The Antela lagoon was an extension of shallow waters located in the Ourense region of La Limia, in the northwest of Spain, and was one of the largest wetlands of these characteristics that existed in the Iberian Peninsula. Its surface varied according to the hydrographic conditions of each season, reaching a maximum extension of 42 square kilometres in the winter months. The depth varied from 0.5 to 2 meters, and constituted a rich ecosystem with a great variety of flora and fauna, which was used by the local population as a complement to a subsistence agricultural and livestock economy.
With the excuse of improving the living conditions of the inhabitants of the area, allowing an intensive exploitation of the land, several attempts were made to drain the lagoon from the 19th century, and that culminated with the 1957 plan which destroyed forever, not just a landscape and a rich ecosystem, but also a traditional culture closely linked to the unique characteristics of the Antela lagoon.
Sixty years after the drying works began, the feelings and opinions of the population are still divided: between those who lament the loss of the lagoon, and those who consider that it has been very beneficial for the region. The first ones committed to preserve the historical memory of the lagoon and even promoting initiatives that attempt to rebuild on a small scale the original wetland habitat, and the second ones fighting to defend a model of intensive exploitation where the negative effects begin to be evident.
Paradoxically, there seems to be a link between the Antela Lagoon and the memory that dates back to Roman times: the Limia River, the main source of water that provided water to the lagoon, seems to be the Lethes River of the famous legend that tells how General Brutus’ troops refuse to cross the river for fear of losing their memory. Some recent authors have compiled old photographs and chronicles in books whose titles seem to evoke a certain nostalgia for the lost memory: “Antela, a memoria desolagada” (Antela, the sunken memory) by Martínez Carneiro, “Xinzo de Limia na memoria” (Xinzo de Limia in memory) by Edelmiro Martínez or “Xinzo de Limia, imaxes for to lembranzas ” (Xinzo de Limia, pictures for remembrance) of Concepción Rua. A town that celebrates the “Festa do Esquecemento” (Oblivion Fair) every August. And what I think is more significant: 60 years after the drying up of the lagoon, this event continues to be remembered and the debate on its consequences continues.
When the memory of those people who knew the lagoon seems to fade slowly over the years and only a few black and white photographs will keep the evidence of its past, I wonder if it would be possible that the spirit of the lagoon to be present in a current photographic project. I think of the absent lagoon as a blank canvas on which we can project our memories, express our feelings or build a new scenario for our imaginations. An absent lagoon is always annoying and restless: it will cause pain in those who remembered it with nostalgia, and it will be perceived as a threat by those who benefit from its spoils.
On a personal level, the project connects with a brief period of my childhood in which I lived in Xinzo de Limia at the age of five or six with my mother -who was born in the area, so I have an emotional bond to the place and to the stories about the lagoon that my mother told before she began to lose her memory in 2013. Distance and memory tend to create diffuse images of history, amplifying in our imagination the figures of the protagonists and their deeds, converting in myths to the first ones and legends to the latter.
The book “Limia’s Sketchbook” is divided into 5 sections preceded by some notes that my mother hurried to write in 2013 when the fog of oblivion began to threaten her memory, and that were unexpectedly found while developing this project. Last memory and elegy for an absent lagoon, but magnificent in the memory of those who in some remote day got wet in its waters.
WE DO NOT LOSE MEMORY
(Never in the hands of oblivion)
The memory of people builds the legends that destroy those who have lost their memory. We just forget what the lack of love, for reasons almost always spurious, has sentenced. Oblivion is the name of everything that no longer exists for us.
I walk through the Laguna de Antela hand in hand with my grandfather, reading the reflections of my mother and listening to the music composed by my son Brais. This story has become a family story that brings together several generations: those who did not need to remember because they saw, those who that began to lose memory and those who need to retrace the path to remember again. Again, the “river of oblivion” has taken over our memories. This “Limia’s Sketchbook” will serve as a relief for a remembrance that oblivion has turned into a disturbing memory.
On this road my thoughts peregrinate, similar to those of the inhabitants of the area divided between nostalgia and economic interests. The loss of this ecosystem with a high ecological worth, together with a priceless world of cultural traditions and emotional set of values that formed an essential part of the identity of the inhabitants of Alta Limia (Ourense/Spain) and that affects both local legends and stories as well as the own biography of the people who lived there, bustles in the environment.
