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Visual Culture

These Quiet Landscape Photos Reveal Spain’s Violent, Dark History

This area had open wells and a shooting range during the years of repression. There may be as many as 400 victims at the bottom of these wells, among them the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Miquel Gonzalez, Víznar IV (Llanos de Corbera), Granada, 2016. Photo © Miquel Gonzalez. Courtesy of the artist.

This area had open wells and a shooting range during the years of repression. There may be as many as 400 victims at the bottom of these wells, among them the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Miquel Gonzalez, Víznar IV (Llanos de Corbera), Granada, 2016. Photo © Miquel Gonzalez. Courtesy of the artist.

There’s a palpable sense of quiet in Miquel Gonzalez’s photographs. He captures Spain’s piney woods, lonely roadsides, and rambling olive orchards in dense detail and somber stillness. A woman standing next to me remarks on the beauty of Gonzalez’s photos. Her companion agrees, but says: “What’s behind them isn’t so beautiful.”
In Gonzalez’s image Viznar IV (Llanos de Corbera), Granada (2016), a dusty hill slopes into an open field, where a shack in the distance appears to be the only sign of human life. But that’s not exactly the case. Around 400 people were executed and buried here beneath the dirt. The victims came from all walks of life, and included Spain’s most renowned 20th-century poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca. Gonzalez documents this site and 48 other mass graves in the series “Memoria Perdida,” which is currently on view at Madrid’s Goethe Institute until August 30th as part of the festival PhotoEspaña.
More than 300 people were shot here between August and October 1936. This grave contained 26 bodies in three layers. A total of 96 bodies were exhumed from four such graves between July 2014 and April 2015. There may well be other graves but many human remains have been buried by railways and highways. Miquel Gonzalez, Monte de Estépar II, Burgos, 2016. Photo © Miquel Gonzalez. Courtesy of the artist.

More than 300 people were shot here between August and October 1936. This grave contained 26 bodies in three layers. A total of 96 bodies were exhumed from four such graves between July 2014 and April 2015. There may well be other graves but many human remains have been buried by railways and highways. Miquel Gonzalez, Monte de Estépar II, Burgos, 2016. Photo © Miquel Gonzalez. Courtesy of the artist.

Spain has one of the highest numbers of mass graves in the world. More than 130,000 people “disappeared” during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and Francisco Franco’s subsequent dictatorship (1939–1975). Their remains are distributed across more than 2,500 unexcavated, unmarked mass grave sites. In the repressive years after Franco’s victory, a culture of fear, silence, and increasing amnesia reigned. Over 20,000 people were killed and 370,000 detained in concentration camps. Then, during Spain’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, an amnesty law known as the Pact of Forgetting guaranteed impunity for those who perpetuated Francoist crimes.
Born in Germany to Spanish immigrants, Gonzalez began taking pictures as a teenager. At the time, Franco had recently died, and Gonzalez was eager to explore his roots. “While I was discovering Spain, Spain was discovering its freedom,” he said. But Gonzalez’s dual identity came with a heavy past. Growing up, his German peers reckoned with the previous generation’s Nazi atrocities. Now, “Memoria Perdida” grapples with the legacy of Spain’s historical memory.
From 1939 to 1940, between 8,500 to 9,000 prisoners were held in this former concentration camp, and hundreds of them were killed. This pedestal once carried a cross that presided over the main square. Miquel Gonzalez, Castuera III (Concentration Camp), Badajoz, 2016. Photo © Miquel Gonzalez. Courtesy of the artist.

From 1939 to 1940, between 8,500 to 9,000 prisoners were held in this former concentration camp, and hundreds of them were killed. This pedestal once carried a cross that presided over the main square. Miquel Gonzalez, Castuera III (Concentration Camp), Badajoz, 2016. Photo © Miquel Gonzalez. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the most famous depictions of the Spanish Civil War is ’s Guernica (1937), painted during the artist’s exile in the second year of the conflict. Today, Gonzalez uses photography to present a different view. With the help of archeological reports and NGOs like the Spanish Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, Gonzalez captured the graves as close as possible to the hour, day, and season when the atrocities happened. Since victims were often killed before sunrise or after sunset, a soft, ambiguous glow infuses his images with a muted palette. “There was something disturbing in that silence and emptiness,” he noted.
Miquel Gonzalez, “Memoria Perdida”
Miquel Gonzalez, “Memoria Perdida”
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While his images share ’s moody stillness and ’s lush detail, Gonzalez is more influenced by painting than by other photographers. Monte de Estépar, Burgos (2016), with its wide-branched oaks and mottled grey sky, is closer to the undisturbed bleakness of ’s mid 19th-century canvasses. That is, if it wasn’t for the shallow grave carved into the photo’s foreground. An image of the site of a former concentration camp, Castuera III, Badajoz (2016), recalls the dreamy composition of ’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897). Gonzalez’s documentation doesn’t lose its sense of poetry.
The Valley of the Fallen is the site of the largest mass grave in Spain. Built by the forced labor of political prisoners, and inaugurated on April 1, 1959, it contains the remains of 33,833 people. Miquel Gonzalez, Valle de los Caídos III (Cuelgamuros), Madrid (2016). Photo © Miquel Gonzalez. Courtesy of the artist.

The Valley of the Fallen is the site of the largest mass grave in Spain. Built by the forced labor of political prisoners, and inaugurated on April 1, 1959, it contains the remains of 33,833 people. Miquel Gonzalez, Valle de los Caídos III (Cuelgamuros), Madrid (2016). Photo © Miquel Gonzalez. Courtesy of the artist.

All the mass graves in Gonzalez’s photos are unmarked except one—that seen in Valle de los Caídos I–III (Cuelgamuros), Madrid (2016). Carved into a mountainside and crowned by the world’s tallest stone cross, the Valley of the Fallen was built by the forced labor of political prisoners after the Spanish Civil War. It contains the anonymous remains of more than 33,000 people, many of whom were interred there without the knowledge or consent of their families. But there is someone buried at the monument who is not anonymous, and never has been. Behind the massive underground basilica’s main altar, under a simple granite tombstone, lie the remains of Francisco Franco.
Since taking office in June 2018, Spain’s socialist government has attempted to exhume the dictator’s body from his shrine, but their efforts have been blocked by the Catholic Church, the Spanish Supreme Court, and the dictator’s family, who inexplicably continue to hold great power in the country. Meanwhile, construction, flooding, and erosion continue to bring mass grave remains to the surface. This March in Madrid, heavy rains revealed the remains of some 3,000 people executed by Franco’s forces in Madrid’s largest cemetery. In Gonzalez’s book, the historian Verena Boos writes that “the legacies of dictatorships are contaminated landscapes,” and the nation is still trying to contain that contamination.
Eighty years have passed since the Spanish Civil War ended, and many of its witnesses are dying out. Boos warns that a “final silence looms just around the corner,” as Spain’s right-wing parties continue to deny and defund efforts to recuperate historical memory. But in January of this year, the new government pledged an unprecedented €15 million to fund efforts to address the country’s historical memory, including the excavation of the country’s mass graves. And so “Memoria Perdida” is even more relevant today than when Gonzalez began his project four years ago.
Lauren Moya Ford