Four years ago, photographer Alex Nebot began snapping images of castells, human castles traditionally built during festivals in Catalonia. A few years later, enthralled with the sport, he donned a sash of his own and joined El Nens del Vendrell, one of the oldest casteller groups the region.
El Nens del Vendrell has been around for 92 years, and being part of it is a “point of pride” for Nebot. But the history of castells reaches back much further. The first documented castell appeared in 1801, in Catalonia’s Tarragon province. They became a popular regional sport, and the 1800s came to be known as the “Golden Era of Castells.” Groups were regularly stacking people nine levels high. In the early 1900s, though, economic crisis took over Catalonia, and the castellers stopped building their castles. Nebot’s group was one of two that revived the sport.
The base of a castell, called the pinya, is a large, stabilizing ring of people that’s meant to distribute the weight of the tower up above. The castellers in the pinya are smashed together chest-to-chest, arms outstretched over the person in front of them, adding a level of cushion in case the tower falls. As an extra stabilizer, one or two levels called foire (the level right above the pinya) and manilles (the level on top of the foire) are built on top of the pinya. Then the actual tower takes shape. The tronc, or trunk, is the vertical part of the castell. Each level is a ring of up to nine people standing on one another’s shoulders. On top of the tronc, the pom de dalt is the very top, or crown, of the tower. A group of children form the crown, with the smallest child climbing to the very top and saluting the Catalan flag to signify the structure is fully built.
Smithsonian.com spoke with Nebot over email to learn about his life in the castle and his photography process.
What level are you in the castle normally?
I’m at the base, which is called the pinya. If I’m not in the castle, I’m taking pictures for the group. I tend to photograph all the castles my group builds, but if another group is making one that’s difficult or complicated, I’ll take pictures of them as well.
What's the training process like?
There’s always a little warm-up so we can avoid injuries. After that, we spend two to three hours per day practicing castle construction, three days a week during the season, which runs from June to November.
Have you ever experienced or seen an accident with any castles?
Yes, I’ve witnessed some as a photographer and also from being at the base. It’s a risk that we run, but it’s also good to say that falls are very few. If the castle isn’t secure, it’s dismantled before anything can go wrong.
What’s the history behind your particular castell group?
The Nens del Vendrell human castle group was founded in 1926, after the decline that the casteller world was experiencing in the first quarter of the 20th century. It was then when initiatives to revive castles appeared from El Vendrell, a town that was a big fan of the sport. Groups from Valls had already performed in El Vendrell during festival periods, and El Vendrell began to advertise daily rehearsals in the local newspaper. The group officially performed for the first time on October 15, 1926. After that, more groups began to spring up around Catalonia, and the Casteller Renaissance was born.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to photograph the castellers?
Don’t just focus on the whole castles themselves. Look for what I call “glances,” small details that others normally wouldn’t notice.