Antonio González Caro, GARVM

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2017 by Antonio González Caro and Sala Kursala, Cádiz (no book link available). Softcover, unpaginated, with 33 black-and-white photographs, 13 x 9.5 inches. Includes a text in Spanish by Lara Moreno, translated into English by Douglas Prats. Edited by Antonio González Caro and Gonzalo Golpe. Designed by Underbau. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: “Everything started in 2007-2008, when I went to Madrid to study documentary photography. This was very important for my beginning as a photographer, because I realized that one could create stories through images, through photographs. All my work arises from documentary photography, but I don’t want to solely consider myself a photojournalist – I like to define myself simply as a photographer. I want my stories to evolve over time, to have an identity, creative freedom to craft and reveal a story that talks about me, the author, as well. When I finished my studies in Madrid, I felt this great need to work on a photographic project that felt very close to home – like the fishing of bluefin tuna – la almadraba” (as Antonio González Caro wrote to me).

In 2011, Antonio González Caro began to photograph the fishermen of his hometown Conil de la Frontera. Conil is one of the four Spanish villages in the province of Cádiz, where the almadraba, the oldest method of industrial fishing, is still practiced. Dating back to the era of the Phoenicians, the almadraba is an elaborate technique of trapping and catching bluefin tuna during their migration from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. As the animals’ route to procreate is similar every year, the fishermen await them with a complex system of interlocking nets and anchors. Once lured into this labyrinth, the tuna are led through various chambers, until they reaches a final, enclosed space. With their boats forming an ever-narrowing circle, the fishermen hoist this chamber and the tuna rise to the surface. As the sea is boiling with panic, the killing begins.

Even though the almadraba is one of the most sustainable forms of fishing, her violence is tangible in her very name. Deriving from Al-Andalus Arabic, “almadraba” loosely translates into “a place to strike” or “battlefield”. As such, focusing on the final moments of the furious struggle, she has been a subject for photojournalists and filmmakers (most famously, perhaps, in Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli, from 1950). Caro, however, was looking for different, more intimate nuances that would not only grasp the harsh reality of the catch but an understanding of why these fishermen consider the almadraba an art.

GARVM is not only the title of Caro’s first photobook, but also of his larger photographic project, developed over the course of three years. From 2011 until 2013, he lived, ate, and slept with the fishermen of Conil de la Frontera – accompanying them on land and by boat, wearing their clothes, and having to prove himself to be accepted. While the project unites images of their daily life and fishing routines, his book, shortlisted in the national category of PhotoEspaña’s Best Photobook of the Year Award 2018, is a subtle journey into the men’s faces.

As if emerging from the depth of the sea, twenty-four portraits (including one each on the front- and on the back-cover) sit on thick, lushly black paper, and unflinchingly engage the camera. The men range in age, but none of them are young – their faces arid and worn by time, weather, and the kind of stoic endurance that only comes with a life of physical labor. Equal in posture and framing, their life-size heads are illuminated by a single source of light (Caro photographed them in front of a window in one man’s home), uncovering their differences in countenance and hints of their personalities. The longer you look, the more details appear – a hushed smile, the pride in a daring gaze, or a forehead that speaks of worry. Yet, as much as these faces invite you to project on and into them, they remain as enigmatic as the abstracted, blurry seascapes that are interspersed throughout the book and bestow GARVM a compelling rhythm, and provide you with a hint of the men’s profession.  In fact, the back-and-forth between men and water seems to echo the movement of the white-capped waves themselves.

Caro wrote to me that human interaction is at the heart of his practice and that although he directed the fishermen into these portraits, their expressions are, ultimately, their own. His photographs are well-composed images of dense blacks and glistening greys, speaking of the fine-tuned photographic eye and elaborate skill that produced them. They are beautiful because they are strangely tender, lingering at the threshold of distance and closeness, while the gaze between photographer and subject emits the sense of the time that Caro spent observing them.

Portraiture always invites comparison. Not style, but the immersive relationship with his subjects, connects Caro with the photographers who he has said have influenced him, such as Antoine d’Agata and Anders Petersen. However, when I look at his images, I don’t think so much of photography, but of painting – Goya in particular. A portraitist throughout his life, the Spanish painter captured the ruling class of the Royal Court, intellectuals of the country’s enlightenment, poets, and fellow artists. His idiom ranged from unflattering and bizarre, to loving and gracious. Goya’s most intimate and enigmatic portraits, however, are of those with whom his bonds were close, caught in a white light and surrounded by darkness.

Considering GARVM as a body of work that engages fishing and the individuals involved in it, you may wonder, Where are the tuna? You encounter them at the end, not through images but through the voice of Spanish writer Lara Moreno. Her text, which reads like a chant or the chorus in a Greek tragedy, is crucial, as it introduces GARVM’s third fundamental character and provides the basic context for the almadraba in first-person narrative. The fishermen turn into soldiers; the tuna, as Caro says, into “an army of gladiators”. For most of the latter, death is inevitable. The struggle of man against nature is a trope as old as the art of storytelling itself. And as such, there is always a risk of sliding into a romanticized commonplace. Caro has proven himself too attentive a photographer to do so. I wish that the text, or rather its English translation, would coincide more with the delicately calibrated tenor of his images as well as the book’s acute sequencing.

The subtle relationship that Caro holds with the place (and the history) that his subjects inhabit is also present in the project’s title. Not wanting to give away the theme of his book too easily, he chose the name of a fermented fish sauce as his book’s title. Produced from salted tuna guts left in the sun, garum was an essential condiment in Greece, Rome, and Northern Africa cuisine and is still used today (such as in Andalusia). While it is not clear who introduced the sauce to Spain, it is known that the Romans conquered the province of Cádiz and left their mark – and is the reason why Caro spells GARVM with a “V”, the Roman numeral five, instead of a “U”.

As you navigate your way through this aesthetically rich and humanly compelling book, it is pleasantly difficult to decide whether GARVM presents a story that can be described as a whole, or only experienced in gaps, like the mesh of a net that surfaces and submerges.

Collector’s POV: Antonio González Caro does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should contact the photographer directly via his email (antonioboxing@gmail.com).

Read more about: Antonio González Caro, Sala Kursala (del Campus de Universidad de Cádiz)

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