On September 23, Kike Rincón, a photojournalist for the Spanish news agency Europa Press, visited a banana plantation under threat from the volcanic eruption on La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands. That same day, at that precise time, a banana picker named Yulian Lorenzo was at the site with several workmates, racing to take out as much fruit as possible before the Spanish Civil Guard closed off road access due to the threat posed by the advancing lava flow.
Lorenzo and his teammates hoisted banana bunches weighing up to 70 kilograms on their right shoulders, and loaded them as quickly as they could, aware that time was running out. Ash kept falling down on their faces as they shook the leaves of the banana plants – the same ash that was covering the rest of the island, damaging crops and staining the fruit.
The photojournalist approached Lorenzo and quickly understood that he was beholding a powerful image: the man’s bent arm, his expression as he carried the heavy load, the dark ash stains on his face and shirt. He took a picture, thinking it would be good. He didn’t realize just how good it was going to be.
The next day several local newspapers ran the photograph and somebody shared it on social media, multiplying its exposure in the Canary Islands and elsewhere in Spain. In the space of a few hours, the image had become a symbol of an entire population’s battle against the volcano, a visual expression of the residents’ resistance, of the race to save what could be saved before the lava and ash took possession of it.
The locals shared the photograph among themselves, proud of the tough, focused expression on Lorenzo’s face. Television stations aired it repeatedly, and celebrity hosts such as El Gran Wyoming used it to make a plea for solidarity with the people of the Canary Islands. It became everyone’s photograph, the photograph symbolizing the tragedy of the volcanic eruption – and, ironically, one in which the volcano itself is not seen.
Rincón, 40, had not even shared the photo on his personal Twitter account, but he realized its impact when colleagues started phoning to congratulate him. Something similar happened to Lorenzo, whom many friends recognized despite his face mask and stained face. But on Tuesday he expressed surprise when a group of reporters showed up to ask him some questions. “Why me?” he asked, wearing fruit-stained shorts and hiking boots as he worked at a plantation in Fuencaliente, his home town.
La Palma’s economy depends largely on the cultivation and sale of bananas, which represent over 50% of output
Although he would not admit to being a new symbol, Lorenzo said he liked the idea and loved the photograph. “I’ve received calls from many places, from relatives and from important people on the island, also from managers of banana plantations. They all speak well of the photo,” he said. Told that he might be asked to participate in a television fundraising drive, he said: “We’ll see, I find that a bit overwhelming.”
Now 33, Lorenzo has been working as a banana picker since the age of 17, and always in La Palma. A separated father of a seven-year-old boy, he said he makes around € 900 a month. On the day that the photograph was taken, he figured he had loaded between 70 and 80 bunches.
Lorenzo said that he likes his job and the working conditions, but is afraid that the volcanic eruption might take it away. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Bananas are a ticket to everything around here. Maybe they should do an ERTE [collective layoff scheme] for us,” he added.
Crops at many plantations in La Palma are under threat, either directly from the lava or from the ash that scratches and deforms the fruit. From every point in the valley on Tuesday, an ugly column of dark smoke could be seen advancing towards the sea, caused by the burning greenhouses and the plastic sheeting used to cover them. It was a reminder that the island’s economy depends largely on the cultivation and sale of bananas, which represent over 50% of output. Yet the sector is on the brink of the abyss right now.
After answering a few questions, Lorenzo said he had to go back to work. At the same time, Kike Rincón was off to find the best spots to take photographs of the volcano. That afternoon, both men spoke on the phone for the first time – one said thank you for taking such a good picture of him, and the other said thank you for letting him take it.
English version by Susana Urra.