(ENG.: NITER, SALTPETER, LATIN: SAL NITRUM)
I remember seeing Africans on their way to Europe in the medina of Tangiers in 2000. Nearly all of them were men. There were a few women with short hair whose infants were tied to their backs with a shawl. They spent their days at calling centres or sitting in the plaza with views of the seaport. Waiting.
The first time I went inside the overcrowded Salitre house in 2009, I was struck by the everyday life of twelve men living together in such a small space, and was fascinated by the veracity of the photographs they kept. That day, I only caught a glimpse of a few of the many images they had. Photos they shared with each other and that travelled continuously between Spain and Senegal, by mail or in the suitcases of compatriots who came and left. I realized the importance of photographs for these people and how they used them to attest that they were doing well, to forget something, or to remember those who were far away. On other occasions, they were a part of a complex practice of appropriation of one’s new status — whether real or simulated — with some of their own codes that took me some time to understand. All of it had me take a great aesthetic and documentary interest in the photos; the images from Senegal seemed to me to follow the African tradition of formal studio portraiture, while others, taken in Spain, demonstrated greater spontaneity fostered by new digital cameras, mobile phones, and online communications.
I started to visit that house more often. It was a ground-floor apartment of some fifty square meters, not equipped with furniture or closets, only beds, mattresses, blankets, suitcases, and bags.
Their names were Ababacar, Alioune, Assane, Bamba, Daouda, Djibril, Ibrahima G., Ibrahima N., Momar, Modou, Lamine, and Thiam. Almost all of them had come to Spain in summer 2006, in the first wave of rafts reaching the Canary Islands. Many were from Kayar, a coastal village near Dakar. They came from families who traditionally worked as fishermen. Many had a wife and children whom they hadn’t seen in years, though they remained in daily contact with them. They told me they were Muslim of the Mouride community, none of them with papers. A few spoke Spanish correctly, but the majority had a difficult time following a simple conversation.
Shortly thereafter, we embarked on a collective project in photography and publishing. We ventured to search for an individual space for each resident: sixteen blank pages that in some way substituted for much-needed space — whether private, personal, work, or public — lacking at that time. Documentary photography without intermediaries in which each resident of the overcrowded house could freely build a first-person narrative that told his life through photographs, words, drawings, and documents.
Twelve people, twelve books.
Author: Juan Valbuena
Co-authors: Ababacar, Alioune, Assane, Bamba, Daouda, Djibril, Ibrahima G., Ibrahima N., Momar, Modou, Lamine and Thiam