someone has to explain what’s going on here, don’t they? Of course it’s necessary to talk about what’s happening elsewhere, but there are lots of very important realities right here, and someone has to explain them. I decided to do it, and it was a very conscious decision.
Why was it such a conscious decision? Were you linked to any movements in the city?
I’ve always been linked to Barcelona because this is where my family is from, from the neighbourhood of Sant Pere Més Baix. And no, I’ve never been involved in any particular movement or collective. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a sniper: when I come up with a project or want to do something, I do it and that’s that. The first project I did in my neighbourhood in 2004 came about because during a local festival, a street theatre group proposed an open project to local residents. I took part and did 140 portraits of neighbourhood people.
140 is a lot! Why do you accumulate so many faces?
I like series—I prefer to take 50 photos to just one. That’s not something that’s happened in these last 10 years. In the 1990s there was a campaign to combat drug addiction, and we went to a set backstage in the Olympic Stadium at a macro concert (Mecano and Bosé were playing). In a day, I did 60 portraits. I do it because I love it. Right now, while we’re looking at each other, lots of things are happening. A face is never still, it’s changing constantly. I think that’s amazing; the face is a fascinating landscape. I love to see it, and I look to experience it.
Joan Tomás – Ester Roig photography
What does Sant Pere Més Baix mean to you?
I’ve always seen this district as the village of Asterix and Obelix: in the middle of Barcelona, it has a very strong personality of its own, with a deeply rooted commercial tradition. Sant Pere borders with the Eixample, the Born, Pau Claris and everything that that represents (Portal de l’Àngel and its big names). It was like a stronghold, like a village in the middle of Barcelona, without the evolution of the city centre; it was a very personal neighbourhood. Now this tranquillity is threatened by tourism. I’m very pessimistic about the invasion; I don’t think the neighbourhood as we know it will exist in three or four years’ time.
In an interview with Ara newspaper you talk about your project “Qui som?!” [Who are we?!] to reconstruct the history of the district and denounce the aggression it is facing. Is it possible to say who or what is responsible for this aggression?
In 2004, we wrote a text with “Qui som?!” about this, about the danger of the neighbourhood becoming a fashionable quarter, with the death of its traditional artisan life. And in fact it’s got worse. Some say the biggest danger is the Born, but for me the biggest danger comes from Carrer Comtal and Portal de l’Àngel. There are more and more premises that only big business can afford. There was the threat of the Hotel Palau, which excited a lot of neighbourhood resistance and was halted thanks to everything the Millet corruption case revealed, but otherwise it would probably have gone ahead. But there are more threats from other hotels: the ones in Carrer Comtal, at the Estació del Nord (a site owned by the Núñez y Navarro developers), Santa Caterina…
In this context, where property agents and tourism seem to be appropriating Barcelona, what is the symbolism involved in papering the city with photos?
Specifically talking about the “Qui som?!” installation, on the one hand it’s asking who we are and who we want to be, and the exclamation mark is there to emphasise the character of the neighbourhood. It contains the 140 portraits I did in 2004, the photos I took in 2009 in Plaça de Sant Pere, and others I took in 2014. In a way, it’s a celebration of the district’s personality and a gift for local residents, because they live it, because it stirs their memory. Paradoxically, it’s become a focus for tourists, and this consequence is difficult to interpret. “Qui som?!” is a recovery of public space, recovering places that were once abandoned, like Pou de la Figuera, for example.
Paper Actiu [Active paper/Active role) has different meanings; it invites us to play an active role in our society.
At the start we were talking about Agora as a space that is recovered and where people talk and reflect. Paper Actiu is about the material I work with, but it also urges people to take an active role in society. For me, it’s very important for the people involved to become aware, too, and for them to adopt active roles and change. All of this work represents a project of transformation, and the first people to transform themselves are the ones who took part in it: Paco and Maria José de la Mina, Saïd who helped me paper the city, and Alberto Bougleux by directing Ciudad Migrante.
Ester Roig photography
Within the neighbourhood, which the media sometimes portray as a conflictive area due to migration, how do people get along?
In this neighbourhood, people just get along with each other. Yes, there’s a bunch of petty thieves, everyone knows who and where they are, and at times there’s been a big problem with bag-snatching and, at very specific moments, with burglaries in homes. But these phenomena are occasional. I think they’ve tried to stigmatize Sant Pere Més Baix. Then there are also different viewpoints within the district: when we prepared the installation for “Escolta’m” [Listen to me], which was a criticism of racist police round-ups, one of the slogans was “Stop redadas-Stop Racismo” [Stop the round-ups-Stop racism] and a group of local people complained to the Council because they didn’t want the “Stop the round-ups” part of the slogan. After that complaint, the Council censored the installation. After much discussion, they made us remove the word “round-ups”, which just made the censorship more evident, magnifying the incident, even getting it into the press.
How did you portray the local residents of a district that is so personal for you?
In this project there are two types of portrait: one dates from 2004, when I simply picked up my camera, and with Joan Roura we went out stopping local people and asking them if they wanted to be in the project. We were trying to explain the history of the district by means of its people, and they were the 140 portraits I did. The other part, in the project “Encajados” [Pigeon-holed], which had a circumstantial beginning as a result of a commission, I portrayed local people in a cardboard box. This box became a kind of little theatre, where people could do what they wanted. For me as a portraitist, this was a fantastic experience, because when I picked up my camera, people got in the box and did things they’d have found it much harder to do in a studio or in the street. What’s more, they turned out fabulous! In fact, the exhibition includes a half-hour audiovisual showing 420 portraits (of the 1200 I have).
We see several photos with slogans against the detention centres and other demands or complaints of different activist movements.
In 2008, with the project La Ciudad Tomada—a commission for a documentary photography festival where the leitmotif was resistance—I wanted to give a voice to activist collectives. I spoke to 19 different collectives, including V de Vivienda when Ada Colau was involved, Patio Maravillas and Revista Cañamo. Here, I didn’t just want to produce a portrait; I wanted them to make their message heard, so they used banners to express themselves.
Josef Koudelka said that one of the best things about photography was the democracy behind it, and that photos are most interesting when they were open to the interpretations of the spectators. What do you, Joan Tomás, think? With or without caption?
I don’t use captions; the text is part of the photo. I suppose I’m partly influenced by Barbara Kruger. For me, it’s very important for the work to speak for itself, especially in this period of confusion and crisis. I’m not interested in explaining what I mean; I want you to look at it and understand it.
Joan Tomás – Ester Roig photography