Shaun Irving '97, Photographer

Shaun Irving '97English Major
Currently working in: Richmond, Virginia

The Record, 2006 -- For four months in the spring of 2006, Shaun Irving '97 drove around Spain taking photographs using the box of a cargo truck as a giant pinhole camera. The photographs were displayed at PHotoEspaña 2006, an international festival of photography and visual arts in Madrid, Spain. The following excerpts are from his journal.

I WASN'T A TERRIBLE STUDENT at Hampden-Sydney, but I sure was miserable with foreign languages. I'm sure Alan Ford Farrell shook his head countless times at my convoluted conjunctions. When French didn't work, I switched over to Spanish-my mind muddled with the three languages I'd tried to learn, and the one I actually knew. If you'd told me then that I'd later find myself traveling the whole of Spain, taking dozens of photos in a truck-turned-camera, I'd have thought you were crazy.

At Cereixido, we were greeted by the entire town's population. All four of them.

Things didn't use to be that way. Before people started leaving in the 1960s, for work and opportunity in bigger places, Cereixido was a village of about 400.

They had a church. They had a band that played tighter than any you'd find in Madrid. They had young people. Now, the cats outnumber the citizens. A few chickens and sheep roam the town's narrow streets, roads totally missed by the automotive age.

The residents are as gracious as they are resilient. One lady shared chorizo sausage, homemade wine, and chestnuts with us. Those chestnuts are like gold here-one of the things that grow naturally on the hilltop. The town's biggest fear isn't loneliness or the cold of winter; it's the wild boars which roam the mountains. They devour the nuts in a flash, leaving these people without one of their most important staples.

There were four of us on the trip, two vehicles among us. I rode with Richard Browse, who was truly the mastermind behind the whole tour. A Briton-turned-Barcelonian, he had come across some old media coverage about "Peanut," my previous cameratruck in the States. He sold the festival and the sponsoring agencies on the idea. He planned the tour, poring over guidebooks and plotting it out in his living room. He drove the truck. Most importantly, he believed in the idea as much as I did and was willing to do what he needed to do to make it happen.

Bea was our producer on the road, a charming young lady who took care of the business end-hotels, permits, allowances, and the like. She was stunningly beautiful. She rolled her own smokes with one hand. She was fierce, friendly, or coolly collected, depending on what it took to get us what we needed. She's the kind of person we should all have in our lives.

And there was Andres, the director from Agosto. He produced some of the most stunning video I've seen. He was there to film a documentary about the tour: 30 minutes about the cameratruck project and the places we visited. He tackled the project in a much different way from me-both in medium and aesthetic-but captured it just as well, if not better.

Irving '97 Camera truckThe cameratruck, a 1995 Nissan Cabstar, was made to be a city van, running carpet or vegetables between warehouses in Barcelona. I'm sure the firm we rented it from wasn't expecting us to take it on every rutted road in the country (or to drill a giant hole in the side of it for the lens). We figured it was best if they didn't know until after the tour. I lost count of the number of days we got stuck in the mud. Or the times I'd try to figure how many flips we'd do down the mountain if we skidded off this icy road through the invisible guardrail that protects most cliffside roads. Or the multitude of almost-hits, both buildings and other cars.

To me, the stories of our trip weren't just told in a series of photographs, or in the video Andres shot each day. It was just as much in the splattered bugs that covered the truck front, the Kinder toys that filled the glovebox, and an odometer that ticked away 7,000-plus kilometers since we'd left.

Sr. José Cao Lata can't write, so he makes his statements about social injustices with a hammer and chisel. His work pulls the full range of emotions, from whimsical pieces with cats peering out of baskets to Christ crucified, watching over the gentleman's chickens. He's a short, rotund man with a ruddy complexion. He has a great expressiveness in his hands and a set of Coke-bottle glasses (which still don't seem strong enough). He's been carving since 1959, driven by his love of the work. He used to have apprentices, but they're all gone since no one wants to learn the trade anymore. His home is next to the hostel at Mont de Gozo, so he gets some visitors-mostly Catholics making their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. But most who pass through pay no attention to the magnificent sculpture garden at their doorstep.

One of the greatest challenges early on in the tour was figuring out a thematic approach for the work. The whole reason I was there was to create a body of work to show at PHotoEspaña, the country's largest photographic festival, which takes place each summer in Madrid. The theme of the festival was Naturaleza, or Nature, and, though I had free reign to shoot what I wanted, I felt it important to tie it in closely with that vision.

I don't shoot typical nature shots. I consider myself more of an "urban decay" kind of guy. I try to find beauty in the ugliest of scenes-industrial sites, vacant storefronts, places that have lost their luster. What's more, the scale of natural scenes often doesn't work so well with the cameratruck; they're too big, even for the biggest camera. It's a primitive lens setup I use, so I don't have the flexibility that many photographers have to shoot a scene (some would consider it a flaw, but I think it just gives my work direction).

One of the massive pictures taken by the camera truck: a sheep farm

As the tour wound on, I found the scenes I shot reached a compromise between the two. I learned to appreciate the natural beauty around me, while still incorporating a little of my own desires into every shot. It got me thinking not just about the role of man's impact on nature, but about how nature takes man's changes and adapts them for her own use. I began to consider the landscapes around us, thinking of them as a canvas with two artists: man and nature. Man may sketch in some stick figures or paint pretty borders around the work, but it's ultimately nature who signs the piece.

