This year I was fortunate to be based in Valencia as the city descended into its special kind of mayhem, celebrating Las Fallas. I knew Las Fallas only for its iconic sculptures — set on fire at the week’s climax- but as I learned, it is not just the sculptures that are spectacularly transformed during this chaotic week.
My weekday alarm had gone off early, and rather than the mildly infuriating crescendo of twinkling piano scales that I had grown used to, it was the openly infuriating crescendo of drummers. I peered out my 2nd floor window in disbelief to see a parade of 9 orange-clad invaders proudly beating their drums as they trampled on my sleep cycle.
Where there had once been dreary corner shops & cafes, there were now bustling tiendas de petardo. Where children had once played football in the streets they now shot fireworks. Where junctions had once stood forgotten, they were now ornated by ribbons, beer tents and food trucks. Fiesta soon submerged the city, and whether provided by the drummers, the petardos or the daily firework displays, the rhythm was undoubtedly bang! BANG!
At first, Las Fallas can appear chaotic to an outsider like me. Set at unease by the sporadic explosions and unsure what to make of the polarised opinions of the locals, I visited the various sculptures with a sceptical curiosity, trying to work out what all the fuss was about.
Messi & Ronaldo played football on a pitch of euro bills. Trump sat at a chess board, which hid a pile of dynamite. The mermaid of Brexit was stuck to the seabed. Some sculptures carried iconoclastic messages in the way only brash 10ft paper machés can, while some were clever calls to arms on themes such as climate change & materialism.
Eventually, predictably, they merge and blur into a memory of icons and bright colours. Worth taking in and certainly hard not to be impressed, but before long the overbearing aesthetic qualities feel somewhat superficial. It’s the community around these fallas whose story drew me.
As the week matures, so the pattern of celebrations becomes clearer. Each neighbourhood of Valencia is responsible for its own falla, and so each neighbourhood holds its own distinct celebrations. At night there is a real community feel in the beer tents & around the stages, nonetheless there is still plenty for the wandering tourist to feast on in this sleepless week of street partying.
As darkness falls on the March 19, Las Fallas prepares to go out with a bang. Communities gather to watch a final fireworks display, marking the moment that their sculpture is to be set on fire. The smaller sculpture is to be ceremoniously set on fire by the Princess, and the larger sculpture by the Queen.
Setting the Falla alight is a momentous occasion for the princess, who has been centre of proceedings for the week. As soon as the sculpture goes up in flames then the celebrations come to end and normal life will return — it is her parting act as princess. In this image we see the gravity of the moment in her expression, she looks at the torch carefully, with a tangible reluctance, fighting tears. The eye is drawn to the princess’ face, but the disembodied hand cuts through the fantasy, it tells us that at some level this is for show, it implies the relationship with the community.
Meanwhile silhouettes tower over the girl, while the flashing camera makes us feel uncomfortable with her, the result is a surreal moment of symbolism that strikes the same tone as Las Fallas as a whole.
A fizz, bang & pzzz later and the monument is alight. Fireworks shoot up sporadically indicating a new sculpture being burnt as Valencia’s night sky turns orange.
Yellow is the fire and intense energy at the heart of Las Fallas. Purple, the colour of royalty, represents the element of tradition, but also that of the magical and the mysterious. The two complementary colours fill the frame here in an image that gives us the sense of awe experienced by the crowds that flock to these fantastical sculptures to see them burn.
The lasting impression that Las Fallas gave me was the centrality of community to a celebration that can first appear hedonistic and chaotic. Communities gravitate around their sculptures throughout the week; sharing drinks, cleaning the streets, shooting petardos. People of all generations adorn traditional costume and come together. There are few things in life more valuable than belonging, and as this UNESCO world heritage festival grows further in stature and commercial value, it is this evident sense of belonging that will continue to give Las Fallas its unique flavour.
All photographs here are my own. This article was written in 2017.