These photos highlight the life and community that make up “non places” between big cities

Photographer Vicente Manssur’s series “Media Distancia” is an ode to forgotten towns

Hero image in post
photo: Vicente Manssur, "Media Distancia"
Hero image in post
photo: Vicente Manssur, "Media Distancia"

Photographer Vicente Manssur’s series “Media Distancia” is an ode to forgotten towns

By Darshita Goyal16 Jul 2023
8 mins read time
8 mins read time

You know those forgotten spaces, warm feels and wacky foibles that you discover about a place only after you build a close relationship with it? Now imagine if we say you can experience that time-travelling magic vicariously? Welcome to Postcards Home, a monthly column highlighting a photo series that looks at a city, town or country through the lens of an interesting community, an unheard of practice or a hidden hangout. There’s no famous monument or must-see spot here, just that comforting, wholesome high of feeling at home in a place. Get cosy.

Journey > Destination. How often have you thrown (or heard) this phrase around? Among all the silly aphorisms that millennials passed down to Gen Z, this one aimed at boosting our fascination with truly appreciating the “process” over the “product” has only gained popularity. Sure, most times the journey is a metaphorical reference to YOLO and what not, but every now and then, the phrase stands true to reality as well. How else do you justify shelling those extra ££ on the Eurail, instead of a £20 Ryanair flight, every summer? It’s the views, of course.

That main character energy of seeing endless lavender fields out the window while listening to a playlist titled ‘a european summer’ (or something equally cringe but satisfying) is unmatched. But beyond contemplating the aesthetic value of slow travel, have you ever thought about the places that pass us by on this journey? What are the towns called? Who lives there? What do they do? Struck by these questions, Vicente Manssur, a 31-year-old photographer from Ecuador, decided to find out.

Through the pandemic, Manssur lived in Barcelona while studying photography and design at a local university. On a recent visit back to his alma mater, the photographer took a two hour train journey from Barcelona to Figueres, a town in northern Catalonia best known for its Salvador Dalí museum. Manssur says, “I saw so many towns, or non-places as I call them, just sitting there between these two big cities and I wondered why no one talks about them with the same charm or romance. And so I decided to create a fanzine or photo guide celebrating these forgotten places”.

Titled “Media Distancia” (which translates to "Medium Distance" and references the regional train lines run by Spain's national Renfe service), the photo project captures the people and places that make up La Llagosta, Mollet del Vallès and Flassa — three towns that people see while travelling between Barcelona and Figueres. This series holds special value for Manssur as it marks his first cohesive docu-style project. Previously, he built a portfolio in fashion photography, working with brands and content creators in his home city, Guayaquil.

Manssur always admired the archival power of photography in creating recognition and name for people and places. For a period, he was unsure if he could adapt his skill as a means for storytelling but “Media Distancia” showed him this is possible. Below, we speak to Manssur about his striking series that not only spotlights oft-ignored towns but also unlocked a fresh side to his creative journey.

Vicente Manssur, "Media Distancia"
Vicente Manssur, "Media Distancia"
"residents were very happy to have their portraits taken, it made them feel like they were famous and important"
Vicente Manssur

What inspired you to create this project?

Vicente Manssur: My tutor and I were reviewing authors and photographers of note, and there was one in particular that stood out to me, his name is Joel Sternfeld. He decided to find places in the U.S. that are usually unseen, and took photos of them and the people who live there. His work became a source of inspiration for me, I wanted to create the same kind of impact with my photos. And when people visit Spain, everyone goes to Madrid, Valencia or Barcelona but the towns that connect these places become invisible. From the train, so many of the places look the same in passing, but they are actually very different when you get down and walk around. So this series was an exercise in first, discovering interesting things in these non-places and second, capturing them so they are attractive to more people.

You use the term “non-places” to describe these towns. Can you tell me what this word means to you?

Vicente Manssur: In thinking about this series, the concept of “non-places” really stayed with me because people know little of the towns that I photographed. Some haven’t heard of their name and even the residents are constantly moving. La Llagosta, Mollet del Vallès and Flassa are satellite towns, which means that a lot of people who live there travel to neighbouring bigger cities for work every morning. I don’t know who decided that these towns are not important enough to be marked on bigger maps, it’s like they are anonymous and I want to draw attention to that by calling them “non-places”.

Vicente Manssur, "Media Distancia"
Vicente Manssur, "Media Distancia"

There are several stops between Barcelona and Figueres, how did you zoom in on these three towns?

Vicente Manssur: For me, there is a little story attached to each town I chose. The first one I went to was La Llagosta, it attracted me because of how active and alive it looked from the window. There were kids in the playground and people moving about their daily routine with so much character and chaos. It was a typical scene of every city but just because they don’t have a popular landmark, no one goes there or values it the same way.

Mollet del Vallès was more personal. I was feeling a little homesick and saw some people playing football while wearing the Ecuador national team’s jersey — that was enough to make me get down and approach them. Turns out, a lot of Ecuadorians immigrated there hoping to look for more work in Spain, and they welcomed me in like family.

But I would say Flassa is the town that surprised me the most. Through the train window I could see a row of crooked houses, they were imbalanced and there was wild grass all around. When I walked down, I discovered that several families from North Africa had immigrated there and they lived in these broken down mobile homes. The weight in many of them was unequally distributed and so over time they began tilting to one side.

While it’s exciting and adventurous to step into an unknown town, it can also be intimidating to ask strangers for photos. What was this interaction like for you?

Vicente Manssur: This is a good one because of how it panned out. I was really afraid to ask people for portraits because I’m not from Spain and I was just a random stranger walking around with a camera. I was sure people would say no. But in these towns, the residents were very happy to have their portraits taken, it made them feel like they were famous and important. One man told me no one had taken his photo before then, so it was very special. Often they would pose dramatically - my favourite portrait is of this woman who wore a mask that matched her hand fan, and flared it out when I asked for a photo. Their kindness and openness was heartwarming.

Vicente Manssur, "Media Distancia"
Vicente Manssur, "Media Distancia"
"So many of us spend time going to popular tourist destinations and we don’t even question what’s left behind"

This series looks at places caught in-between bigger cities. How do you think your Ecuadorian identity informed the project?

Vicente Manssur: Being from Ecuador, especially from Guayaquil, I’ve grown up with people not understanding where I’m from or asking me to spell it out for them. This feeling of being unseen or unknown has lingered in my life and that’s why this project is so important for me. Over the last few weeks, I have been mapping and photographing similar towns in my country that I think are forgotten or left behind. Here we travel by car, not train but the habit of missing out places is the same. I want to create more recognition for them and make a bigger zine, maybe I’ll call it The Great Escape.

If you could recommend one thing that people try from each town featured in the series, what would that be?

Vicente Manssur: In La Llagosta, go to the plaza central and try the food. It’s not fancy or posh but there are a lot of local Arab, Italian and Spanish places and their food is really good.

In Mollet del Vallès, you have to play football with the locals, they are so talented. After the game, sometimes they have these barbecue parties that are also fun.

With Flassa, I’m a bit wary because the residents are older people who are not as open to new visitors. But the town is a dream for artists and photographers, the landscape is like no other. There is a grave of mobile homes surrounded by huge plantations and so many species of flowers, it’s beautiful.

What do you wish people would take away from your series?What do you wish people would take away from your series?

Vicente Manssur: I hope it awakens a sense of exploration for people. So many of us spend time going to popular tourist destinations and we don’t even question what’s left behind. I wish my series sparks curiosity and more creatives wander into places without knowing everything about it first. Just take a chance on an unknown place and let it surprise you.

You can follow Vicente on Instagram here.