Over the last 20 years, Txema Salvans has explored how Spanish people spend their free time. For his latest photo book, Perfect Day, he visits the Mediterranean’s overdeveloped coastline, revealing peoples’ uncanny ability to enjoy what remains of the sunny coastline whilst surrounded by decaying towers of concrete and metal.
Txema Salvans is fascinated by how people overlook their surroundings. He began exploring this concept two decades ago and has since covered the offbeat nature of cruise ships (Welcome Aboard), isolated sex workers along Spain’s desolate highways (The Waiting Game) and lonesome fishermen hiding away from the world (The Waiting Game II). The latter two series’ examine how forgotten groups of society seemingly fade into the landscape, while his latest project, Perfect Day, uses Spain’s post-industrial landscapes to shine a light on our blissful ignorance to a crumbling world.
“That some people decide to be in these kinds of places says a lot about our culture.”
“As a photographer, you speak about things you’re interested in,” says Salvans. “For me, I’m very interested in people and how they manage their lives and connect with their environment. I think this comes from my interest in anthropology.”
Salvans’ scientific interest in human nature isn’t just a passing curiosity. He pursued photography in his spare time while he studied biology at the University of Barcelona. When he received a scholarship to the prestigious International Center of Photography in New York City, he made the difficult decision to leave behind the field of science. However, this academic intrigue still informs his work decades later.
“Photography is like being a writer or a painter. Nobody can teach you exactly what to do – it’s like a mystery,” describes Salvans. “I became more interested in photography because it allows me to enter the different lives of people and experience strange places. That’s not often possible outside photography or journalism.”
Perfect Day features people in almost every image, but it revolves less around their individual lives and more the cultural context that drives them towards these dejected settings. Throughout bustling resort towns like Benidorm, Marinador and Torrevieja, sunbathing has rarely looked this depressing. The natural landscape has been replaced by sprawling wastelands of steel and concrete as holidaymakers soak up the sun from what, if any, scraps of earth remain. At the beginning of shooting Perfect Day, Salvans consciously decided to avoid showing the sea. It might seem strange in a series about the Mediterranean, but his images of indistinguishable apartment blocks and dilapidated factories seek to offer an unseen perspective.
“My images speak about context – not about people. I don’t care if someone is fat, thin, nice or ugly, I always have people in the landscape because it increases the tragedy of that moment. That some people decide to be in these kinds of places says a lot about our culture,” explains Salvans.
“It’s about what kind of life we have now and what are our expectations?”
Perfect Day’s dystopian landscapes are a stark contrast to the sun-kissed Mediterranean stereotype. These contrived vistas aren’t uncommon with construction booms in the 1970s and 2000s overwhelming countless shorelines, with rising sea waters furthering coastal erosion. Salvans first began capturing the repercussions from these developments in 2005, gradually adding to a project that reveals humankind’s implicit blindspot to environmental destruction.
“I’m not taking pictures of something that if you come to Spain you won’t see. You will find plenty of these places if you take a car and drive along the coastline,” explains Salvans. “My work is not just about people on holiday – it’s more. It’s about what kind of life we have now and what are our expectations? What is freedom? What does happiness mean?”
Shooting analogue is imperative to Salvans’ exploration of such questions. The ingrained limitations of the medium, ranging from the practical to the financial, provide useful boundaries to orientate his long-term projects. Using the same camera and film throughout his personal work, Salvans’ consistent aesthetic helps to convey the narrative links on leisure, liberty and the environment that connects Perfect Day and his previous projects.
“I like that all my projects work together; it’s something I’m very worried about. I want each picture to be able to work alone and make sense not only within its book, but also with all my others,” says Salvans. “For me, this is the perfect equation of photography, when all your stories have a connection to each other.”
“I’m very interested in people and how they manage their lives and connect with their environment.”
Through all of Salvans’ projects, he looks for encounters that encapsulate peoples’ apathetic relationship with their environment. Salvans has come to believe the current state of the Mediterranean perfectly exemplifies the economic concept of ‘the tragedy of commons’ – where individualistic self-interest contributes to the destruction of a shared resource. Perfect Day presents this idea succinctly, as the strong economy that helps people lead prosperous lives also props up the construction industry, ensuring Spain’s coastline will continue to be overrun with bland, environmentally harmful developments.
“The Mediterranean has been managed so badly,” describes Salvans. “I always say – together, a builder and a politician can do so much damage.”
To capture the state of the coastline, the physical characteristics of Salvans’ large-format Cambo Wide camera work to his advantage in a range of unexpected ways. He believes the overtly technical nature of his equipment leads people to overlook his presence. Plus, the fact he dons a fluorescent vest and dark sunglasses, like a surveyor, means holidaymakers seldom view him as a photographer.
“I never make visual contact with people. Sometimes they ask questions, but only because they are curious, not because they think I’m doing something wrong,” says Salvans, before adding with a laugh, “If I change my camera, I think I’m going to get an even bigger one.”