Nobody knows how to party better than the Spaniards who treat every occasion as a reason to celebrate. I love their nonchalant, slightly gypsy spirit where nothing is really planned and spontaneity makes the atmosphere real, unexpected and exciting. Having photographed the extravagant parade of horses and flamenco dancing at the Feria de Abril in Seville and the wonderfully atmospheric pilgrimage of El Rocio as the 13th Century statue of the Virgin of El Rocio is processed through the Andalusian countryside accompanied by a train of covered wagons, my eye caught an article in National Geographic about a small and little known Luminarias festival in the north where horses are ridden through fire at the mountain village of San Bartolomé de Pinares.
Just before the feast of Saint Anthony in mid-January, I travelled to Avila. From there a taxi took me along the narrow, winding mountain road to San Bartolomé. Cows wandered aimlessly along the middle of the road. My excitement grew at the prospect of photographing something rare and hidden.
I arrived in the afternoon to find preparations for the feast well under way. Mounds of small branches and twigs were placed every 200 meters or so around the village’s two streets. I had thought I might be one of the few professional photographers around but upon entering one of the main bars I spoke to several from the local and international press.
I slipped quietly out of the bar and was the only photographer to document the Mass in the small church. Later, in a scene reminiscent of the movie The Wicker Man, I followed the locals as they processed around the village in what appeared to be a pagan tradition under religious cover. The parish priest led the way as they gave benediction and prayed for their livestock. The festival celebrates the feast of San Antonio, patron saint of animals. The fire which was to come, symbolizes the purification of the animals. Horses are central to traditional farming. This spectacular festival centres on the horse as the dominant beast and is the highlight of the evening.
Night fell and on the exposed mountain-side, the temperature dropped dramatically. Eventually, the fires were lit. I love photographing traditional Spanish festivals. They remain raw and unique, un-changed by tourism or external laws. A great number of horses and their riders began trotting and jumping through the flaming bonfires.
I was mostly shooting with a telephoto lens, trying to eliminate the background crowds and focus on those apocalyptic moments when the horses jumped through the fire, at times entirely wreathed by the flames. I was completely absorbed in getting the perfect shot. Through a telephoto lens your attention is limited to the field of view through the lens. I stood close to each bonfire to shoot horses coming towards me, jumping out of their way at the last second. Excitement escalates at these moments of potential danger.
I was calculating distances only through sound. As I concentrated on a horse coming towards me, I remember in the same split second, thinking I had got the shot when without any warning I felt the horse’s hind leg striking me on my left shoulder with immense power which flung me to the opposite side of the road. A few centimeters closer would have meant disaster.
Afterwards, I was invited to join in as the party went on into the night with bountiful local wine and great tapas.
Early next morning I was one of the few around to follow three horse riders as they rode through the mist-shrouded streets, visiting every house where they received a gift from the elderly people of the village.
The entire experience provided a unique insight to traditional Spanish culture and the most photographic opportunity.