When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco passed away in 1975, the country was faced with the burden of a traumatic past. How to move from a dictatorship to a democracy? With the historic ‘Pacto del Olvido’, a choice to forget was made. Facts were altered, crimes were overlooked and new stories were written.
Threading together mysteries from her own family history with collective memories of the period, Dutch photographer Bebe Blanco Agterberg’s A mal tiempo, buena cara (In bad weather, good face) explores the entangled layers beneath this official policy of silence. The result is an enigmatic patchwork of images that draw on the tools of documentary and fiction to investigate the idea of ‘historical truth’.
In this interview for LensCulture, Lodoe Laura Haines-Wangda and Sophie Wright spoke with Agterberg about tracing her family’s story, how to deal with absence visually and the link between black and white photography and truth.
LensCulture: Your previous project Actors Rule the World explored a Soviet era TV series and its impact on its viewers. A mal tiempo, buena cara tackles the transitional period in Spain after Franco died and its lingering traces in the present. What draws you to explore history through a photographic lens?
Bebe Blanco Agterberg: Often it is actually not my starting point. I get triggered by something strange that happens around me that I can’t immediately grasp—something shocking I see on the news or in movies that are based on real stories or something that I have experienced. This always revolves around the relationship between politics, the media and citizens. How they need each other, feed each other, but also contain a constant power struggle.
In general, this trigger or item I witnessed has a strong connection with the past. The event in the past still has a significant power on the present, but it seems to be covered in layers of alternative facts, opinions that I call ‘noise’. During this early stage, I often find it overwhelming how big and complex such stories are, but at the same time it triggers my excitement.
The power of stories, how they are told and shared in the context of history and what role truth plays in this, is a bigger theme I am working on. It contains mystery, the power of language, memories, power and conflict. There is almost never one version of a story, yet we are taught in institutions of power from a young age to trust the stories that are told within their walls. I take on the role of questioning them.
Even if fiction belongs to the world of imagination, that doesn’t mean that stories are inherently untrue. I strongly believe that stories sometimes reveal a deeper truth about the world in which we live in than statistics or measurable facts.
LC: Did A mal tiempo, buena cara grow out of any existing interests or projects, or would you say it marks a departure from your previous work?
BBA: My mother was born in Spain before being adopted. I think wondering about the question ‘what if’ is a big part of any adopted person and their families. What if I was born in a different country? What if I wasn’t given up? I saw my mother struggle with these questions, wondering what aspects of her belong in a different country.
Since the topic is sensitive and she feared starting to dig into her past herself, I decided to do it. It is my first real personal project, though my mother is not depicted in this chapter of the story. For me, it felt like I was not only starting to tell her story, but that of many others as well, which is why I kept the first chapter more general.
In terms of approach, there are some similarities to my previous project Actors rule the world, where I combined my own imagery with the propagandistic imagery of the TV series. I studied its language and adopted it to create a bigger story that showed how viewers adopted the show, giving new life and meaning to it—as was the intention of the KGB, its creator. In A mal tiempo, buena cara, I also used this way of working. You begin to wonder whether what you see is true or fake, whether it happened in the past or now. In the end, this shows how much effect one has on the other.
LC: How did you become interested in this specific moment in history?
BBA: I first became interested in the transition period in Spain when I was looking into the past of my mother, who was adopted in 1964. We tried to find out what happened back then and why she was given up for adoption. Through various institutions we tried to trace her parents. Through a Dutch TV show and an institution specialized in finding your biological parents we discovered things, but still no real answers.
I noticed it was extremely hard to discover what happened, because a lot of documents were mysteriously missing or inaccessible. Since it was very difficult to find answers within my family or through adoption papers, I started to zoom out to look at the bigger picture. What was happening in Spain in that period of time? By recreating history, I was also looking at what had happened within my family’s own personal story. This is how I came to the story of the stolen children.
LC: Tell us more about the stolen children.
