Las Cuevas (The Caves)

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Las Cuevas, Patrimonio Humano (The Caves, Human Heritage) 

“This is a Project of visual anthropology; I’m not the photographer who decides what to show, I’m just an interpreter of what the people want to tell.”

San Miguel Alto, Granada.

[dropcap]Granada[/dropcap] is known for the Alhambra, the crowning jewel of the Moorish empire, which is the most visited tourist attraction in Spain. Overlooking Alhambra is another famous landmark, Albayzin and the caves of Sacromonte and San Miguel Alto; these caves are not what the Spanish government wants tourists to see and they are in the process of kicking the residents out. Human Heritage is the story of the people who live there.

The caves of Sacromonte after many years of struggle have their recognition. This is not the case for San Miguel Alto as the future of these caves is in doubt, with the residents struggling to win the battle for their homes.

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I had an idea about how to “humanise” the story and I decided to do a portrait documentary about caves people. I used this concept HUMAN HERITAGE, to name it. It is a concept by Juan Antonio, one of the cave residents living there from more than 9 years, who views the inhumanity behind many projects of what is called “recovery” and “conditioning” of the Granada monumental heritage, that seems to be always addressed more to the tourism and the economic profit than to the residents of the city.


There was a need to put faces to this conflict, a human context.

I asked the residents of San Miguel Alto how they wanted to be seen, and they decided everything about the photography: how to appear, when, and where.

This is the result of that collaboration. In these pictures, the subjects are not anymore passive, as the portraits are a direct collaboration between me behind the camera and what they want to tell with the image.

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This is, then, my particular vision of the “conflicto de las cuevas”. A Human landscape, a collection of stories, lives, ways of living, and a place of diversity.

The caves excavated in the mountains, acting, as houses are common in the city of Granada and Spain, due to the features of the land and climate.

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The construction of caves has historically been a housing solution for the poor and marginalised, starting around the XV century with the arrival of Gypsies and the expulsion of the Arabs from Granada by the Catholic Kings.

The caves have shaped the landscape known as Sacromonte, an area that has become a tourist attraction in Granada.

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The council, however, has not made the same effort to normalise the caves of San Miguel Alto, in the high districts of Granada, that continue to be “illegally” occupied, even if their residents tried several times to register them with some residents having legal ownership of their caves.

Nevertheless, this soil with excellent views of Alhambra has been in a permanent struggle between the administration and the residents. The city bought the land on behlaf of the Municipal Housing Company as the first step for “making the place more decent”.

  Behind The Veil

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This means for many people turning the place a touristic resort. The first eviction order arrived the 2008. The city council declared the zone “ruins” and forced the caves residents to move for “their own security”. The police attended many times and the criminalisation of the residents started.

Some residents of surrounding neighbourhoods say the caves are a place of drugs and immigrants, making noise and disturbing the neighbourhood with their way of living, and present a bad image for the city of Granada.

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Others see it as one of the few places of the city that maintains its authenticity. The city council has been criticised for their actions at the caves, with many critics from the opposition parties accusing them of wanting the eviction just for speculation reasons and using inhuman tactics.

The struggle still continues. After a multitude of eviction attempts and closing of the caves, they have always reopened afterwards. The residents of the caves argue that nobody ever went to the caves to actually prove their “ruin” status. The authorities are using the “ruin” reasoning as an excuse to remove the residents, yet have not given any housing alternatives, perpetuating further homelessness.

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Many things have been said about the caves, about the land, and about urbanism, yet something always seems to be forgotten: the people, the human heritage, and the social surroundings. The caves of San Miguel Alto are not just a piece of land to fight for and to speculate with. They are a singular place, a human landscape made of people. People who have decided to live there as an alternative to regular housing or others who had no other possibility to find a roof over their heads.

This particular story belongs to Granada like the caves of Sacromonte and San Miguel Alto, however much the city council denies their belonging to the history of Granada and wants to destroy them.

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During this documentation, on the 20th of March, another eviction attempt came, this time without any previous notice. Police arrived at 5 o’clock in the morning, took people out of their beds and covered 6 caves in mud with excavators, not even giving the people 10 minutes to empty what it was their house.

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They arrested and deported one Senegalese resident and injured several other people. After these measure the city council has again received criticism for their insensitivity.  I could see the faces of the people before and after their house became just a pile of sand, but they took the pick and the shovel and they started digging again. They say they won’t surrender.

Anna Sans

Anna is a documentary photographer and urban anthropologist, based in Spain. 

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