The “fantastical anthropology” of taking photographs of beach “tribes” in Spain

One photographer has taken a unique approach to documenting life on Spain’s beaches:

Sitting there in the sand, mostly naked, with chairs, towels and belongings delineating territory, beach goers tend to form small fiefdoms with their friends and families. It’s a phenomenon that Spanish photographer Lucia Herrero has exploited in her excellent portrait series, appropriately titled, Tribes

“It was like an anthropological revelation,” she says. “Suddenly it was like, ‘I have it!’”

For two summers, 2009 and 2010, Herrero traveled along the entire Spanish coast, both the Mediterranean and Atlantic, shooting hundreds of pictures of Spanish families that, combined, make up what she calls a sort of collective portrait of Western and Spanish middle class society…

Not only does Herrero view her work as an observation of human behavior, but she’s coined a term for her style: “Antropología Fantástica,” or fantastical anthropology.

Herroro says she purposely constructs a kind of fantasy world, or theatrical production, by shooting into the sun, creating a darker than normal backdrop, and then lighting the families in the portrait with a 1000 watt strobe, resulting in a surreally contrasted photo. Using a strobe to obtain this effect is nothing new, but it’s only a small part of Antropología Fantástica that allows Herrero to take a “banal situation and [elevate] it to a state of exception.” While arranging the shoot, for example, she says she likes to direct the families but never gives them direct instructions on how to pose. As a result the stances and groupings she captures are sort of arranged but also infused with a tinge of chaos.

How much would it take to make this a more traditional ethnographic project? The photos would certainly get people’s attention and then if this project also included observations, interviews, and background information, this could make a fascinating study.

I’ve written before about the idea of “performative social science.” I know the primary currency in American sociology today is statistics but I’ve continued to mull over the idea that such research findings or methodologies could find space for more artistic elements. Perhaps this is a continuation of my enjoyment in watching the music jam session at ASA 2012. At the least, putting our research findings into more “popular” venues, such as art, music, film, documentaries, and stories might help us reach an American culture that is not well-versed in how to read, understand, and care about social science.

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