Barcelona: Barrio

Prostitutes in doorways, children playing in the street, itinerant lovers. The images on these pages provide a unique, evocative record of Barcelona's Barrio Chino in the Fifties and Sixties. Now, finally, they are receiving the acclaim they deserve, and the man who took them, Joan Colom, is once more picking up his camera. By Justin Webster
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The bulldozer beeps a loud insistent warning as it reverses from the rubble. A few passersby have stopped to watch the tenements coming down. Sliced through like a cake, the crumbling five-storey block reveals kitsch wallpaper, taps, a mirror and a jagged mark where the stairs have collapsed. From a neighbouring balcony encrusted with flowerpots and birdcages a balding man stares down. All around him, washing flaps in the breeze coming in from the port. His block will be next. A broad avenue wider than the Ramblas, the nearby famous thoroughfare, is being cleared, observed only by the residents and the rare visitors who come this far into the neighbourhood or "barrio".

A decade of cutting-edge urban planning, daring modern architecture, exquisite design and international prizes have dramatically changed Barcelona's image abroad, but the vast project aimed at eradicating the slum at its centre is still in progress. Half-a-billion pounds of public money has been spent on the old city. Over 4,000 flats have been demolished and 2,500 families relocated in new or restored buildings, most of them in the largest old barrio, El Raval or, as it is known more famously known, the Barrio Chino (the Chinese neighbourhood). It is not called this because there were ever Chinese here, but because the seediness of the area reminded immigrants and visitors of the China Towns in their home cities. Use of the name Barrio Chino is now discouraged, and it has disappeared from tourist maps.

Thanks to writers such as Genet, the area has acquired a mythic status as a Bohemian underworld of petty crime, prostitution - female and male - and extreme poverty. But for its residents other aspects of its history are equally, or more, powerful. It was the only urban centre in Western Europe where anarchism thrived as a political movement, and in 1936 it was the scene of the spontaneous popular revolution at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It was not until quite recently, in the mid- and early Eighties, that the social cohesion started to collapse with the influx of drugs, and soaring crime levels. It was then that the almost messianic plans of the then mayor and urban thinker, Pascual Maragall, started to take form.

In two years the process of redevelopment will be complete. While prices have spiralled in some parts as a result, the Barrio Chino has so far retained its mixed character. Moroccans and Filipinos now form the two biggest immigrant groups. Native Catalans are scarce. "We want to recuperate the centre without 'gentrification' taking place," says Joan Fuster, a councillor for Ciutat Vella, the Old City, which includes the Barrio Chino, "which is something other cities have not been able to achieve."

Joan Colom's photographs are among the few, and certainly the best, to capture something of the real past of the Barrio Chino and put the current changes in perspective. The photographs were taken in the late Fifties and exhibited for the first time at a small venue in Barcelona, in 1961. Now, 38 years later, the National Museum of Art of Catalonia has recreated this same exhibition, El Carrer ("The Street"), in recognition of this forgotten figure who was once hailed as the best reportage photographer of his generation on the strength of this one completed project. Tragically, his greatest moment also led to him giving up photography completely and disappearing, until now, from the public eye.

Colom grew up on the edge of the Raval, in a more respectable area. His father ran a florist's. Colom was 15 when the Civil War broke out. Franco's troops marched into a defeated Barcelona four days before he was due to be conscripted to defend the Republic. His family had no political loyalties, they just adapted. He remembers these years for the struggle to find food, and for the bombing of the city. He was soon called up for military service under Franco and, like many, he was kept in uniform until the end of the Second World War, in 1945. Afterwards, when he was offered a job as an accountant in a textile factory - for which he had no qualifications - he jumped at it.

It was not until much later, when he was 36, that he took up photography as a hobby. He became influenced by avant-garde ideas about the medium, that it should challenge the aesthetics of establishment photography and portray real life. Censorship under Franco was then severe, but in areas like design and photography, there was some leeway for innovation.

The Barrio Chino was "an inexhaustible mine", remembers Colom. A small, very shy and self-effacing man, he is now 78. We talk in his tiny flat in the upper part of the city where he lives in retirement after a lifetime with the self-same textile company. "The basis of my work is the human being, in all manifestations," he tells me. "I don't know how to do anything else, nor am I interested. That barrio filled my need to take photographs."

