I’ve been taking photographs on the El Rocío pilgrimage for 40 years, and it’s still just as intense an experience as it was the first time. Each year, more than 100 brotherhoods travel to the hermitage at El Rocío from all over Andalucía. I had heard that the Brotherhood of Triana was famous for its richness and its beauty, so in 1976 I decided to travel with them.
I went to their district in Seville, where they start their journey, and it was overwhelming: all the women in these beautiful flamenco dresses; the men just as beautifully dressed up; the horses; the oxen; the heavily decorated hooded wagons, or carretas each family travels with; the silver carreta out front, carrying the simpecado, the banner without sin, that some people venerate even more than the Virgin herself. I didn’t know whether to look left or right, in front or behind.
I’d met a Spanish photographer and was surprised to see he had a huge military duffle bag. He explained that we would be out in the fields for three days, with no shops and nothing to eat. All I had was my camera, 20 rolls of film and a T-shirt.
I kept going back. One time, in 1980, I had nowhere to sleep after we arrived in El Rocío. I was so tired after three days on the road, and needed somewhere to put my bags and films. A woman – I called her the Holy Magdalena – saw me crying. “What’s happening chica?” she said. “Come with me.” From that moment on I was part of Magdalena’s family, along with brother Joaquín and her children, Inmaculada and Marie Lole. One of their nephews, José Antonio, joined later on, and when he got married and had children, he started his own carreta family. This photo, from 2003, is of his wife, María José, washing their daughter, Rocío – in Andalucía, it’s an extremely common name – in a campsite basin at the end of the day.
Life on the camino, or pilgrimage route, is like stepping back in time. In this image you can see the makeshift outdoor kitchen, the bulls in the background, the carreta behind them: those are the things that make the story. It’s about improvising, making do with what you have. Otherwise it’s just a mother bathing her child.
In Andalucía, people are very devoted, but they’re not really churchgoers. They’re baptised and married in church, but for them it’s more about the rituals, the processions. On the camino, they do the rosary in the fields, and mass in the campsite every night. When passing a river, everyone gets baptised with a special El Rocío name. There’s constant singing.
The girls and the women travel with 10-15 dresses. You get so dirty every day, but you have to be clean and smart, so they change all the time. I always wear trousers and walking boots, and they always say: “Oh, María.” (I’m Maria there; Marrie is a little bit difficult.) But I can’t work with a dress on – I have to run after carretas, and bulls. I have to sit on my knees. I have pictures of myself covered in dust.
In 1990, though, I decided to buy a flamenco dress. I took some dancing lessons too. On the Monday evening before we left El Rocío to go back to Seville, there was a big party with soup, sangria and dancing, so I wore my dress for that. You should have seen the faces of the drivers. “Look at her! María! It’s María!” They couldn’t believe it.
Pretty soon after I’d put the dress on, though, people started calling me over – “¡Venga! ¡Venga!” – because there was a newborn calf that had to be baptised. They brought the calf over in their arms, because they know I take pictures of everything, and put it on the table, with a bottle of manzanilla sherry. I was on the wrong side of the table, so I had to clamber underneath and come up on the other side. My dress was almost ruined – but I got the pictures I wanted.
Born: Bergambacht, Holland, 1946.
Trained: “At 17 I was not allowed to go to art school, so I worked as a graphic designer. I took evening classes in drawing and (staged) photography at the Free Academy, The Hague, and taught myself documentary photography.”
Influences: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Smith, Walker Evans, Bruce Davidson and the location paintings of the 17th century and impressionists.
High Point: “Being adopted in 1980 by the Rocío-Triana families as one of their own. And being given the Dr AH Heineken prize for the arts in 1990, as well as all the grants I have received from the Dutch Arts Council.”
Low point: “I always like to forget trouble as soon as possible.”
Top tip: “Be involved with the people you photograph and show them the pictures you make of them, so they trust you.”