BBA: The story goes that many children had been ‘stolen’ at birth, eventually landing with families that were loyal to the regime of Dictator Francisco Franco. Doctors and nurses, and often also nuns, would tell mothers that their child had died at birth. Only a couple of years ago, people started to come forward in the media saying that they think they are one of the stolen children. However, a lot is difficult to prove because of the ‘Pacto del Olvido’—which translates to English as the ‘Pact of Forgetting’, the official political decision to avoid dealing with Francoism.
My mother was born in exactly that period of time. It was very hard to trace what exactly happened then and if she was part of this story. This, for me, was the beginning of the project. I realized it was a very complex and sensitive story and I felt I had to begin telling it—with the pact and all the gaps, insecurities and debate that came with it.
LC: Can you paint us a picture of the historical backdrop to this story?
BBA: After a violent period of time in which people suffer collectively, a country needs to decide how to move on and how to remember what has happened. Spain needed to come to terms with the past of the Civil war and the Francoist dictatorship in order to decide how to move on from a dictatorship to a democracy.
The solution: a policy of silence was imposed onto Spanish society by higher political parties. For many people back then, it seemed like the best way to move on. But 50 years later very little has changed and people have started to disagree with what had been decided back then. For example, nobody was prosecuted or held responsible which left of course a big mark. Because of this, victims sometimes still live in the same street as their abusers. And a lot of people are still missing loved ones or have no answers of what happened to them.
LC: In what ways does this past concretely manifest in the present?
BBA: In October 2019, Franco’s remains were moved from the Valley of the Fallen to a cemetery in Madrid. His body lay alongside tens of thousands of his own victims who had fallen on both sides of the Civil war and his regime. The Valley of the Fallen also became a site dedicated to the victory of Franco’s nationalist forces over their Republican opponents and many of Spain’s far right paid homage there, supporters gathering on the anniversary of his death.
The exhumation of Franco’s body in October 2019 was nationally broadcasted and was respectfully done. I was in Madrid in February and interviewed a lot of people about it. Many were angry that it was done with so much respect. It was good in their opinion that he had been moved, yet they did not wish to see it. I also went to the Valley of the Fallen and even though Franco’s remains were removed, on the spot where his body was laid to rest, they placed a different color of tiles. Even after he was gone you could still find this reminder. I saw supporters still laying flowers there.
I noticed a strange thing that Spain is dealing with. It seems that on the one hand, the government wants to make people forget, but on the other hand also not completely. The exhumation is a good example of that.
LC: How did you go about building these layers of different times and historical events in the project?
BBA: With A mal tiempo, buena cara, I tried to make the past visible and accessible. To maybe break some of the silence. I looked at the ways the pact still functioned, the different truths that were created about what really happened and the consequences of silence. The project investigates Spain’s collective memory, and tries to relate the past, present and the future.
The story is not told in a linear narrative, it became a mixed-up image in which different sites, ideas and feelings re/produce traces of the past. A very symbolic image is the one of the empty graves at Cementerio de la Almudena in Madrid. Because Spain decided not to come to terms with what happened it is, second only to Cambodia, the country with the highest number of missing people in the world.
The pact plays a big part in why it is very difficult to trace what happened to people. Spain is also still a very catholic nation and burying people is very important. To not be able to visit a grave or a place of commemoration is extremely hard for many people and the eternal question of ‘what had happened’ to their loved ones is extremely painful.
Absence therefore plays a big role in the project— in the microstories I focus on, but also in the editing of the images. I am not taking the viewer by hand so much. The images form a set of triggers or clues; you don’t fully understand what is happening and feel that something is missing. This is intentional because there are real gaps in the stories and missing elements. I hope it will trigger people to dig and question what is going on in the country.
The images form a set of triggers or clues; you don’t fully understand what is happening and feel that something is missing. This is intentional because there are real gaps in the stories and missing elements. I hope it will trigger people to dig and question what is going on in the country.
