Acclaimed photographer Owen Harvey unveils his mesmerizing exploration of the bullfighting realm, capturing the essence of young men aspiring to become Matadors. From the sun-soaked streets of Malaga City to the ancient traditions of Jaén and Montoro, Harvey's lens transports us to the heart of Spain's vibrant bullfighting culture, delving deep into the captivating rituals and the poignant questions surrounding its future.
Your works have always been closely related to intimate portraitures focused on groups of people and/or community, tell me – how did this project came to be?
I’ve been making work for the last ten years exploring themes of identity, heritage and family, often it’s looking at young men and how they appear to find their place in the world. Prior to photographing young Matadors, I’d documented skinheads, lowriding, Mods and Imams, all groups in which their chosen ‘uniform’ is a visual element of their beliefs or subcultural group. Bullfighting is such a strong visual subject and their outfits are so intertwined with their performance. I became interested in these notions of masculinity that are part of bullfighting and of course, as there is a strong anti-bullfighting movement, what is lost for these young men if bullfighting is to end.
How did you get connected to your subjects?
As I was interested in a younger demographic of hopeful bullfighters, I got in touch with a few bullfighting schools in Spain, to see if it would be possible to visit. For the first time whilst making personal work, I worked with Candy Field, an amazing producer who also speaks Spanish, so she did the majority of the introductions and connections and also translated when we were on the ground.
The path to becoming a Matador, as Harvey uncovers, is a grueling journey of dedication and discipline. Young aspirants embark on a three-year training program that combines rigorous physical fitness with honing their skills. With the iconic Muleta, a red cloth that entices the bull, and the formidable Espada, the sword, these young men immerse themselves in the timeless art of bullfighting, preparing for their graduation fight—a rite of passage that propels them into the realm of professional Matadors.
The studio-style backdrops used by Harvey in some of his portraits add an element of introspection, drawing the viewer's gaze to the young Matadors and their elaborate Traje De Luces, or "suits of light," without any extraneous distractions. Against the bold red backdrop, reminiscent of the Muleta itself, the subjects become the focal point, allowing for a nuanced exploration of their personal journeys and aspirations.
"The studio portraits were created within the arena, I bought in a large red painted backdrop to go behind them, which references the Muleta. I felt it was an opportunity to bring focus to these individuals and their Traje De Luces (suit of light) with no other distraction. I’ve only seen bullfighting scenes in movies. And often they are almost like a performance, the outfits of the bullfighter, the theatrics."
What was the atmosphere of the bullfight like?
There is a great deal of passion and admiration for the bullfighter in the audience, but for me personally I found it a quite somber experience, knowing that these animals were going to die. There is also a great deal of tension in the audience as the Matador twists and turns so closely around the bull, knowing that one wrong move could be fatal. The fight between the matador and the bull is accompanied by a band and just before the killing of the bull, a loud drum stops the music. This sudden end to the music before the death makes the atmosphere feel quite sinister.
What are you hoping to achieve with your work?
In a wider context, with all the work I make it’s about exploring these themes of identity, heritage and family. It’s also about how the digital age is changing these themes that I mention. I primarily see myself as a documentary photographer and I’m interested in documenting the world around me, as it rapidly changes. I don’t have a specific goal that I’m hoping to achieve with the work, it’s more a vehicle for exploration and hopefully, a means to start a conversation.
Apart from this project, what have you been up to in the past years?
I’ve been making work various personal projects, all of which can be found on my website www.owen-harvey.com or on instagram @ojharv I currently have an exhibition of my photographs documenting where I live in Southend-on-Sea, in England - This goes on until July 17th. I’m also going to LA for a couple of months to continue my documentation of Lowriding and alongside this, I work shooting commercially for a range of brands.