Reminiscing about his early experiences with photography, Toni Kuraga says he remembers taking a camera out of his parents’ hands as a child to shoot some photos for the first time. “I used the entire roll of film on a statue of a Native American man, thinking it was my grandfather. I thought that if I captured him inside the camera I could go back and see him anytime I wanted. It was the summer of 1996 and my grandfather had already passed away,” he tells It’s Nice That. “That was the day I discovered the power of photography and I’ve been attached to the medium ever since.”
Similar themes of memory, identity and loss can be found in Toni’s ongoing series, Mamadou, which is set in the farms of Almería, an area on the southern coast of Spain. Following a previous project in the Adra region of Almería, which follows the expeditions of local fisherman, Toni decided he wanted to tackle a different kind of sea in his subject matter – “a sea that cannot be found on any nautical chart; a plastic ocean that covers the whole territory of Almería.” He is, of course, referring to the 35,000 hectares of greenhouses which the area is famous for.
Visible from space, the intensive agriculture of Almería is the largest of its kind. Reportedly producing over half of Europe’s fruit and vegetables, food exports from the greenhouses were valued at €1.4 billion in 2012. With such a wealth of worrying yet impressive figures, it’s easy to overlook the people behind them. Not those at the top of the chain, reaping the rewards of this gigantic harvest, but the ones at the bottom, toiling in the fields for a pittance. Working in temperatures of up to 45-degrees, the labourers that keep the farms running are paid as little as £30 a day.
Largely a migrant workforce, many have travelled far in pursuit of what they believed to be a better future for themselves and for their families. What they found however, was a far cry from the promise of prosperity they had originally followed. One such worker became the focus of Toni’s project: “One day, while I was crossing an abandoned area in a town in Almería, I came across a bag that belonged to someone called Mamadou, which contained some personal items, including clothes, family photos, and a postcard signed by him,” he explains. “After discovering this very intriguing bag, I began a research process working as a collector of memories. I started mixing my photography with all the objects and signs I found to reconstruct the history of Mamadou, with the goal of finding him and giving him back all his belongings.”
Though the eponymous individual of the series is yet to be located, Toni says this series became “a journey of identity exploration and construction surrounding a figure that could represent an entire generation of immigrants.” Through looking at the experiences of Mamadou’s fellow workers, he has formed a picture of their past, present and future. “All the individuals I am crossing paths with are very much alike; they all share the same objects, the same dreams, the same destinies,” he tells us. “I want to capture the way they build up a new identity in a territory that is hostile to them, leaving behind their memories in the same way Mamadou left behind his belongings in the middle of nowhere.”
It’s no easy task, however. Besides the immediate cultural differences and language barriers, many of the workers are also afraid of being discovered and repatriated to their home countries. “Very few of them agree to be photographed because of this, and because they fear that their families will find out about the harsh realities they are living in.” In an attempt to counter their suspicions, Toni spends much of his time trying to build a relationship with the workers, eventually finding a few that are willing to be involved. “Some really kind ones even take me to the house of a Mamadou they know, and that’s when the magic begins…”
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