Alba Diaz
The Pact of Silence

During the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and the subsequent dictatorship under Franco, hundreds of thousands of people were executed and buried in anonymous graves throughout Spain. José Montes de Oca, the photographer’s great-grandfather, was among those never found. Two years after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, an amnesty law was passed with the aim of reconciling the divided country. This law guaranteed immunity from prosecution for all perpetrators; it is still in force today. The law became known as a “pact of silence” that would consign the crimes of the regime to oblivion. The picture series “The Pact of Silence” shows places of collective amnesia and aims to create awareness for the existence of the anonymous mass graves, some of which are located directly beneath homes, schools, parking lots and streets – places where José Montes de Oca could possibly lie buried.

  • Family
  • Fascism
  • Spain
  • Traces
  • Violence
3 Questions
1. The door opener: Can you describe a formative moment in your career as a visual journalist?

After exploring documentary photography in a self-taught way, I decided to do a master’s in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. That really was a turning point in my practice since I started to question boundaries and ways to convey a story in a different manner. During the course, I made installation projects exploring the conjunction of physicality, photography and evidence which defined my approach to “The Pact of Silence” a lot.

2. The decisive moment: When did you first encounter your topic and why did you decide to cover it photographically?

I was willing to do a personal project that reflected on a wider matter in relation to my country. Since Spanish society – including me at that time – had a superficial knowledge about the dimensions of the atrocities of Franco’s regime, I decided to really dig on that and into my unspoken family history. The more I discovered, the more disturbed I got by the repressed silence and its collective forgetfulness. At that moment I realised how necessary it was to bring the subject into an open discussion by covering it photographically, illustrating the way Spanish past is still present today.

3. The future: What could the visual journalism of the future be like?

I find that nowadays photography keeps going in many directions by using different mediums. I am really fascinated by transmedia art, where the interaction of media takes part in conveying the whole message of the work. That keeps me excited through the broad opportunities that it brings for visual journalism. I believe that besides providing awareness on the matter, it will also create an experience for the audience.

In your work “The Pact of Silence” you are dealing with your past. What was it like to research your own family history as a photographer?

It has been an intense process and still is. Every discovery felt like a success, but was also emotionally distressing due to the hardness of the events and my personal relation to the subject. At the beginning, it was challenging to decide how to portray the matter photographically. Rather than involving portraits of testimonies, I wanted to cover the subject with facts found during the research.

Could you tell me more about your great-grandfather and his story? Do you know what he was accused of that led to his death?

My great-grandfather Jose was a land-labourer in Andalusia. The rapidly changing political climate resulted in conflicts about payment between workers and landowners. Because of that, he spent most weeks working in the countryside, rarely able to see his family. One day, the military forces came to the land and forced some workers into a truck, taking them further away — they used to do this to proceed with executions. Some labourers were released and others, like Jose, were not. (Alba Diaz’ great-grandfather was part of the farmers’ labour union, which supported the Republic.)

How did your family react to your idea of working on that topic?

The topic has been a taboo in my family for decades. Everyone reacted positively but they were surprised about the idea of looking into our past. I first approached my grandmother on her opinion towards the project, to see how she would feel in relation to it. We were aware that her testimony was needed as ground base for the start of the research — meaning she would have to relive her past years of silence. To our surprise, she has been really supportive and strong throughout the project. However, when updating her on the progress of the research, her fear of the regime’s repression was palpable.

“The Pact of Silence” or “The Pact of Forgetting” (pacto del olvido) is a decision not to confront the past of the Franco regime and to concentrate on the future of Spain. How did you research something a nation doesn’t want to deal with?

Surprisingly, the amount of organisations and people involved in the recovery of the historical memory in Spain are making a lot of effort to bring the subject into an open discussion. I am really grateful for how welcoming these organisations, historians and victims’ relatives were. Without their guidance and knowledge, it would have been very difficult to move forward with the research. Many crucial documents were burned and eliminated by Franco’s regime, preventing any sort of trace of evidence.

You have shot your entire work in Andalusia. Why did you decide to do so and how much time did you spend there?

I decided to focus on Andalusia because my great-grandfather Jose was born there. It also facilitated visiting local archives and meeting historical memory organisations.
I spent around two months in the area visiting the various locations. I specially focused on Jerez de la Frontera, where I was invited to attend the search of an exhumation of the possible ditch where my great-grandfather could be. Unfortunately, the search for him is still ongoing.

“The Pact of Forgetting“ is still affecting the present of Spain. How did people in Spain react to your work?

I received a wide variety of reactions. The most common one has been the astonishment in relation to the presence of ditches in our daily spaces.
On the other hand, I will not forget a conversation I had last October with a staff member from “The Valley of the Fallen” in Madrid, where Franco was buried. (Franco’s remains were exhumed and reburied.) The person was arguing against historical memory organisations and laws, insisting that there is no need to open wounds of the past. This is a common reaction in Spain. The way victims’ relatives see it is that a wound can’t be opened when it hasn’t even healed.

In your work you combined two different layers – calm, pastel-coloured pictures of the places and straightforward pictures of remains. I’m curious to know why you didn’t let the spectator decide for themselves what’s underneath and instead decided to show proof.

It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in this project, being aware of the ethical questions that those images convey. The reason I chose to include them is because of the reaction and message I wanted to project to the audience. I needed to provide evidence to get a sense of collision and confrontation between past and present. I felt that if I kept it to the spectators’ imagination, the understanding would have stayed as it was for me at the very start of this project — as an inheritance of familiar tales that have passed from generation to generation. 

What are your photographic plans for the future? Are you planning something new?

In “The Pact of Silence” I covered the subject in a wider perspective and now I want to focus on it in a more personal way. There are still many questions that remain unanswered regarding my great-grandfather’s story, and I’m looking forward to continuing with the research. (Interview: Florian Sulzer)


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The Pact of Silence Photobook Dummy © Alba Diaz, 2020

Photographer Alba Diaz documented the research process for her project “The Pact of Silence” on Instagram © Alba Diaz, 2019

Curated by Florian Sulzer

© for all photos by the photographers
© for videos Lumix Festival Hanover, if not indicated otherwise.

*1996 in Spain
Alba Diaz graduated with distinction with an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the London College of Communication. Her projects deal with social, political and personal topics and follow a conceptual approach. Above all, Diaz is interested in clarifying the limits of photography and the challenges of photography as evidence. Her work has been exhibited in Barcelona, London and New York.


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