Marshall Mateer

Crossing the Pyrenees 2012

Self-portrait reflected into archive photo of Spanish exiles in 1936-39 at MUME, the museum of the exiles; La Jonquera, Spain. Photo Mateer.

In 2012 a group of us followed the footsteps of the Brigaders over the Pyrenees into Spain. I filmed the five day trip – slipping and sliding on mud and rocks and holding an umbrella over the camera when it teemed down with rain.

Sunday 6th June: set off from Perpignan in Southern France, in a small coach up the steep, winding road to Las Illas in the Pyrenees.  Thirty of us setting out to walk the ‘smugglers’ paths used by the international volunteers to bypass French border patrols and enter Spain in support of the Republican government’s fight against the Fascist insurgence in 1936, ’37 and ’38. The mountainsides are heavily wooded with ash, arthritic oaks and shadowy pine; heavy rain is forecast.

I had the video and stills cameras. “But don’t they get in each other’s way?”  … well yes, there are times when you need at least one more hand to manage but then again, they extend the eyes. They provide a ‘way of seeing’ [1] – focussing on – the rocks, flowers and trees; on the weather – today’s grey sky and the slanted passages of light between the trees; on people’s expressions and movements as they walk steadily ahead in the silence of individual effort or scramble up the caked mud and loose stones when the pathways end.  A way of catching the sounds of trudging feet, bird song, the thup, thup of rainfall on leaves and anoraks and the passage of voices – “… How did they do it? … in the snow … and at night … like the Brigaders …”  But there are essential things the camera can’t capture: in their memoirs several Brigaders remember the sweet aroma when their legs brushed branches of rosemary as they climbed and nearer the summit the scent of the pine trees in the morning. [2] The camera lens is like an “open eye [which] can see no other way” [3] …

The camera is a tool for asking questions and listening to replies; a ‘witness’ [4] to the event  – forming an audio-visual document like a daylong scroll, reaching beyond the horizon of recall.

Film is much more than an aide memoire and often reveals things you didn’t see or hear at the time – the birdsong behind the rain as Johnny read Tomalin’s poem about the nightingale at Las Illas [2]. Equally it can be annoyingly ‘forgetful’ and not record things you are convinced you shot and down right ‘irresponsible’ in missing things you dearly wanted.

Editing – all those tapes, six hours of recordings over two days – is like a huge bag of dolly mixtures; sort them anyway you like, any pattern or groupings, build like pictures and stories, knock them down and start again. Exploring, learning, coping with poor sound or interrupted vision and making decisions. Putting it together again is a response to a new understanding, a nod to imagined audiences and simply making the best of what you’ve got.  Editing is the protean dilemma – what shape to give it? what’s true? what’s false?

Once the film is made and posted on the web the camera comes out of hiding, turns volte face and having listened silently it opens up and reveals its story. [5]

The volunteers who joined the International Brigades came from 53 countries worldwide to support the Republic and stand up to fascism. They came in the days before easy travel and immediate communication. Camaradas from Holland, Germany, Ireland (North and South), Puerto Rico, USA, Britain and Spain joined the 2012 commemorative walk. I asked each of the group if they would say a few words to camera; their name, where they come from and why they came on the commemorative walk. An artificial situation – sit here, face straight to camera, speak.

In our archives and museums rows upon rows of photo-faces look out at us – people asked or commanded, to sit in front of a camera. We meet their ‘gaze’ and though many are now dead we know for certain that at that moment they lived. It is the fact of photography – at that moment of time this person lived [6] – here in their photograph, at least, they are not among the “disappeared” – we reach out to them. The photo image and the witness to camera have become a central strand in the culture of memory for our age; individual photographs (with a recognition of photography’s intrusion on life we also say “shots” and “captures”) have become part of the collective memory.

In the 1930’s people packed the cinemas [X] for weekly entertainment and a sight of the news from [in the UK] Pathé or Gaumont – crisis followed crisis on the screens – unemployment, the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Abyssinia, the Sino-Japanese war, Spain, politicians meeting but not intervening … all with the same media burn of memory that we experience now through the rolling news coverage on tv and internet, in one weekly dose. Image piled upon image; marching troops, screaming planes and the smoke of battles. They saw the streams of refugees carrying their worldly goods with them over the Pyrenees and into France in the depth of winter, just as we see uprooted peoples on the move across the globe today. After the bombing of Madrid they saw “forlorn” [7] rows of dead children laid out just as we have seen again yesterday (25th May 2012) in Houla.

References – and many of the influences I carry around in my camera bag.
[1] John Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’; the 1972 tv series that changed how we saw art, the media and our social constructs.
[2] Brigader Miles Tomalin recalls hearing nightingales “chant in the darkwood night” as they rested on their climb over the Pyrenees. His poem ‘Ales’, written in May 1937, recalling the event, was read by Johnny McDonnell for us at the Las Illas monument before we set out on the climb. Birds sang as he read for us. Tomalin mentions Keats’ poem in which the bird is an embodiment of an ideal of life in the “embalmed darkness”  where “Now more than ever seems it rich to die;” but “Up the hill-side ” crossing borders into the reality of  Tomalin’s “short tomorrow” – Keats’ “Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”  – is answered by, “Not all the world, though knows a nightingale/Knows us who hear above all songs/The steps of an old world going.”
[3] One of the Brigaders’ favourite quotes, “We came because our open eyes/Could see no other way,” appears on many their monuments, remembering their fight against fascism and for democracy.  The lines are taken from a poem by C.Day Lewis, ‘The Volunteer’ published in 1938 and are inscribed on the tiled plaque at Castle of Sant Ferran in Figueres, which we visited the following day for a ceremony of re-dedication.
[4] Susan Sontag, ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ published in 2002; photography as ‘witness’ – a great essay, originally written in ‘anger’ against Abu Ghraib and the use of trophy photographs, it references Goya and his ‘reports’ of the Spanish War and Robert Capra’s photography in the 1930’s.
[5] The French critic André Bazin calls the screen a “hideout” from which emerges the living [being]. I wonder how many undiscovered “hideouts” wait to release their stories in today’s digital world?
[6] … to borrow Barthes photo term, “punctum” . Roland Barthes;  ‘Camera Lucida’ (‘Le Chambre Claire’) 1980.
[7] “Forlorn” – a word in Keats’ ‘Nightingale’.
[8] See British Pathe archive:
Text and Images: Copyright Marshall Mateer, 2012.