Fear in the Afternoon
The Nicaraguan Bullfight
The bullring was lined with humanity. No bigger than 20×20 metres and surrounded by splintering wood fencing that allowed three views. Ground level, which was packed with children, mid-level was solid men and straddling the top of the fence, a mixture of young men and women. 365° of humanity was waiting under an infernal sun for the bulls to arrive.
I too was waiting, in the bar, or at least what passes for a bar in the small settlement known as la Orilla (the shore), an isolated row of rural homes at the base of the massive Mombacho Volcano.
I had come to photograph the patron saint festival of Nandiame for my “Shadow Paradox” black and white documentary series. Nandaime is a cowboy town along the Pan-American Highway south of Granada. Their festival is for Santa Ana, the mother of the Virgen Mary, the abuelita (dear grandmother) of Jesus. Part of the tradition is a noisy and chaotic pilgrimage to la Orilla. Male dancers, dressed in psychedelic coloured costumes accompany the long procession, with a life size image of Santa Ana in tow. The 40 or so dancers spin and hop in a spectacular, punk looking dance to a traditional chichero band (brass, wind and drum). They are accompanied by devout believers asking for a favour from the saint, making the several kilometre journey entirely on their knees, fulfilling a promise in hope of receiving the Santa Ana’s help.
The main event, as it is with many patron saint festivals, is the bull fight, which is really one man riding the back of the bull and brave young men running around the ring with red capes, tempting fate. When the procession arrives, they put Santa Ana in a small chapel, and anyone who is not already lining the bullring looks for a spot to view the event.
It was time to leave the bar.
Like any documentary photographer, I had to get close, real close. No matter that the day before a 26 year-old man had been killed in the ring, hooked in the neck by a charging bull. I entered the ring.
The game is simple. The bull is brought inside the ring roped by a few mounted cowboys, tied to a bare tree in the centre of the ring, someone mounts its back using a leather strap to hold on and the angry bull is released from the tree. The rider tries to stay on top and a few others show it some red capes for as long as they dare, before cutting sharply out of its path.
The first two bulls just wanted to go back to pasture, uninspired; they ran a bit and then looked for shade. The third bull wanted blood. Now I had my subject. The beast was frothing at the mouth and running wildly, sending cowboys up high on the fencing around the ring. I was also running wildly – to get into the bull’s path. Finally I found the set-up. Behind two outstretched red capes; I waited, crouching down in the dirt to get the proper angle.
In a traditional bullfight, men on horses wound the bull. Then others come into the ring to tire the beast. Finally, when the famous hero steps into the ring, to tease it a bit and kill it, the bull is bleeding and damaged, slowed. In a Nicaraguan bullfight the bull is not killed, nor injured, nor slowed, just completely pissed off.
The Nicaraguan bull picked up a good head of steam and charged towards the outstretched capes. The two capes parted, as the young men holding them dived out of the bull’s path. That was the perfect shot, framed low, with the bull coming into the lens and the bullfighters exiting the frame left and right. Bravo!
Now I was left with a small dilemma. I was in a deep crouch, with a snorting, bloodthirsty bull coming at me full speed.
I had gotten close – too close.
By the time I was up on my feet the bull was nearly upon me. I did what anyone else would do. I ran like hell.
The massive crowd grew silent, holding their breath. After six or seven desperate running strides with the bull’s hot breath on my lower back, I cut hard left, the beast’s horn passing within millimetres of my left rear cheek. The entire crowd let out its breath at once, erupting in collective ooooaaaahhhh, followed by hysterical laughter. The guys in the ring thought it was pretty funny too. They were patting me on the back, with laughter all around. For me it looked like a perfect time to go back to the bar.