He is still remarkably agile for his age. He jumps up to show me the technique he had developed for taking the photographs unnoticed - and which produced such intimate, revealing, unstaged images. He would stand with his arms by his side with his Leica strapped to his right-hand wrist, pointing towards his target. Many of the photographs, especially of the prostitutes, are taken from a low angle, framed in this inexact method, which Colom perfected by trial and error. For two years he spent his weekends taking his pictures in the barrio. Eight or nine shots a day. Up to four hours standing in the same place for one shot. Sometimes one of the prostitutes would lose patience with this loiterer. "Eh, chato, are we going to do it or not?" Click.

No one paid any attention to the camera because photography then was expected to be a much more formal affair, with a bigger camera, not something furtive. But Colom was clear that he wanted spontaneity, not posed shots, and he needed to keep going back. He turned out to be much more successful than he had bargained for.

A friend showed his work to a now prominent editor in Barcelona, Esther Tusquets. Jose Camilo Cela, Spain's foremost novelist, and now Nobel Laureate, was commissioned to write a text to accompany the photographs. The book came out in 1964, titled Izas, Rabizas y Coliopterras - three recherche terms for whores. It focused exclusively on the prostitutes as a vehicle for Cela's verbal pirouettes. Cela's friendship with Manuel Fraga, Franco's Minister of Information, who was then trying to give the regime a more liberal image, was decisive in getting the book past the censors with only minor changes. It immediately turned into a runaway success, selling 10,000 copies, an enormous number at that time for a fairly expensive book in Spain.

Seeing the book's success, and unhappy with Cela's ironising text, one of the prostitutes sued. "I don't care what kind of writer this gentleman is, he has no right to do this. I want a million pesetas or they can all go to prison," she told a reporter. In the end, facing an uneven and costly court battle she did not turn up to the first hearing. Colom, who had aimed at a portrait of the whole barrio, not just the prostitutes, sank into depression.

"It left me with a terrible feeling," he says. "It did not seem just to me. I thought she was treated shabbily." He turned down offers to become professional, mindful of his secure income and his young daughters, and took up tennis as his hobby instead. He only went back to photography, privately, after he retired 12 years ago.

"I am totally amateur," he says. "I don't work on commission, and I don't have any social or political ideas. Anyone who is truly a photographer cannot help taking a photograph that carries an emotion. But I take the ethical decision on what to do with them later." His recent pictures, taken in the Old City, show far more gruesome scenes, of beggars and prostitutes, but they appear as isolated incidents, rather than part of a concealed, separate world.

Councillor Joan Fuster, who was a five-year-old living in the barrio when Colom frequented it, believes he took his pictures there in secret because of the general climate of terror under the Franco regime in Barcelona at the time. "It was a highly controlled world, with just a certain level of transgression allowed by the dictatorship, no more and no less, and with the incredible mark of fear of the defeated, a kind of deep panic," he says. "It is difficult to explain."

One of the women watching the bulldozer is Montserrat Serrat, who moved into the Carrer San Mart in 1961, the year of Colom's original exhibition. She has come back with a group of other pensioners, to show them the flat she used to live in. The remaining residents in her old block have five more days to vacate the premises. One of them has appealed to the courts. Montserrat has been given a new flat opposite the Barcelona Museum of Modern Art, at the smarter end of the barrio, at the same low rent she was paying before.

"They have respected our rights quite well," she says. "There has been some speculation with the prices, but not too bad on the whole."

Close by is the Carrer d'en Robador, the one remaining alley of brothels in the barrio. Just before the Olympics, seven years ago, the municipal police moved in to order a number of bars to shut - at least while the Games were on - but were met not only by a blank refusal but a petition with 2,000 signatures from the residents supporting the prostitutes' right to work. Nothing has changed here since then, not even the views of the women.

"Things are bad," says Paqui, a prostitute in her 20s in the Bar Andalucia. "There's no money, a lot of drugs, a lot of thieves and bad people. It's not worse or better, darling, it's just the same."

It is hard to imagine a photographer going to great lengths to capture the scene in the Carrer d'en Robador now. It feels more like a sad backwater, left in the wake of the changes all around, than something shocking. Colom is back hunting for pictures in the area, encouraged by the recent unexpected accolades, but he is finding it much more difficult to take good pictures now. And he is inspired to less often. As a photographer he misses the old Barrio Chino, but as a citizen he is pleased

'El Carrer', the photographs of Joan Colom, can currently be seen at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional, Parc de Montjuic, Barcelona, and, from October, at the Museu d'Art Modern de Tarragona, Santa Anna, 8, Tarragona.