However, in all the matter there is something disturbing: a strange relation of memory, forgetfulness, absence, frustration, regret that in some way I tried to reflect in the images. In my walks through the Limia, one day I was able to visit an area that still conserves the vegetation and the original topography. I was moved to walk that plot, to step on that dry and sandy land again; the sound and texture of the ground transported me to my childhood, and to the memory of what in those years seemed to me a paradise, that I discovered by the hand of my grandfather.
The music of Brais González that accompanies this work, like a soundtrack for an epic tragedy, leads the narrative to the beat of three brief movements that emphasize the most dramatic moments of this failed story.
The first section begins with the image of the oldest archaeological remains known in the area: the “Piedra Alta de Antela”, from which the Laguna would take its name. The following photographs present a veiled image in which one seems to guess the shape of the lagoon -in fact, it is a sand exploitation-, and it continues with an evocative vision of the endemic vegetation of the area. The music is idyllic. The sounding ocarina creates a primordial environment. The transition between the images is smooth. None of those photographs shows elements that denote the human presence.
The calm is broken abruptly, and a “snare drum” warns and marks the aggression. In the rhythm of the music, the images follow each other violently. The hand of man and industry are visible in each image. The photographs double in number to those of the previous section and the passage closes with a threatening view of the wooden boxes used in the recollection of the potatoes. Two choirs of voices are opposed: the lament of the Lagoon and a resounding ‘ostinato’ that repeats the word “Antela”.
The section is closed with three devastating images. The war rhythm of music persists, and the ragged lament of a bagpipe in the background recalls the connection between the land and the cultural identity of the people. Is hope still possible?
And everything centered on the texts that my mother wrote in 2013, again the paradox of the “oblivion”, when her memory began to fail. Three folios of reflections around the lagoon, without much structure and, sometimes, with phrases difficult to understand; but it moves to think how in the memories of my mother the image of the missing lagoon persists, before disappearing her memory in the darkness of oblivion. Not in vain, Pepe Gándara, a scholar and connoisseur of the area, commented: “There is a natural memory of those who lived and felt the lagoon, and another memory, as a cultural artefact that we have made from documents, testimonies and photographs. The first is sentenced, as the Laguna was.”
Nothing will be the same for the lands of the Limia. The memory in the hands of daring, as the effect of a disconcerting verdict, is poured into the legend of Antioch that has become pure elegy: a lament for what it was. Sometimes stories are filled with insistent claims even if they seem impossible. To be ourselves also in Antela, we need to recover memory.
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
The photographs included in the book are the product of four days of work in the area, which approximately coincide with my initial planning. Beyond pretending an exhaustive documentary work about the region -which would require a more thorough and prolonged exploration of the place-, the narrative argument of the lagoon has allowed me a more poetic approach, which gives me some stylistic licenses.
The fortuitous appearance of the notes that my mother wrote in 2013 supposed a radical change to the approach of the project, since it supposes a unique narrative excuse that justifies and gives weight to the work. The loss of memory of my mother is a sad argument that closes the circle, connecting those Roman legends of the river of oblivion, with the final destination reserved for the lagoon and for the last people who knew it.
For the development of the project it has been fundamental to establish new relationships with people in the area. From an initial position of “outsider”, completely unaware of the place, I have been gaining knowledge of the area and what has allowed me to locate some important places in this wide region. In addition, they have given me some interesting notes about the character of the place and its people that has helped me to plan my trips and contextualize some of the images.
For the exact location of the photographs in the later edition I used the GPS location feature of my camera, which also allows us to get an approximate idea of the territory covered during these four days:
Quality of outcome
Although from an emotional point of view the Antela lagoon works perfectly as the guiding thread of the narrative of this photobook, I admit that this work is a very subjective and poetic vision of a much more complex reality. A few days ago I attended to the sessions of reflection and debate held in the Ethnographic Museum of La Limia, where I have noticed that this society tries to close the trauma of the disappearance of the lagoon and the issue of the loss of cultural identity is not openly discussed. At the centre of the debate is the compatibility of agricultural/livestock use of land and the recovery / conservation of biodiversity.
