How I split from the herd while photographing the ‘Days of the Bulls’ festival in Tourbes, France


posted Monday, September 16, 2013 at 11:01 PM EDT


A couple weeks ago I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. You see, I am a bit of a solitary photographer -- I don't like it when there are dozens of photographers around me. I always try to get away from the herd. The herd makes me worry about how I am going to make my pictures stand out and be different. The images I present here are the result of leaving the crowd and searching for something entirely different. Please pardon my puns.

During the first weekend of September, while friends and family back in America were having Labor Day picnics, in my village of Tourbes, France, we were literally playing with bulls. Please note that I said play. Though in Mediterranean Europe there is a strong bullfighting tradition, at the Journées Taurines -- our "Days of the Bulls" festival -- we don't fight bulls in any sense of the word. Man and beast play together, and no one is injured.


There are lots of events during the three days of the Journées Taurines, the highlight of which is the chasing of young bulls. The bulls, hemmed in and controlled between riders on powerful white horses, are madly chased down a long, tree-lined avenue by young men from around the area. To prove their manhood, the men attempt to catch up with the bulls and grab their tails. Few actually succeed, but the fun is in the chase and the crowds cheering them on. The manhood element is diluted by the fact that hundreds of the spectators -- tourists, children, women and the elderly who are supposed to stay behind protective barriers -- loiter about in the street in the path of the oncoming bulls and horses. It's all in the name of fun; there's nothing to fear.


Another fun bull event is an evening arena. A small venue is set up on the village boule field, and in it the bulls get a chance to chase the young men. The bulls chase and the men clatter up the protective fences to get out of their way.  It's nothing but a game since many of the bulls were raised by the very young men they chase.  


The Festival is put on by the Gardiens, French cowboys from the Camargue region, about 40 miles from the village. It is one of the most beautiful places in France, a nature reserve, where it is common to see thousands of pink flamingoes flying in the skies, and groups of magnificent white Camargue horses wandering through the marshlands. The Gardiens are cattle ranchers and raise cattle for food -- not fighting -- and the Journées Taurines is really about their cattle ranching skills and horsemanship.


There is a fascinating connection between the Gardiens and America. In 1905, Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show were stranded by bad weather on their tour of Europe, and wound up spending the winter in the Camargue. While there, the Gardiens and the cowboys bonded, realizing they were natural "pardners." The Gardiens adopted a lot of American culture, and to this day use American saddles and wear western chaps and shirts -- although theirs are made from brightly colored Provençal fabrics.


Naturally, the bull running, the Gardiens, and the huge outdoor barbeques we hold bring in the tourists. But with the crowds, come hundreds of cameras. And surrounded by dozens of photographers jockeying for the same shot, I am not happy. I watch them clamor to shoot the Gardiens, the racing bulls, the kids and the costumed musicians and I just want to get away. I have already done those photos, and I get bored easily.


So I spent the weekend shooting rather listlessly trying to stay out of the crowds and grab what images I could. When the weekend ended I looked at my photos, not expecting to see much. At first glance it was déjà vu all over again -- the same old, same old. Then I noticed one shot of several Gardiens on horseback, talking. Framed against the sky, it had a different feel to it. I loaded it into Photoshop and began to play with it.


I was trained as a photojournalist and so I tend to shoot very straightforward images. I was brainwashed by Henri Cartier-Bresson's rule: Never crop. But staring at this single image and struggling with it, I knew the rule had to go. So I started cropping the image ruthlessly looking for something that worked.


Finally it was a square which reminded me of my Rolleiflex photographs. I put a black frame around it just as I once did with my Rollei shots and then realized it wasn't a color shot anyway. I converted it to black-and-white -- but now while it was more interesting, it was too photojournalistic. On a whim, I turned it into a sepia image. I liked the result, and began exploring other photos looking for those I could crop square and make sepia tone. Out of all this madness I ended up with nine shots. I am not sure what they mean or what they are supposed to represent, but I like them; they feel right.


On a lark I sent them to family and friends, and to pals at Imaging Resource, and then posted them on my Facebook page. To my surprise I got a very a positive response and I was even asked to do a show of them. The moral of this story is, in a way, to use your imagination not only when you take photographs, but also to use it afterwards as you select and crop and process. You don't always have to follow the rules and you absolutely shouldn't follow the herd.

All photos Copyright 2013 by Steve Meltzer