Somewhere in Spain, along nondescript highways, they are an unavoidable part of the scenery: girls and women sitting by the road, waiting for a driver who may stop for a quickie in the bushes. For several years Spanish photographer Txema Salvans (b. 1971) travelled the Mediterranean coast of his home country, documenting these women with a calculation of impersonality that approaches the disinterested. The resulting photobook, The Waiting Game, is a collection of 41 images of these prostitutes, scattered alongside the highways with other discarded detritus, creating a cultural landscape not often associated with the iconic portrayal of Spain.
With his objective, documentary style of photography, it appears like Salvans is really just documenting the scenery, of which the prostitutes happen to be a part. Though they are essential for the photograph, they are never the central focus. One image, for example, shows an abandoned road cutting through a dry and messy landscape. In the photograph the desiccated scene filled with litter is entirely in focus, yet the prostitute, dressed in white, is entirely out of focus. It is as if she accidently walked into the photo. In another image, a blonde girl sits on the guardrail with her head on her knees, the road entirely empty. In the background, a parched field with a few trees probably operates as her workplace. Is she waiting for a customer or taking a break?
Because Salvans disguised himself as a surveyor, accompanied by an assistant carrying a surveyor's pole, he was able to place himself in the prostitutes' territories almost invisibly, with the result that they remain oblivious to the photograph in progress. Smoking and drinking, the women all wait and wait, in anticipation of roadside customers. In a somewhat more urban scene, two women sit on the kerbside of an incredibly littered walkway. An industrial grey cement wall is behind them, as well as a chainlink fence. The greyness of their environment is overwhelming, yet one of the women still looks forward, her pink striped outfit pulled down in front to display her ample breasts in plain site, hanging over her pregnant belly. The other woman has her hand to her face, though she might be shielding her eyes from the sun – whatever the reason, the two working women are either oblivious or disinterested in the photographer.
The photographs are printed without accompanying titles and, as such, the details of 'where' and 'when' become relatively unimportant: The women could be anywhere, at any time in the past few years. An index in the back does offer the date and location of each of the pictures, though with the same startling detachment as the images. For example, the title for the first image offers us only this: “Murcia C-3223, 2010". As we turn the pages, the images constantly reiterate the sad, wretched, scene we are witness to.
In the foreword, Salvans' work is introduced by documentary photographer Martin Parr and author John Carlin. “The Spanish tourist board will not be knocking at Salvans' door to license any of these photos, for the landscape he depicts is not a pretty sight," Parr writes. The images tell us a lot about the Spanish landscape, yet the prostitutes are the main actors. “Heartbreaking, that's the word. Vulnerable: that's another one," Carlin adds.
In monotonous and neglected surroundings, on the roadsides that most of us pass by full speed without stopping, the women wait. In documenting the women so impersonally, as though their presence is nothing but circumstantial, Salvans manages to illustrate the peripheral world that they inhabit, ignored and ignorable, except for those who look. The depressing tone of the book is further emphasised, beyond the women's patient exhaustion, by the garbage amongst which they sit, or the isolated intersections that represent their working lives. Each image, in its own right becomes a part of a sad series about the cultural landscape of the Spanish highways. The images are not beautiful, but instead striking for their ugliness. In The Waiting Game, Salvans shows us a part of Spain that we may not know about, but which nonetheless is a part of the country's culture.
The Waiting Game is available for sale here