text written and published for European Photo Awards
several venues, between 2012 & 2013

ROPES

In the far south-western corner of Portugal (and of Europe), specifically between the towns of Sagres and Vila do Bispo, there is a highly individual fishing community dedicated to the gathering of percebes (gooseneck barnacles), a type of crustacean very popular in Portugal. The community has exploited this activity commercially for at least three generations, though there are archaeological records, which testify to a far older tradition of the gathering and consumption of this species.

The topography of this stretch of coastline is mostly made up of crags and cliffs, some of them over 100 metres high. This is a difficult and fairly dangerous occupation, demanding of the shellfish gatherers an enormous measure of courage, knowledge and the skilled use of ropes – one of the most vital tools of their trade –, which are used to descend to and safely negotiate the area where the waves break on the rocks, the favourite habitat of the percebes.

It is the Ropes that give their name to this series of images by João Grama (b. 1975). A concrete theme, yet one which under the photographer’s gaze stimulates pertinent reflections on the physical, symbolic and anthropological nature of manual labour and also on the increasingly obsolete methods and processes used to harvest nature’s resources. The rope is a tool that harks back to the early days of fishing and agriculture, speaking to us therefore of a time before mechanical devices, a time in which work was overwhelmingly simple, rudimentary and precarious. This implied contradiction to contemporary cultural paradigms and patterns of production are precisely the reason that João Grama gives as one of the reasons for his interest in this subject and location: ‘without the use of any technological apparatus or modern harvesting techniques, a notable fact in the twenty-first century, only the tracks left by boots and cars – safely on land, make it possible to detect traces of the movement of these men up and down the cliffs. This, as can be seen, adds a subtlety to this relationship, presenting it as an example of the adaptation of man to nature, without major interventions, employing, in this particular case, nothing more that an object such as a rope.’

In this exhibition, the photographer shows six images. Made over several months, the photographs depict various points along this coastal region, as the result of a journey through the landscape guided throughout by the proximity of the sea, reproducing the different contours and nuances of the cliff, the colours, tones and textures of the rocks, the physical and material, poetic and metaphysical relationship between earth, water and sky, like a dense and intricate realm of elements and visions. They are landscapes that speak of sublime nature, suggesting beauty yet also awe. People cannot be seen, and through the distant gaze of the image, the ropes take on the appearance of intriguing details or, more accurately, metonymies of daring movements by the worker. And, in their subtle and minute presence, as if challenging the boundaries of the visible, they are also details which call for effort and engagement by the spectator – the kind of commitment, perhaps, which guided the artist on his journey through this unique territory.

(Sergio Mah, May12)