Barcelona, Spain
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Unflinching new photographs reveal a grittier side to Barcelona, where issues like heroin addiction, women's safety and social inequality lay just beneath the tourist-friendly face Spain's second-largest city presents to the rest of the world.

In an exhibition called Sixteen Neighbourhoods, A Thousand Cities: Photographs for Other Narratives of Barcelona, hundreds of shots of Barcelona are on display at civic centres and cultural centres across the 16 areas featured in the show.

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Photos at an exhibition at the Borsi cultural centre, Barcelona, Spain, on 29th March. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sophie Davies

The sometimes stark images seek to break with the stereotypically glamorous reputation of the Mediterranean city, home to the world-famous Las Ramblas boulevard and the creations of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

The project, commissioned by Barcelona's City Hall, also aims to shine a light over the next year on the most socio-economically impoverished of the city's 73 neighbourhoods.

"It came from the need to construct an image of Barcelona which is different from the iconic image of the centre of the city."

- Marta Delclos, one of the exhibition's curators.

These are parts of Barcelona that the majority of tourists and locals have never visited, said Marta Delclos, one of the exhibition's curators.

"It came from the need to construct an image of Barcelona which is different from the iconic image of the centre of the city," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she walked around the exhibition in the Gothic Quarter.

Some areas, like the concrete-heavy district of Trinitat Nova in the north of the city, are barely documented at all, she stressed.

Delclos said dozens of high-rise apartment blocks have been demolished in the neighbourhood over the past two decades, after they were found to be causing a lung disease called aluminosis, triggered by exposure to aluminium particles in dust.

The forlorn photos of the remaining tower blocks give exhibition-goers a rare insight into Trinitat Nova and provide a vital record of life in the marginalised district, she said.

The national photographic archives contain only a few photos of Trinitat Nova, she noted, but "there are several thousand photos of other, wealthier neighbourhoods".

The 16 districts featured in the exhibition, which had previously been shown in central Barcelona earlier this year, are the focus of Barcelona City Hall's stimulus project known as Pla de Barris, or Neighbourhood Plan.

The €150 million program, which began in 2016 and finishes next year, aims to make improvements in the areas of education, social rights, facilities, and economic activity in those districts.

Barcelona's city hall was not available for comment.

Monica Rosello, one of the 10 photographers who worked on Sixteen Districts, said they were given about six months to research and get to know the neighbourhoods they were allocated, as well as their inhabitants.

"We didn't go to these neighbourhoods as tourists – we were more embedded," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Her bleak images of La Verneda i La Pau, a district on the northern edge of the city, evoke a lonely place full of high-rise buildings, factories and waste land.

One arresting image depicts a controversial piece of land that used to house a Coca-Cola bottling plant. The city had a plan to turn the space into a municipal recreation space, but that fell through.

The plot was recently bought by real-estate developers to turn it into housing, which Rosello said has sparked protests by locals.

Another photo shows a poorly lit passage underneath a high-rise building. Residents use the underpass frequently, but women living in the area told Rosello it makes them feel unsafe, especially after dark.

"This was not the artist's gaze, but the photographer working with the community. There were meetings, neighbourhood get-togethers; it was a deeper project," Delclos explained.

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Photos at an exhibition at the Borsi cultural centre, Barcelona, Spain, on 29th March. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sophie Davies

Photographer Joan Tomas captured prostitutes, shopkeepers, immigrants and other residents of the Gothic and Raval - perhaps the most well-known districts in the exhibition - in stark black-and-white images.

But he said he was initially reluctant to work on the two districts because they have already been so well-documented - including in the national archives - due to the social struggles their residents face.

"In the Gothic there are many problems associated with the eviction of people and touristification...El Raval has other kinds of problems like narco pisos [drug flats]," said the 61-year-old photographer.

The number of flats being used for the sale and consumption of drugs has increased in Barcelona's old town, despite increased police intervention since 2015, according to a statement by police last year.

Because these are residential properties, in order to gain access and arrest the dealers the police need sufficient proof that illegal activity is being carried out, which can often be difficult, the statement continued.

Last year, Barcelona's city hall announced it was devoting €2 million to fighting the problem.

"People have said they feel proud to see the photos of their areas. When these neighbourhoods improve, the photos will provide a historic record of what they were like."

- Marta Delclos

It was a "challenge" working on these central districts, but a "very strong emotional connection was made with the people," said Tomas.

Daniel Pardo, one of the Raval residents photographed by Tomas for the exhibition, said the impact of tourism has also taken a toll on his neighbourhood.

The saturation of central Barcelona by tourists is leading to frustration among locals who cannot afford to live there anymore, so they either leave voluntarily or get evicted, he stressed.

"They are pushed out of their environment and so lose their connections, their family ties," said Pardo, who is a member of the activist group Ciutat Vella No Esta En Venda (The Old Town is Not for Sale).

Each year, about 30 million tourists visit Barcelona, a city with a population of 1.6 million, according to official statistics.

Pardo wants the government to find a way to control the number of visitors to the city centre, to ease the pressure on rental costs, energy bills and the transport system.

"Barcelona needs to work towards a more inclusive city model whereby people can live in the centre," he said.

Delclos, the curator, said many locals see the exhibition as a way to finally make their voices heard.

"With many of these neighbourhoods, it's the first time they've been captured on camera in this way – by a photographer, with his or her personal interpretation and the collaboration of the locals," she said.

"People have said they feel proud to see the photos of their areas. When these neighbourhoods improve, the photos will provide a historic record of what they were like."