A life through a lens

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The memory of a camera. The memory of a man. Manuel Rodríguez Armesto shares his life story as a series of events captured in time, emphasizing that every image is worth a thousand words.

“The first time I saw a movie screen, I knew I wanted to be on it, to be part of that world. So I became passionate about film, photography, and projectors, and decided to become a professional. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

My name is Manuel Rodríguez Armesto. I was born in Russia in 1937, but moved to Seville with my parents as a child. I don’t even remember the name of the city where I was born. I do remember, however, the beginnings of my fascination with film and photography.

My father had a Kodak camera and received a monthly magazine that showcased all of Kodak’s new products. I lived for those magazines. As a boy, I would sit and read them from cover to cover. I distinctly remember one advertisement that caught my attention, where a husband and wife are using a Kodak camera to film their dog in the bathtub. The next page showed the entire family sitting with their dog in their living room as they watched the projection of their ‘home movie’ on a screen. I couldn’t believe that a ball of light could leave the projector to create different images. It was like magic.

I have many, many stories… most of which I can remember by holding a camera in my hand. I remember one snowy night in Seville. It was February 2, 1954. I was a student at the School of
Architecture. I was sitting in my room, looking out the window, when all of a sudden a great flurry of snow began to fall from the sky. It was 11 o’clock at night, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I wanted to take pictures of these first snowflakes, but I didn’t have my camera, and soon everything was white. The Alameda square, lined with trees, looked like a Christmas card. It hasn’t snowed here since that day, and it looked like a completely different world. I still regret not having my camera with me.

A few years later , Mother Nature struck again—only this time with water. It was November of 1961. The Tamarguillo, a tributary of the Guadalquivir river, overflowed, the sewage system was not able to drain all of the water, leaving Seville looked like the streets of Venice. I traveled
in a rowboat through the city to document the destruction with my camera. The water had swept away everything, and many people drowned or died from tuberculosis. The flood lasted 10 days, and the Spanish and American armies from the military bases in Rota and Morón came to Seville to transport people out of the city. By the end, a number of historic buildings were ruined by the mud and water, but I wasn’t worried about the historical landmarks at the time because I was so eager to capture images for the future. Through my photographs and a short documentary, I was able to show people not only the destruction of the city, but also Seville’s ability to overcome such great losses. Although the flood is seen as a tragedy, I treasure those images.

My work has taken me around the world, and I’ve accumulated thousands and thousands of images. For every photo, there is a story to tell. For example, I traveled to Chipiona one summer in order to photograph a festival, where people light the horns of a bull on fire and let it run around the village. That year, a young bull from Jerez was purchased for the festival. People thought the bull would be calm because one of his horns was broken, but instead, it turned out to have a heart of fury. When his horns were set ablaze, the bull charged a man and knocked him to the ground. People began to run in different directions, and I was shoved to the ground with my camera still rolling. A large group of people had gathered on a balcony of a nearby building to watch the disaster from a safe distance, but the balcony couldn’t support everyone’s weight. I watched as the balcony collapsed, leaving small children clutching the side of the building. The balcony fell on a man, breaking his shoulder. My heart was beating fast with adrenaline and fear. The bull was eventually taken to the beach where he was stabbed to death with spears. I now look at these pictures and laugh about the absurdity of that day.

I also used my camera to capture Semana Santa, which is a beautiful ceremony that unfortunately not many people completely understand. I decided I wanted to embrace the intimacy of the week so I put microphones underneath one of the floats in order to record the voices of the men, the commands of the leader, the patter of their feet against the pavement, and the clinking of the chains. I combined these recordings with images of the festival in a documentary to show how powerful the experience can be.

Movies and photography have the ability to humanize history. The industry however has changed drastically, and technology has given individuals the ability to manipulate images. In the past, you couldn’t touch the film because you would damage it. Nowadays, you can do things very quickly and cheaply, but it’s not the same quality. The cameras of the past are beautiful, and a thing to be missed. For me, the industry today is cold and inaccessible.

Here, at the market, I’m able to share a bit of the past. People continue to purchase traditional cameras, and are drawn to them for their indisputable beauty that cannot be found in modern cameras. I like selling these cameras because it reminds me of the past and the joy that these machines brought to me. They recorded my life and hold my memories. I will sell the machines, but my personal photographs and documentaries… those are not for sale.”