Protest photography during a general strike

At the beginning of 2020 there was a general strike here in the Basque Country in Spain that addressed the high living costs and poor social welfare in the region. When I read about it I pretty much immediately decided that I would photograph it, since this wasn’t the first protest I photographed here that was in part motivated by the inadequate welfare system. The last time such a protest happened was in 2016 and you can check out the pictures from the protest against the Zubieta garbage incinerator here. These protests lasted about a month and what started off as an environmentalist protest quickly expanded into addressing social problems as well.

The protest that you will see in this following post and video happened 4 years later on the 30th of January 2020, so if you don’t see anyone socially distancing or anyone wearing masks in the pictures, this is because there wasn’t even a known threat at this point. The first cases appeared in Europe at the end of February and the lockdown started here on the 15th of March, so this was still well before it could have had any impact on the subsequent number of infections.

However the protests weren’t entirely unrelated to the pandemic either. The strike was largely motivated by the low pensions, but one of the other problems that were also addressed were the cuts to the healthcare system that had happened in the wake of the financial crisis. During the first wave of the pandemic the high number of infections among doctors and nurses and the complete breakdown of healthcare in several cities were clear signs of how underfunded the healthcare system had become. Although Spain has a free healthcare system I was warned by a doctor in Germany who had worked in Spain before that the healthcare system here was completely inadequate for health problems like mine. And it proved inadequate for the surge of Coronavirus cases as well, since there weren’t enough hospital beds in general and ICU beds in particular. The high number of deaths from Coronavirus and the collapse of healthcare in large urban areas during the first wave was simply inevitable with the level of funding the healthcare system received. And just before all this happened people were on the streets protesting against it!

Although the strike was supported by many of the pensioner associations, the environmentalists, the feminists and two of the unions, not all of the unions were on board and only one party supported the strike. The other unions and parties were against it and suggested that there wasn’t really a reason for a strike. In reality there really was though. The region here is very dependent on tourism which makes rents and living costs here incredibly high. Buying houses is also very expensive for the same reason and one can easily pay 1,000,000€ for a flat with beach view. When it is perfectly normal to pay 1,000€ in rent for a flat and even a room in a shared flat costs more than 500€, the demands of the strikers seem ridiculously low. The strikers demanded a minimum wage of 1,200€ and a minimum pension of 1,080€! And this effectively means that they are getting even lower salaries and pensions right now!

According to official data from the Basque government, 10% of the population are at risk of poverty and barely being able to afford a room in a shared flat isn’t even regarded as such! Add to that bad healthcare, wage inequality and the fact that 92% of new contracts are temporary contracts and clearly there are many reasons to go on strike! So, if most of the parties insist that there wasn’t even a reason for a general strike then that sounds rather cynical in my view.

This general strike happened in two autonomous regions, the Basque Country and Navarra. All the major cities in the two regions had protests and San Sebastián is one of these cities. Although I‘ve photographed fairly big protests here before I have literally never seen it as crowded as this! It was by far the biggest protest I ever photographed and of course I mostly saw it from the perspective of my own neighbourhood. Columns of protesters were coming in from all the neighbourhoods and then marched together along the major avenues to the Boulevard.

After the strike and the protests were over the Basque government released official data that the strike was unsuccessful and ineffective. They were then accused by the unions that they falsified the data and for example included people who were on holiday as not participating in the strike. Of course it‘s hard to know how many people actually participated since all sides in this discussion have an agenda in this. The unions would be over-reporting and the government would be under-reporting, so who can actually know what the real level of participation was? All I know is that it was the biggest protest I‘ve seen here, so my guess would be that the government data is unlikely to be true. The unions state that across the Basque Country and Navarra 140,000 people participated in the protests and that 30% of companies and public services were disrupted. The public transport was definitely very disrupted and schools were probably the most affected with 50% disruptions.

All in all it was a huge turnout and there were definitely way too many people for my liking, since I‘m not a big fan of crowds. I knew this going in though and like usually in such situations I had my Leica and my Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.1 on me with a roll of Rollei Retro 80s loaded. It‘s a great combination to separate subjects from the background and with a less fast lens it would have been even more challenging to photograph such a crowded situation. Later on when there wasn’t so much direct sunlight anymore, I switched to HP5+ to keep shutter speeds from getting too long. Taking pictures in such difficult conditions was quite an interesting challenge and although I don‘t like crowds I enjoyed shooting this protest anyway. And I’m also quite happy with the results in the end!

