Beachgoers soak in 'radioactive life'

Story highlights

  • The Spanish town of Benidorm is a beach haven for many people from northern Europe
  • Maria Moldes' work from the "photographic gold mine" made her an overnight sensation

(CNN)Bikini-clad women donning bleached bouffants sizzle under the merciless Spanish sun.

Menthol cigarettes press against glittery, plastic nails.
    Protruding abdomens and flaccid burnt skin create a deforming effect over tattoos from another era.
    This scene describes many of the northern European vacationers in Benidorm, a beach haven for the working-class tourists and pensioners who flock to Spain's Levante coast for a bit of sun.
    It has almost become a sport for some people to poke fun at Benidorm. But to Spanish photographer Maria Moldes, Benidorm presents endless opportunities.
    "Benidorm is a photographic gold mine," said Moldes, who became an overnight sensation with her photographs of the beach's foreign visitors. "It is an endless source of images."
    "Scenes of Radioactive Life" is Moldes' two-year photographic ode to Benidorm, highlighting the extravagance of the place and its characters.
    Photographer Maria Moldes
    "I use the word 'radioactive' to give it an air of science fiction," Moldes said. "It adds a surreal, ironic tone to the reality I am observing.
    "The burning sun, the people ... it all made me think of radioactivity."
    Moldes did not stage the photographs nor ask any of her subjects to pose. In fact, she says, no one knew they were being photographed.
    "This is a type of photography that cannot be posed. This is street photography," she said.
    "I have no ethical concerns because I am not ridiculing people. I have to like people in order to photograph them, and this is all a commentary."
    A commentary, she says, on the aging population of Europe and how some of them reinvent themselves at the end of their lives.
    "They are bizarre, exaggerated, eccentric," she said of people she photographed.

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    Moldes paints the scene on her iPhone 6, sending images straight into Instagram. While her subjects slept on the beach, Moldes' photos of them went viral.
    "When I started taking these photos two years ago, I had no idea it would get this kind of reaction," she said.
    A wave of followers, including well-known photographers, began adding her to their Instagram accounts. Reporters from various media publications began chasing her for an interview.
    Her work brings to the surface very contemporary questions about the growing demographic of retirees and elderly citizens that, according to International Monetary Fund studies, is a critical issue in Europe's rich industrial nations.
    "Spain is a nation of elderly people. Benidorm attracts the British and German retirees. We have a very end-of-life atmosphere here," Moldes said. "You are left with the decay of human life, of the human body. But many are very alive with their exaggerated hairdos, enjoying what is left."
    Some of her subjects have a plastic-like humanoid look of a sci-fi movie, and the word "death" is discreetly whispered in some of these photos -- as with the case of a woman being buried in the sand by her granddaughter.
    There is a terminal atmosphere in the photos, Moldes said. She said many of her subjects appear as though they are waiting for a big life event, an inevitable force they cannot mentally grasp.
    "The people in my photographs are looking into the unknown infinite, another world," she said. "I wanted it to have a science-fiction feel to it. So I looked for characters who could be in a movie, like extraterrestrials.
    "Sometimes they look like they are dead, but what I really wanted was to show them in a static position, looking at the infinite."
    Many photos might seem unflattering to the common viewer raised on a diet of thin models and images of wealth.
    "These people don't have the prototype of beauty we are used to seeing," Moldes said. "But you end up liking them. Some women I found stunningly beautiful.
    "You end up seeing beauty in places you wouldn't. So why not photograph them all?"