These gaps in the stories are also spaces for imagination. What happened in Spain is that many people fill these gaps in with new information, which in the end slightly distort what really happened. It alters their memories.
LC: How does this tension between the absence and presence of history surface in the images?
BBA: A good example is the story of Alex, who is one of the skaters who skates in front of Arco de la Victoria. The 49m high arch was constructed at the behest of Francisco Franco to commemorate the victory of Francoist troops in 1936. Nowadays, the monument is neglected, however they also haven’t removed it. Alex and his friends take tiles from the monument and build new skate ramps out of them. He told me that nobody takes care of the monument, however they also didn’t take it away.
What they did was build a giant observation desk next to it for tourists to get an overview of the city. What is most interesting is that, when I went up there, the thing you probably see first and very big is the Arco de la Victoria. Alex also told me that they didn’t get any history classes in high school about Franco which was a result of the pact. Again, it seemed as if Franco was wiped out from history, but also not completely. He explained that he knew he was a man who was responsible for horrible things, but only from stories within his family.
LC: Tell us about your work process. Do you have images in your mind that you set out to create from the outset?
BBA: I often shoot in three different stages. First, I do extensive research about the topic or story, then I plan trips to go to certain places which I have discovered in the research and see if the story is still alive and investigate in what kind of form. Is the information I researched still accurate? Often while photographing around these places I meet new people that are connected to the place or the story. I see what happens and then go with it. On the other hand, I often have images in my mind that pop up when doing research.
I make a lot of storyboards and set out a rough narrative. However, I have to always check in real life if these images would fit the story that is actually happening and whether it is not only alive in books, movies or other types of media. I also conducted a lot of interviews with people as well since I couldn’t go back to Spain because of Covid-19. I asked about their memories of that time and how they deal with history, which I then used to construct a big part of the series.
Constructing and re-enacting are tools I use to deal with absence and things that are invisible within the story. In my work, I always make a combination of what is visible and what is happening beyond. It often emerges as a mix of a classical documentary approach and a fictional one. There always needs to be a reality behind the stories that I am telling, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be reflected in every image. Mostly because it doesn’t exist anymore, because the events have happened in the past.
LC: There are two men that appear several times in the series. Can you speak about your collaboration with them?
BBA: For the last part of the project, I worked with actors. I used members of my family to stage images based upon the interviews I conducted, recreating history and whilst also looking at what was happening within my own personal story.
Memory plays a key element in this project since facts have been hidden about what really happened during the Regime. So, words and stories passing from generation to generation have a lot of power and basically created a new historical truth since facts were covered up or hard to access. But memories are also very tricky since they are always a mix of truth and our own interpretation. A memory is fluid and can change over the years, and our most important memories can be manipulated.
I started to investigate this within the context of Spain. The project exists out of three layers which are the levels of memory formation. You have encoding, storage and retrieval. The last part is about retrieving all the information you store and making it into a memory.
LC: Tell us about the choice to work in black and white.
BBA: This came from the fact that I wanted to have the viewer lose their sense of time. Yes, the pact was created in the 70s in order to move onto a democracy, however it still has a lot of effect on current day Spain. So past and present are merged together. I wanted to show that this story is still very much alive and nonlinear.
I started by diving into the Spanish archives to look for answers and find out what happened to people at that time. The archives were enormous, however, and very hard to access because of bureaucracy. Black and white photography and archival images already have this notion of truth embedded in them; this is something I also wanted to question within the series. When does something become true?
A lot of these images in the archives were presented in a narrative chosen by a higher elite to say: this is what happened. But when I started to talk to people, and entered the story from different perspectives, the story changed. I continued working in the same language used back then to also make the viewer doubt whether what they see in front of them is real or not.
Editor’s note: We discovered Bebe’s project in the LensCulture Black & White Awards. Explore more inspiring monochrome photography and check out the rest of the winners!