What struck me the most while editing the video accompanying this blog post and also the pictures themselves was how very relevant it all was to the pandemic. The financial crisis and the following austerity policies are definitely one of the main contributors to the devastating number of deaths that happened here in Spain throughout the Coronavirus crisis. Now in the middle of the second wave we are likely to see even more fallout from the nonsensical and destructive policies imposed by the government which obviously completely disregards the living realities of the population even under normal circumstances. The government already started to call the most recent spike in cases the “third wave” although the supposed end of the second wave was marked by a drop from “extreme risk” to “high risk” only, before the number of cases quickly escalated again into the third spike of this second wave. No matter what they officially call it, we’ve had a high risk of infection here since August and the government has refused to do another lockdown. Another nonsensical and destructive policy health policy worthy of a protest, but I guess such a protest would be counterproductive under the current circumstances.

Personally I‘m appalled by how the Spanish and Basque governments are handling the pandemic and have been very vocal about it in a thread on Twitter. In this thread I pretty much predicted the consequences of every single bad decision made since the borders were opened again for tourism. You can read it here if you are interested. The government decided that even the appallingly high numbers of new infections weren’t enough to warrant a new lockdown and even opened schools again instead of imposing more restrictions. The end result is that people belonging to the risk group like me simply have no choice other than to shield indefinitely and implement their own personal lockdown themselves. The number of cases has been too high to go outside since August and I have only been able to go out occasionally trying to stay away from people as much as possible.

And of course since there is no government imposed lockdown, there are also no support schemes for people like me. We are left to our own devices and personally I‘ve had very little income since the beginning of the pandemic. I‘m pretty sure most people in my situation face a similar predicament and are by now forced to stop shielding for financial reasons even with the high numbers of new infections. After all who has the means to keep shielding for half a year? Luckily my husband’s job is secure and he can work from home or we would be in a rather precarious situation by now. And even for us things started to get really difficult when my computer broke in the middle of all this. I told you guys about this on Twitter and on Facebook and thanks to your generous support on Ko-fi and by scraping together all my savings I managed to build a new computer by now. But I will tell you more about this another time, since I actually built a Hackintosh and I’m pretty sure this topic will be interesting for a lot of you guys! For now I just wanted to say thank you for all your support over the years! Your support makes all this possible, the pictures, the blog posts, the videos and so on. Without your support you wouldn’t be reading this blog post right now either, because I wouldn’t be able to edit any pictures without this new computer you helped me buy! Again, thank you, it means a lot! If you enjoy what I do here on this blog and on YouTube, you can always support me on Ko-fi. Any support will go right back into what I do here on this blog and the behind the scenes videos I make on my YouTube channel. Your support will allow me to buy film for my cameras and all the equipment I need for making videos, as well as some bigger projects that have become a lot more complicated to finance with this whole pandemic situation and its fallout.

But enough waffling, let’s get on with the pictures already!

Pictures taken with: Leica M6, Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.1.

Starting off with Rollei Retro 80s developed in HC-110.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

I managed to find the feminists first which seemed very fitting!

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

He asked me whether I had taken a flattering picture of them. What do you think?

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

Union flags everywhere.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

And as always with protests around here the Basque flag was present as well.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

Antifa was there too. Certain Americans might gasp at this, but Antifa just means antifascist and I’ve been going to antifascist protests since I was a child! If you have a problem with antifascists, you have a problem with me 🤷‍♀️

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

All the light hitting those flags on the bridge was great. You can’t see the bridge here because of all the flags and people.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

If you want the audio too, check out the video I embedded above!

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

The scanner couldn’t quite handle how contrasty Retro 80s can get. I have to pre-flash the paper if I want to print this in the darkroom.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

Obligatory dog picture.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

As so often with public events, kids everywhere! It kinda serves as an indicator to know whether a protest might get violent. The police wasn’t very present in our town, but there were clashes in other places. I doubt there were kids present there.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

HP5+ from here.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

I love how this one turned out!

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

This was one of the pensioner associations.

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© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

The Nokton at its best!

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

They were representing people who couldn’t participate in the strike.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

The press was there too. Press photographers tend to shoot mirrorless cameras these days!

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

Agony. How fitting.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

Our furry friends support the workers too of course!

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

The only violence I encountered that day 😉

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© Lilly Schwartz

Well, I certainly couldn’t resist this one.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

People couldn’t get out of the parking garage because of the protest. They didn’t seem to mind.

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

© Lilly Schwartz

Last one!

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