Text by Chris Ames
This photo-essay originally appeared on Viewfind.com on May 2017
If we take Hemingway’s word for it, there are only three sports worth mentioning: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; everything else are merely games.
For ol’ Ernest, true art comes from that chaotic space in which the performer must risk bodily harm just to participate.
And herein lies the dance of modern day bullfighting; it walks the blurred line between life and death, culture and cruelty, heritage and havoc.
Taken during a three-day journey across the carnivals of Jalpa and Juchipila in Mexico, photojournalist Ramiro Duran attempts to wrangle bullfighting from a purely aesthetic angle.
More interested in the poetics than the politics, Duran documents a contentious sport that is deeply intertwined in his own upbringing.
Excluding Spain, Mexico is home to more bullfighting rings than any other country in the world.
Introduced more than 500 years ago by the conquistadores, the sport has undergone various legal classifications—but currently remains open to men, women, and children of all ages.
On a global scale, younger generations in Spain and Mexico believe that bullfighting is an antiquated tradition that doesn’t mesh with a forward-looking, modern society.
La Monumental—the world’s largest bullfighting ring in Mexico City which accommodates 40,000 spectators—is only filled to its capacity about fives time a year these days. The rest of the time, it is the less savage performances, such as music and theater, that are drawing people in.
But regardless of the political sea change, bullfighting is still very much a part of the cultural identity of Mexico and beyond. Growing up in a small town—and right next to a bullfighting ring— Duran had limited interaction with books, magazines, or television. For him, the formative events of his childhood were centered around the oft-fantastical arenas of the circus, wrestling, and bullfights.
Ever since it was introduced, bullfighting has managed to elevate its pure animal violence into a state of near-religious importance.
In what might be the first recorded bullfight, the Epic of Gilgamesh depicts a scene in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven: “The Bull seemed indestructible, for hours they fought, till Gilgamesh dancing in front of the Bull, lured it with his tunic and bright weapons, and Enkidu thrust his sword, deep into the Bull’s neck, and killed it.” The scene is described as a bright dance, more style than slaughter.
“I been fascinated since I was young by all these arts and performances that convey an awareness of the death, or at least some sort of detachment from life,” says Duran. “These aspects have, perhaps subconsciously, underlined my own childhood imagination.”
“The strange mixture of the public, horses, children, candy, bulls, and fighters creates plenty of visual possibilities that unexpectedly and joyfully arise,” says Duran. “I was more interested in the peripheries around the fight, than the violent clash.”
At the end of the fight, mules drag the bull’s body out of the plaza. The floor of the arena is littered with blood, tuffs of hair, and hats from audience members, tossed in as a token for the fighter’s bravery. It is a macabre scene, and true to Duran’s vision, he manages to capture it through the childlike lens of a puppet show. Just like his nostalgic memories, it’s an image that is slightly warped, theatrical, and ultimately, draped in red.