Last week I gave the short versions of my “12 Monkeys” stories, and I threatened to post the long version this week. I won’t post them all, but the following one really stands out in my memory as one of those times when I felt really, really alive. So here goes:
1993, Aigues-Mortes, France. I was supposed to go to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer to photograph a gypsy festival for a travel guide. The October weather, however, was grey and rainy and the flooding of the Rhône had caused most of the roads into that area of the Camargue region to be closed. After I deked around the various roadblocks and finally made it into town, I was a bit unnerved to discover I was the only guest at my hotel, and by the look of the deserted streets, the only tourist in town.
A visit to the tourist office yielded a look of surprise from the agent – as if she had expected to spend the day quietly reading – and confirmation that my researchers had erred on the date of the festival by more than four months.
I was stuck with no festival, a lot of closed doors, deserted streets, gloomy skies, and a mandate to photograph the happy and bustling attractions of this quaint little summery Mediterranean beach town.
The next morning I went looking to replace the missing gypsy festival and found the ancient walled town of Aigues-Mortes. It wasn’t on my list of subjects, but there appeared to be some kind of festival going on, so I went in to explore.
It was their annual town festival – which they wisely run after the high tourist season. It involves the usual seedy carnival attractions, lots of food, music, and activities. It also features activities centered on the Camargue’s famous black bulls and cowboys (les gardians) on white horses. This includes an ad hoc bull ring set up outside of the town’s walls.
The Camargue bullfight – better known as the Course Camarguaise, is not like its Spanish counterpart. For one thing, the bulls do not get hurt. Instead, the objective is to climb into the ring and play an insane game of “chicken” with a bull, to taunt it and jump out of the way when it charges. There are no matadors; anyone can jump into the ring and play chicken with the bull. I saw fat ladies, cocky young men, and teenage girls in mini-skirts all give it a go.
The brave ones stayed near the center of the ring, where a huge pile of hay was stacked up. When the bull charged, they ran for the hay and hoped the bull wasn’t strong enough to plow through it. (There’s an anecdote here that I will save for another day.)
I was enthralled. I was sitting next to a goofy ragtime band that played along as people jumped in and out of the ring and occasionally got creamed by the bull. I would have tried it too, but I was worried about damaging my cameras. Finally, after six or seven bulls had demonstrated their undoubtable mastery of the ring, the party began to break up. Everyone moved out of the arena and congregated near the entrance to the town; an enormous medieval gated portal in the stone walls with tall dark wooden doors that looked heavy enough to withstand a barrage of cannon balls. People were not going in, however. They remained outside, milling about.
I stood in the crowd wondering what would happen next. Then I heard a roar off to my left, and everyone looked that way and started to shift about excitedly. The ground began to tremble and the next thing I knew the crowd around me surged back a few steps – taking me with them – and two gardians on horseback thundered past, side by side with a black bull between them. The crowd flowed forward to refill the space as they passed, and I could see that the gardians and the bull had turned at the gate and had entered the city, thundering down the cobblestone street.
How they got the bull to stop its forward trajectory and make a 90-degree turn at full speed in a crowd of hundreds of people, I’ll never understand. But a few minutes later I felt the ground quaking again, and another pair of gardians roared past guiding a bull through the undulating crowd. This time they were so close I could smell the sweat of the animals. But it was too crowded to get any photographs, so I decided to try it from inside the medieval gate. Another trio of thundering beasts passed me before I got there, and again they were so close I could have reached out and slapped the horses as they passed.
Inside there were far fewer people. I positioned myself, camera ready, about 100 feet from the gates. Again the crowd roared and parted as two mounted gardians lead their bull through the gate and down the street, straight towards me. This time I had room to move but it happened so fast I was not able to get much of a photograph. So I waited for the next one. Every nerve in my body was tingling with anticipation and fear. I waited, worried that the race of bulls had ended, but a few minutes later I heard and felt another one coming.
As this might be my last chance, I recklessly went out to the middle of the street and waited. People looked at me aghast, so I pointed to my camera so they’d understand what I was doing. They still looked aghast. I wanted to get as close to the bull as possible, but if I didn’t jump away far or fast enough I’d be run over by the gardian at the bull’s side. So my strategy was to stand in the path of the horse and to reach forward and hold the camera in the path of the bull, shooting blind with a wide-angle lens. The wide-angle meant I didn’t have to frame the image very accurately, but it also meant that the photo would only be good if I was really close.
The gardians and the bull burst through the crowd and raced straight at me at full speed. I waited, waited, and then bzzz-bzzz-bzzz rattled off three shots with the motor drive. I was already pulling back on the last shot and I had to swing my arm in a wide arc while spinning and leaping backwards. The wind of the passing beasts nearly knocked me over as I twirled back towards the sidewalk and into the crowd.
My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would leap right out of my chest. I caught my breath and stood there trembling for a minute or two. I didn’t know if there were any more bulls coming, but I didn’t care. I’d had enough of thundering hooves and didn’t want to risk getting under them. So I pointed myself at a café and let my wobbly legs carry me to it, where I sat down and had a much-needed drink.
Postscript 1: Here are some photos of the bull ring from the 2001 festival, from Dave Kinkaid. As you can see, some of the bulls are quite small, and some are rather big. Look for the “bulls in the streets” link at the bottom for some shots of the bull run.
Postscript 2: Apparently, the editors back in Montreal were ecstatic over the bull run photos. Unfortunately, I can’t show them to you here because the job was “work for hire,” meaning the company kept all rights to the images. Worse, the project was never finished, so the images remain, as far as I know, unpublished.