Sensing the cork oak forest: an insight into the workers in the woods

A new photographic exhibition on cork forests and their harvesters runs from 8 May until 1 August 2021 in the Cork Museum, Palafrugell, Spain

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forest worker harvesting cork
Photoe (c) Michele Curel

A stunning new photographic exhibition unveils a poetic and emotional insight into the workers who remove the cork from our forests. “Sentir la Sureda” (Sensing the cork oak forest) by American photographer Michele Curel is a recognition of the invisible men of cork and a vindication of the considerable work they do for the ecological balance of the forest.

The exhibition, curated by the photography historian Laura Terré, is on show at the Cork Museum of Catalonia (Palafrugell, Spain) from 8 May until 1 August. The result of three years’ work, it includes 71 photographs and a testimonial video on cork removal in the northeast regions of Catalonia and Roussillon.

Photos (c) Michele Curel

With this exhibition, Michele Curel offers an emotional and poetic portrait of the landscapes and of the cork harvesters, which are shown bound up with each other in an intense interconnectedness. A deep knowledge of the terrain combined with an intimate viewpoint is evident in each of the photographs.

For Laura Terré, the author’s gaze, of love and admiration for these workers and the trees, emphasises the importance of regenerating, maintaining and preserving these forests, with the portraits and testimonies acting as a bridge between urban and rural societies. The hope is that new generations and new audiences will gain an understanding of the true nature and value of this work, and its absolute necessity, since there is no way to mechanise this traditional process and bring quality cork out of the forests other than piece by piece, by hand, with the cork harvester’s axe.

Photo by Sarah Adams

It is important that the works do not revel in romanticism: a harsh reality is faced and described by the cork harvesters, including in a fascinating 15-miunte video where the viewer is taken into the forest to see and hear the sounds of the harvest and the voices of the workers. The days are hard, the process is laborious, the tools are simple, even primitive. Still, there is a nobility among the faces and a strength in the bodies, that speaks beauty and truth in spite of the hardship.

The exhibition is part of Michele Curel’s long-term project, “The Cork Harvesters” which focusses on work in cork forests in various locations during the summers of 2018 through to 2021. This project’s mission is to give visibility to the cork harvesters who, whilst earning a living, are also contributing to sustainable forest management and carrying out irreplaceable work which is largely unknown and little recognised by the general public.

Photo by Sarah Adams

Associated talks

The Current challenges of cork oak forest management
Saturday 5 June, 19h. LIVE/IN PERSON (not online)

  • Sandra Torras i Noguer – Forest Engineer and Technician of  the Gavarres Association of Gavarres Forest Management.
  • Josep Maria Tusell i Armengol – Forest Engineer and Technical Manager of the forest Consortium of Catalonia.

The Cork Oak: A Dream Forest
Saturday 19 June, 19h. LIVE/IN PERSON (not online)

  • Josep Cordi i Serrat – Dcotor in Geography

More information: Ita Fàbregas, fabregasita @ gmail.com

Exhibition from 8 May – 1 August 2021, Cork Museum of Catalonia, free entry.

Photo by Sarah Adams