Every year in the week of Good Friday, Catholics the world over commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the town of Zamora, in the north-west of Spain, the Holy Week (Semana Santa in Spanish) processions are particularly solemn, tinged with the mystery of Catholic guilt. All week, men walk the streets dressed in robes and capirotes, outfits meant to conceal while one repents for sin.
Semana Santa in Zamora in daytime
I was there this summer with my family. I had heard of the town's ceremonial, medieval nature, and mystery, as it tends to do, called out to me. We arrived in the middle of the week, walking the city's old quarters, stepping into cathedrals, climbing the narrow and hilly cobblestone streets, watching masked men gather and walk from place to place, the accompanying band music trailing behind them, blaring. Spectacle, however, has its limits and it is eventual, prophetic even, that the sheen of novelty wears off.
Zamora, as it turned out, didn't quite fit my romantic image of medieval suffering — everything, from its streets to its people, is coated with a pallor that suggests poverty, decadence and a grotty kind of misery- rows of closed and empty shop houses, fountains of bare concrete, children slumming by doorways, a storefront advertising stereo equipment from the '80s. To put it simply, the town is drab, ugly, and to be honest, a little bit depressing.
Zamora at night
At night, however, the dark shrouds everything and Zamora blossoms into something different. The Semana Santa processions turn silent, the masked figures move in the dark through candlelight. As we came across a growing crowd, hushed and reverent in the coming rain, watching the passage of the masked penitents moving slowly amongst the wet cobblestones. I had brought my camera along with me. Moving, I took a few pictures, the camera's shutter ringing out in the silence with a sharp, mechanical click.
Soon enough, heads turned in my periphery, people looked, people stared, and I understood — photography, in the form of documentation, tends towards intrusion, solicitous voyeurism that imposes on others, perhaps a step too far into disrespect and ignorance when it comes to the sacred. I considered moving away when the surprising happened. I felt the people around me nudging me to the front, and I moved, cautiously, towards the shelter of a woman's umbrella. I saw her smile and she turned towards me to ask a question. "Professional?", I heard her say. I nodded. It's clichéd to say, sure, but the spectacle is always relative. Here was a tourist, not just a tourist, but an Asian tourist. Here he was, perhaps the first one she's ever seen in her hometown, coming from far off to document what she has seen and normalised for her entire life.
From beyond came a masked figure. I waited, raising my camera. In the candlelight, in the rain, the shutter rang out. His eyes shifted towards the sound. From behind the mask, he looked at me. Then he moved on, leaving me in the dark.
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