Issues such as the depopulation of the rural environment, the contamination of soil and water by organic waste from livestock farms or the economic risk of single-crop farming occupy the centre of the debate today, and although no one denies the negative consequences of the disappearance of the lagoon, they assume with resignation the collective frustration of its loss.
I think that my book could be a small and positive contribution that can help to recover the consciousness of the lost good, and points in the direction of any movement that fights against the threat of turning the Limia into a large agricultural and livestock estate, inhospitable to the people. Photography is not going to change the world, but it can always serve to illustrate some sensitivities and social initiatives.
My project has had some repercussion in the local media, deserving an entry in the blog “Vialethes” where the teaser produced to spread the project in social networks has been included:
Demonstration of creativity
As I said above, the poetic approach has allowed me greater freedom when organizing the content of the book, and the use of my mother’s found texts has been a kind of creative epiphany that gives value and meaning to the whole.
The narrative development of the book and the organization into five sections allows the reader / viewer to experience an emotional journey similar to the frustration of the inhabitants of the area: the pleasant memories presented in the first section are brutally shaken by the aggressive images of the section that continues. The third section offers a transition space (“after the storm comes the calm”), which irremediably leads to a critique of the current situation (with the threat of the same fate of Antioquia, the city submerged by its sins) and that will lead to the final lament.
The video footage designed to disseminate the project on social networks is an abbreviated version of the previous development, which exclusively includes part 1, 2 and 5, excluding the central development of the theme. The credits of the video warn the viewer that he/she is viewing an excerpt.
The book is conceived as a series of thematic diptychs, with the exception of the introduction of the section where the title of section, my mother’s text and a photograph are included. Eventually, I included a single photograph on a page to introduce a certain dynamism and break the monotony of repetition. Each section is closed with a panoramic view.
The number of available photographs reduces the length of the book to about 80 pages and a total of 50 photographs. Although initially I included the location of each image in the caption, I finally decided to include this information on a page at the end of the book to avoid distractions in the visual discourse of the images. It is not a geography book, but a poetic evocation of the absent lagoon.
To conclude, it is important to point out that the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the drying works of the lagoon has favoured a positive climate in the area for the reception of works that reflect on the event. For an author it is interesting to consider the options of launching and promoting their work.
The main source of information to document my research is the only work that exists on the Antela lagoon, a compilation of texts written in Galician and compiled by Martínez Carneiro:
Martínez Carneiro, X. (1997). Antela. Vigo: Xerais de Galicia.
Exhibition “The sunken memory” held in the Ethnographic Museum of La Limia
Debate sessions held in the Ethnographic Museum of La Limia:
Galician Society of Natural History
Although I did not find any photographic antecedents on the Antela Lagoon, I have some references of Spanish photographers whose works related to the rural environment. I have researched especially those authors whose approach to the rural world is based on the relationship of the human being with the environment and the traces of their presence in the landscape.
Javier Algarra. His work reflects on the relationship of man with the environment, the footprint left in the landscape, and raises a debate not only aesthetic, but also ethical and historical. It uses aerial shots taken from an ultralight plane, which perhaps gives some of its photographs a cartographic aspect and allows to get an idea of the scale of the transformations.
Bleda y Rosa. In their work “Campos de Batalla” (Battlefields) they present scenes of rural landscape that in other times were battlefields, scenery of historical confrontations. For each landscape a diptych is shown creating a panorama and in the caption include the name of the place and the date of the battle that took place there.
Hixinio Flores: He does not propose a concrete debate on any particular topic, but rather, an ethnographic vision of the Galician rural, collects in a series of typologies common elements of the territory: scarecrows, closures, bridges, roads, etc …
The work of Fay Godwin and her neo-romantic vision of British rural territory has been a reference. I share that nostalgic/poetic approach, which deepens feelings and the emotional connection with the land. The use of a desolate image of the place creates a dramatic tension that impacts the viewer.
“New Topographics” curated by William Jenkins in 1975, which represented a radical change in the concept of landscape photography, meant a complete reformulation of the genre, the direct and objective representation of the territory, in a new approach where reflection on social, economic or environmental issues will replace the idyllic and picturesque vision inherited from the pictorial tradition. A good part of the images included in this exhibition are of suburban spaces, residential areas or taken along the roadside, a chronicle of the banal that has exerted a notable influence on later authors (Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth).