I have just returned from photographing an unforgettable Catholic pilgrimage from Jerez in Southern Spain to the shrine in the village of El Rocio in the heart of Andalusia.
The pilgrimage dates back to 1653 and attracts more than a million Catholic pilgrims from all over Spain to the small shrine of El Rocio in the province of Huelva in Andalusia. A statue of the Virgin Mary was said to have been discovered in a tree trunk by a hunter from the village of Villamanrique in the 13th century in the Donana park. This marked the site for future pilgrimages.
The pilgrims, known as Rocieros, travel in groups called brotherhoods on foot or with horses, wagons and elaborate horse-drawn carriages designed to transport their silver and gold Madonnas to the shrine in the village of El Rocio.
I wanted to travel the whole 60 mile route on foot with the pilgrims from Jerez to get a closer look at the individuals and capture their emotions during the long journey. In order to get to El Rocio we had to cross the Guadalquivir river by boat into the Donana National Park. The Park is an area of outstanding natural beauty, home to a variety of wildlife and exotic birds, mostly Flamingos and Storks. The whole park consists of sandy tracks and dunes only passable on foot, horseback or four wheel drive.
I spent many days planning this trip as being on foot I needed to travel lightly. Carrying 15kg of camera equipment and a laptop in a backpack for 60 miles walking in sand is not easy. For instance, every time I stopped to photograph the procession, I would have to run back to the front as it was moving quickly, I must have done this 15 or 20 times in one day...I underestimated how quickly 8 mules carrying a silver gilded altar can travel. I lost count of the number of times I had to empty my shoes of sand. Luckily running through sand carrying an 18kg rucksack in the Marathon des Sables a few years ago had given me the belief that I could do this.
There would be no access to electricity or internet for 3 days so I had to make sure I had enough spare batteries and memory cards to last the trip. However no amount of planning could have prepared me for amount of sand and dust kicked up by the procession. For three days I was constantly blowing or wiping the sand off my equipment, by which point I decided it would be disastrous to make any lens changes or get my laptop out. My worst fears were confirmed when I met another Spanish photographer on the route who was beside himself because his mirror had locked on his camera and he was unable to take any photos. The area was also experiencing it's coldest weather for 50 years...at this time of year it is usually hot and sunny but on several occasions I had to retreat into one of the horse drawn carriages to escape the monsoon like conditions we were experiencing. I had bought a lightweight tent for the journey which unfortunately wasn't designed for cold night time temperatures. One night I was awoken by what I thought was rain leaking into my tent, but then I realised that it was so cold that my breath had formed a layer of condensation on the walls of the tent and it was dripping onto my face.
Many pilgrims traveled to see the Virgin to pray for family members who were ill or to overcome personal tragedies. I met one twenty year old girl who only a few weeks previously had lost her mother. Others I learned were coming to pray for their childrens' health or to pray for a cure for a terminal illness. A priest also accompanied the pilgrims and a mass was held each day, at one point in the middle of a huge sand dune. They were very moving occasions.
There were many breaks on the route, during which the pilgrims would take turns to burst into songs of dedication to their Madonna followed by some high-energy flamenco dancing and copious amounts of fine wine.
The village of El Rocio itself resembled a wild west frontier town from a Spaghetti Western. Horses were tied to the outside of saloon bars everywhere and the streets were filled with sand. It seemed like the whole town had come out to greet our arrival...for three hours we moved slowly through the dusty streets, there was a carnival-like atmosphere with large groups of women in flamenco style dresses singing and clapping and glasses of Sherry being handed out to all. It was clear to see what our arrival meant to the pilgrims, many embraced and wept openly.
The highlight of the trip was the night that the pilgrims waited for the statue of the Virgin to appear, in the early hours of the Monday morning. I was told to arrive early to find a good position as up to a millions pilgrims cram into the village streets. Spot located, I spent 4 hours standing on top of a well, luckily kept warm by the genorosity of my Spanish hosts who kept me topped up with several glasses of a potent local liquor. At 3.30am, the statue of the Virgin finally appeared carried by a crowd of testosterone fuelled young men who seemed to disappear under the weight of the altar carrying the statue. It passed rapidly through the sea of pilgrims who all fought frenetically to get close to her and make their personal dedications.
The trip I made wouldn't have been possible without the kindness and generosity of the Brotherhood of Jerez.
My Equipment List
Canon 5D Mark 3, Canon 1D Mark 4, Canon 17-40mm F4L, Canon 24-70mm F2.8L, Canon 70-200mm F2.8 L IS2, Canon 580 EX2 Flash, Apple Macbook Pro 13", LaCie Rugged 160GB hard drive, Sandisk 32GB Extreme Pro III SD cards (x4), Lowepro Computrekker AW, Lowepro Deluxe Technical Belt, Lowepro S&F lens cases, Manfrotto Bogen 209 mini tripod.