29m, Huelga General.
I’m taking a politics of Spain class, and when my professor mentioned a nationwide strike, I got excited. He explained in his broken English that it had happened a couple times before with varying levels of effectiveness. As an adrenaline-seeking photojournalist, I was hoping for big things.
As most of my friends were prepping for their departures from Madrid and Spain for Semana Santa (Spring Break), I was planning how I was going to get downtown to cover the biggest protest Madrid has seen in years. Public transport was putting out notices of reduced services, flights in and out of the country were being canceled, countless businesses were closed, and at least one television station was not broadcasting regular programming.
As clocks struck midnight in downtown Madrid, there were already reports of protesters taking to the street to kick off the 24-hour strike. There were some reports of minor damage and fires, but people were definitely getting rowdy. Twitter was lighting up with hashtags of #29m and #huelgageneral.
Classes were still on at Comillas, but I figured that I’d have an alternate day of learning. I came to learn about Spain, Madrid, culture, and people not just in the classroom but in the streets too. I was just hoping the trains were running so I could to downtown. Madrid Metro said about 30% of the trains would be running.
This busted window was the most destruction I saw the whole day. It was a much quieter here than in Barcelona where riots and fires broke out amid the protests.
The protesters went where ever they wanted. There were police officers surrounding the group. Wherever the protesters went, the police just shut down the streets or intersection. Traffic was forced to turn around and try to find another route through the city. Regarding the police, they were very well behaved. They let the protesters do their thing with minimal interference. I was glad to see them keep their cool.
Protesters plastered what seemed to be every window and wall in the city with stickers regarding the Strike.
After a few hours of essentially taking a walking tour of downtown Madrid while photographing thousands of my closest friends, I went back home to unload cards, grab some food, and sit down until I head back out for the evening portion of the protests.
After I got a couple calories in me, I stumbled upon a website that had a safety advisory for Americans in Madrid. It said to stay clear of downtown because there were going to be an estimated 250,000 protesting around 6 p.m. Wow! It was maybe 5:30 p.m. and it takes a good 45 minutes by Metro to get to the heart of downtown (and that’s with all the trains running). Needless to say, I hurriedly packed up and started for downtown.
I’ve never seen more people stuff into one car than I did during the Strike. At Plaza de Castilla, wait times of 16 minutes weren’t uncommon. Normally, trains come every 4 minutes. This was the train I wanted to get on, but obviously, that wasn’t going to happen. It took me just under 1 hr and 30 mins to get downtown.
For people who know Madrid, this was taken in front of the Metropolis building. The crowd stretched all the way past Cibeles and started partially up the hill toward Puerta de Alcalá.
The unions that backed the nationwide strike said approximately 900,000 people participated in the evening rally that concluded with the speeches. The media reported numbers significantly less. Regardless, trust me when I say that there were a ton of people. This was the biggest crowd I have ever witnessed or been a part of. Those people all the way down this street had no chance of getting into the main area of Puerta del Sol as it was already completely filled. At left is the famous Madrid bear and tree being used as a platform by resourceful photogs. (One of those guys is from AFP. He had a nice frame from there.) Here’s a shot from AFP that’s one of the only pictures I’ve seen of me from the day. I’m right between the A and F wearing plaid with a red backpack.
Eleven hours of shooting, numerous kilometers walked, half a million people or so, and over 2,600 frames later, I was done. I had a blast covering my first large-scale protest.
I emailed one of my professors the next day. He told me that out of the four groups he teaches on Thursdays, only 5 students made it (less than 1%) to class. I guess it was a good thing I didn’t go after all.
Lessons learned & keys to success for next time: 1. Bring twice the water you think you need. 2. Bring a monopod for the Hail Marys over the crowd. 3. Two camera bodies are a huge time saver. 4. Don’t forget to have someone take a picture of you in the sea of people. 5. Earplugs. Enough said. 6. If you know this is going to be history in the making, for a couple hours, rent a room in the hotel that surrounds the area to get a shot from this perspective. 7. Line up an editorial client beforehand so you can have a blast and get paid/published!
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Read here for part one of the evening.
After I was done looking through the four floors of art, I thought I would wander around downtown and see what I could find.
I walked for maybe 40 minutes and happened upon a street that looked much busier than all of the rest. A multitude of blue flashing lights piqued my curiosity. Police cars. For people who know me well, I’m a sucker for flashing lights. I’ve been known to follow police cars or firetrucks hoping to see something and maybe make a nice frame. Call me an adrenaline junkie; I won’t deny it.
As I walked down the bustling side streets in the heart of Madrid, I found myself in Puerta del Sol. As I crept closer, I counted at least 18 paddy wagon-esqe vehicles supporting the 110-or-so observing officers. They were dressed in nearly full riot gear, minus the shields and helmets. They lined the street and surrounded the plaza, ready to quash any violence. I saw perhaps a thousand people in the large, public plaza. Disregarding the cold, no more than 26° F, at least a few hundred of those people were actively protesting, chanting, and yelling. There was passion.
There was one man, who seemed to be a leader of the demonstration, that got the attention of one of the many news videographers that was covering the event. The videographer trained his camera on the protester. After an impassioned, whole-hearted plea, the man thanked the camera man with a hug and a big, Spanish kiss on the cheek. Without defense, the videographer accepted both.
The videographer looked at me and the people surrounding him and gave a shrug. It was like the protester broke through to the human behind the video camera, and he had to play it off to the people around him. From my perspective, it felt like the protester broke through the videographer’s emotion-resistant shield that many journalists wear when doing their job.
All of the protesters were chanting in Spanish, but from what I picked up, this was about their lives, their freedom. The protester’s on-camera plea gave me a feeling that something important was going on and they felt compelled to fight it. I could feel it, the videographer could feel it. Their pleas were engaging, even with the language barrier, that, for a second, I forgot I was there to document the event.
The crowd was generally peaceful. There were no bottles being thrown or people who crossed the line between passion and aggression. However, there was a subtle hint of tension between the 100+ cops and the large group of protesters. They seemed to be getting closer to one another. I think the other dozen or so photojournalists that were there could feel tension rising. There wasn’t anything blatantly obvious, but there was a certain hum among the journalists.
Not expecting to be out in the cold covering a protest, I was not dressed for the weather. Sensation in my fingers and toes was slipping away. Nothing big seemed imminent and having no desire to deal with numb fingers and toes due to serious frost bite, I decided to call it a night.
My first protest was a fun experience. I’m looking forward to shooting more. I’ve got a long way to go. Hopefully next time it won’t be -3° C so I can take more time to see and shoot.