Sunday, September 2, 2007

I See Possibly Influential Dead People

I have a penchant for cemetery art. I'm pretty certain not certain if that makes me odd in any way but the fact is, I love spending time among the dead. With my camera. For the most part, they make if not willing, than at least compliant subjects and given my questionable people-skills, that's nothing to sneeze at.

In the two years that I was in Morocco, I didn't take one cemetery shot. I tried. Not very hard admittedly, but I tried. The few times I did try I was shooed away - shooed away being a culturally sensitive variant of screamed at & run off - like some infidel leper who eats pork rinds and keeps dogs as pets. So I gave up. Muslim cemeteries aren't terribly stimulating from the camera's point of view anyway but that is could just be sour grapes.

Last week, after a fortnight of being linguistically tongue-tied, misunderstanding and being misunderstood by pretty much everyone we encountered, Señor Gato Gringo & I decided that we needed a language break. We needed to find a way to effectively communicate with the Madrileños around us - so who better than the dead? Not only do dead men tell no tales, but it's unlikely that they'd have any problems deciphering what passes, for us, as Spanish. Cameras in hand, we took the subway out to the city's southeastern edge to explore two of Madrid's cemeteries.

For reasons that I don't pretend to understand, Spain's
Influential Dead People have not done well by - well, Spain. In fact, it is safe to say that, for the most part, the remains of Madrid's Influential Dead People are unknown. In the 19th century, the crypt doors of the city's Influential Dead People were pried open and their corpses brought to the Basílica de San Francisco where they were interred with great pomp and ceremony. Finally Madrid had a national cemetery, a veritable Pantheon of Influential Dead People! Unfortunately, it wasn't long before scores of priests came scurrying out of nowhere with horses and carts and hauled their respective Influential Dead People back to their (the priests') parishes and their (Influential Dead People's) previous resting places.

Not wishing to further impugn my adopted city - a city which callously named the street where Cervantes is buried after his arch-rival, Lope de Vega
- I'll just mention that in a rare display of one-upmanship, Toledo misplaced whatever is left of the artist El Greco. They know he's in one of the city's churches, they're just not sure which one. So as not to be remiss, visitors should make it a point to visit all of Toledo's churches which, although a little exhausting, is not too onerous as tavernas are strategically spaced at 10 meter increments throughout the city.

But I digress.


So although we didn't commune with many - if any - of Madrid's
Influential Dead People, we also didn't successfully avoid speaking with The Living. After about an hour of climbing graves and hanging upside-down from crucifixes photographing Madrid's Possibly Influential Dead People at the Sacramental de Santa María, a Digger of Graves approached us and asked if we were visiting family members. This much we understood. Sorely tempted to lie, we instead opted for the easy answer which required no explanation said no. He then told us - we think - that we couldn't take any more photos.

In as cooperative a manner as we could feign mus
ter, we said we understood and followed him slowly, at a great distance, snapping pictures behind his back. At least I was. Señor GG stood look-out. A few minutes later, the Digger of Graves approached us again and possibly asked us - we really have no clue - why we were taking photos in the cemetery. Or he may have been asking us if we saw the bull fight on cable last night. In a moment of rare linguistic acumen, I recognized the word for magazine and told him that we were professional photographers working for a magazine. We were doing a story on cemeteries with an accompanying photo spread. Although what I actually said was, and I quote: we work for the magazine Canadian.

That I could lie so baldly to a stranger is, for me, a point of shame Or possibly pride. Undoubtedly, it hearkens back to b
eing taught by nuns.

He told us - we think - that it was a shame that - we think - we hadn't asked for permission beforehand. Well yes, we agreed, it was. Or perhaps we agreed that last night's bullfight was disappointing and that the matador was bush league. All I know is that if I ever write an English language textbook, a chapter will definitely be devoted to and entitled At the Cemetery and offer the student useful graveside expressions highlighted by an instructive conversation with a sexton.

As we nodded in agreement,
the Digger of Graves said - we think - that we could still request permission and that - we think- we should follow him. We did and we were ushered into the office of - we think - the Sexton who asked us our business. I told him that we were professional photographers working for a magazine. We were doing a story on cemeteries with an accompanying photo spread. Although what I actually said was, and I quote: we work for the magazine Canadian. No problem, he said (that we got) - just don't take any photos of the names of individuals. Or their dates. We feigned expressed shock and disbelief that anyone would invade a family's privacy thus and assured him that yes, yes, we understood and I made a mental note to stop photographing names and dates.

Amazingly he hadn't asked for our credentials. Which was a good thing as we have none. Or perhaps he had and we just hadn't understood him and chose, instead, to nod our heads like morons. And brazenly walk out of his office to continue shooting the graves of Madrid's Possibly Influential Dead People. But not their names. Somehow, that didn't seem to be an issue since they've already lost all their Really Influential Dead People.


(a regrettable oversight regarding the inclusion of names and dates)

4 comments:

knarf said...

A number of thoughts, considerations and questions come to mind:

First, hasn't bullfighting recently been banned on TV? (that's the question)

Second, ever since we Canadians caught and arrested a number of Spanish fishing trawlers who were illegally plundering fish in our (self-declared but not internationally recognized), perhaps identifying yourselves as Canadian journalists may not be wise (that's the consideration), and,

Third, since you're using twenty or thirty year old fully manual film cameras, someone may question whether you're really photojournalists. I guess gravediggers and sextons are okay with that, though (that's the thought)...

;-)

La Gatita Gringa said...

1) Bullfighting has been pulled from national TV, not cable.
2) Identifying ourselves as Canadians has thus far elicited very positive reactions from Spaniards.
3) Sigh. I'd like a camera.

knarf said...

1) Oh,

2) I'm pleased to hear that, and,

3) The cameras that you and Signor Gato have are fine cameras and each features a top-quality lens. I didn't mean to disparage them. They are capable of taking fine photos. As you know, the most important tool in a photographer's arsenel is the person behind the camera!

squindia said...

Oh Espana! I envy your adopted home.

But woman! I took tons of photos in the cemetery in Rabat. And it was beautiful, on a hill above the ocean.

And why don't you post more pics?! Flickr is a good site to share photos....hint!