There were many other challenges to shooting on the road. We were on a tight schedule, set up to hit every province in Spain in just under 4 weeks. That meant up to 14 hours on the road some days, with little time for shooting. We couldn't wait around for the proper lighting or cloud cover, so there were many incredible scenes we just cruised right past. And then there's the truck itself-you can't just point and shoot from anywhere. Sometimes, we'd spend half an hour driving twisted back roads looking for a proper vantage point from which to photograph. It got to the point that I stopped looking for good shots, and instead looked for good places to take a shot. Then I'd see if it was a shot worth taking. These limitations could be frustrating, but ultimately I think it's what makes the cameratruck so special. I feel like it gives some structure and focus to my work, a set of rules by which I'm forced to play. I think I take a less active role in my work than most photographers, simply because so much is dependent on the camera-she's as much the photographer as I am.

In Guadix, the people don't live near the hills. They live in them. They do so in man-made caves, carved out of the hard mud. We're not talking primitive hovels; these are regular homes with electricity, water, and cable television. Homes that just happen to be centuries old.

We got there as the sun crept down. The neighborhood was jumping with children, riding their bikes, crawling through storm drains, and feeding their horses. You don't need a horse in the city, but "they make good pets" for the children. In the United States, you don't expect to see children playing on the roofs. Here, it's a given.

I tell people that, geographically, Spain is a lot like America (albeit on a much smaller scale). It's as though you picked up our country's most beautiful sites, from Sedona to Nags Head, and crammed them all into Oregon and Washington. What struck me as most odd on our 5,000-mile journey was how drastically the landscape changed in a matter of minutes-snowy mountain towns like Riaño in the morning to the badlands of Bardenas des Reales after lunch.

And the people changed, too. The Basque bloodline thinned as we ventured on, and the women seemed to get more beautiful the farther south we went. Even as a non-Spanish speaker, I could sense a change in the language-regional dialects and spellings morphed as the kilometers ticked on. Town names changed from sign to sign (or were changed by language purists, not ready to part with the old spellings. Spray paint served as red ink pens for corrections). Traveling up the Gold Coast, it even flipped to English for an afternoon. British expatriates have to settle somewhere, and the sunny beaches of Mojacar seemed as good a place as any.

My time at H-SC laid the foundations for this project, by teaching me how to view problems from all different angles. The cameratruck has always been a budget operation, run off $10 worth of old military lenses and duct tape. I have former Theatre Professor David Kaye, who designed killer theater sets with minimal budgets, to thank for that. I've made a point to simplify in both my photographic techniques and composition. I have Rhetoric Professor Susan Robbins and her red pen to thank for that-and for showing me that the nuggets of truth and beauty are all anyone really cares about. But, most importantly, Professor Pam Fox taught me that photography doesn't need to be a neat and clean enterprise. In one of my second-year photo classes, I was doing a personal project where I made prints from layered 35mm negatives-sort of dreamy and abstract, but very sterile. "You need to really tear these negatives up, put in some scratches in there," she said. "Show that the hand of man is there for more than just pushing the shutter button." Do you know how liberating it is to take a match to your work? The old adage rings true: there are rules you must learn about f-stops and exposures, but once you know them, you shouldn't be dictated by them. Rules are made to be broken.

Something strikes you as odd as you pull into the town of Tharsis. Homes turn to dirt piles, which turn to a garbage dump. Suddenly, you're surrounded by this surreal moonscape of rock mountains-all different colors, all mined from different patches of earth.

The mine has been closed for 12 years, but it looks more like 40. Abandoned and decaying, its walls crumble without tumbling. Giant rusted mining dump trucks lord over the hillside, tires flat and doors wide open. A glove sits in the driver's compartment.

You get this sense that the whole company just up and left one day, never to return. Rocks still sit on the conveyor belts into the processing plant. Cars park below road level, keys still in the ignition.

One of the massive images taken by the camera truck: abandoned mine

To me, the most amazing spots we visited were often the most desolate. Towns like Tharsis and Cereixido, while virtually abandoned, seemed to tell the greatest stories. To me, building a society isn't the great challenge -- if you have something to offer, whether it's jobs or food, you'll attract a population. What amazes me is when people or companies invest so much time, labor, and money into a place, only to abandon it for other pastures.

Though the project wound down in June, the cameratruck still lives on. We garnered some incredible coverage with the project, from El País to national television channels. Landscapes in a Truck, the thirty-minute documentary that Andres directed, will soon be making the rounds at international film festivals. And a show of prints from the tour will soon make a tour of its own here in the States, hopefully starting at Hampden-Sydney and in Richmond, and eventually moving on to other cities.

True, the tour was one of the most physically and mentally draining events in my life. However, it fulfilled a need for me-not just to take pictures, but also to hear the stories and to peek into the lives of real Spain, the type not found in a four-color glossy brochure.

As for another tour, who knows? I sure could brush up on my French...

Camera truck interiorThe cameratruck is over 16 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 6 feet high. The inside of the truck is totally lightproof and forms the body of the giant camera.

A lens assembly sharpens the giant images. The shutter, a simple sheet of metal, slides to block out the light. The cameratruck uses sheets of photographic paper, cut from huge rolls, taped on the inside wall of the truck.

Taking the shot means aligning the body of the truck alongside the subject and edging forwards and backwards until the image falls correctly onto the photo paper. The shutter is opened by hand for the correct exposure time, usually between 5 and 15 seconds.

The camera also makes a perfect darkroom. Under a safelight, Shaun takes places the exposed sheet of paper on the floor. With a sponge, the kind you use for washing cars, he washes the developer over every inch of the paper until the exposed image magically begins to appear.

The image is fixed by hand in the same way and rinsed off with water from a hose. The negative is hung up to dry completely before being used to create a giant positive print, usually about 3 feet high by 9 feet wide.