Colom, born in 1921, self-taught man, started taking photographs in 1957. He is one of the elements in the so-called "new vanguard" of Spanish photography, seeking inspiration in photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Doisneau, Walker Evans and Helen Levitt.
Over the course of three years, Colom visited the Barrio Chino (currently, Raval), which, in his own words, was "the only place in Barcelona where I can see mankind". Like today, the Raval was a neighbourhood of poverty and prostitution, In such a difficult environment, conflict and the manifestation of the most basic human needs were frequent. Colom used a technique all his own: he placed the camera around his waist and shot pictures, without looking, doing some lab work on them, later.
What is most impressive about Colom's pictures is precisely this sly and immediate character, this voyeur of humanity perspective, without ever falling into the exotic or the sentimental, but also without trying to give an epic or tragic dimension to the lives of those men and women. Hands groping buttocks, large breasts in 50s brassieres, flesh overflowing from clothes and looks. Dirty children, proletarians and proletarians' children.
This secrecy gives Colom's work a particular documentary value. In 1964, the photographer published a book with these pictures and texts written by Camilo José Cela, entitled Izas, rabizas y colipoterras. Controversy ensued - it was during the last years of fascist Spain; later, one of the women pictured filed a complaint. Colom gave up photography until the 1980s.
In the meantime, he had made two other note-worthy works: photographs of the El Born market, in 1963, and a series of photos about the gypsy neighbourhood of Sorromostro, one of the poorest in the city, which was being dismantled as Barcelona's coastal promenade advanced into the Poblenou area, in 1964. It consisted of images of the great engineering work progressing over the slums and the people who lived on the city's beach. Poblenou is, today, one of the most developed areas in the city, so Colom's photographs represent a critical memory of the city’s popular classes.
I have no idea what Colom thinks about the current development of the Raval. In order to host the 1992 Olympic Games, the most troublesome part of the neighbourhood was shattered, giving way to a fresher Raval, without a doubt more appreciated by its inhabitants; however, this change also implied the loss of housing for many families, driven to the suburbs. The Raval is still dirty, dark, working-class, with drugs and drunks and prostitution. It's an immigrant neighbourhood, where it is easier to fing an Islamic butchershop than a churreria. That gives it, in the middle of the city, a pleasant homely feeling, for those who don't have to suffer with its problems. Still, the pressure from the neighbouring Rambla is transforming it in an uneven way: it is being more sought after for luxury hotels. And by becoming more economically attractive, the population is beginning to suffer with the economic speculation.
The most controversial episode was a police operation in which over 30 people were arrested for being connected with a prostitution network. Criticism isn't aimed at the operation itself, but to the fact that it took place right after the inauguration of a new five-star hotel, very close to one of the streets where prostitution is dealt with openly. There, women from all over the world, from all ages, walk the same sidewalks as clients, tourists, students and families with children, without anyone being bothered by any of it. The bra models change, the hair-dos change. But there are still the same hands in the same buttocks, the same misery, now only two steps away from a luxurious hotel.