CNN Photos

Playing 'the waiting game'

For nearly eight years, photographer Txema Salvans traveled the winding roads of Spain’s Mediterranean coast to document the lives of alleged prostitutes.

Salvans witnessed the daily trials of these "sirens of the highway," standing by traffic signs and abandoned furniture as they lured travelers into their web of seduction.

"As with war photography or any kind of documentarian work, I tried to show the inherent beauty of my subject," said Salvans, who is winning international acclaim for his series, "The Waiting Game." "These photos are of them and for them."

Posing as a topographer surveying the state of the roads, Salvans spent day after day hanging by derelict buildings, abandoned shopping centers and other less salubrious areas associated with Spain’s real estate crash.

Remaining inconspicuous, Salvans said, was the most ethical and least intrusive way to allow the women to be natural and not feel monitored.

“I come from the point of view of a naturalist and a humanist, and my disguise was a form of biological mimicry,” Salvans said. “I wanted to protect their identity while allowing them to be themselves in their biological niche."

That “niche” can be seen on just about all of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, from the borders of France and Spain to Andalucia.

Prostitution is legal in Spain, but pimping is not. Local governments are allowed to regulate where prostitutes can hustle. But there is very little protection for these women, many of whom are immigrants and suffer physical abuse, according to human rights activists.

“When you think of the Mediterranean, you think of the birth of Western civilization, of philosophy — and quickly you are hit with the contradictions,” Salvans said. “When you go all over Spain, you see that some have a hard life."

But Salvans' photos are full of vibrancy, far from depressing. Nearly iridescent poppies and other grassland flora blend with bright traffic signs and leftover snack-food bags around the women, whose faces are not recognizable.

Sometimes bored and languid, sometimes lost in thought, the women in "The Waiting Game" seem as disposable as the plastic commodities strewn on the highway. The environmental degradation that encircles them is part of the existential void felt heavily throughout.

“They are always seen waiting, looking into a vast empty landscape which, to me, is an existential emptiness,” Salvans said.

The women are not photographed hustling, nor in blatant pornographic scenarios. They are filled with humanity and clearly framed in an empathetic angle.

 “I am not photographing prostitutes," Salvans said. "I am photographing women."

Inevitably, an eight-year project on prostitution has had an effect in Salvans' home.

“One day I came back and saw my 4-year old daughter drawing over the photographs of the prostitutes with a marker,” Salvans said. “She drew them houses because she thought they looked lonely."

- Helena Cavendish de Moura, Special to CNN