Owen Harvey presents his latest series, a captivating visual exploration of Spain’s deep-rooted, yet fiercely debated bullfighting tradition.
The winner of our Portrait Award back in 2021, Harvey is a London-based photographer whose work invariably focuses on subcultures and communities. Having previously trained his lens on groups as diverse as skinheads, lowriders, young fathers, and religious Imams, Harvey said this latest subject was a natural progression.
“Bullfighting has a lot of the properties that I’m interested in; A visual way of expressing your identity and a tradition that is often passed down throughout the family, that serves as a bond. It felt like bullfighting was the perfect and logical next series of work to begin, in order to add to the wider context of the work I’m making.”
Bullfighting has a long and deep history in Spain, dating back over a millennium. However, in recent years its popularity has waned dramatically. Some Spanish regions have already banned the practice, and others will undoubtedly follow suit.
To gain access to the next generation of young matadors, Harvey collaborated with Candy Field, a producer fluent in Spanish. Through meticulous outreach and months of effort, they succeeded in forging connections with various Spanish bullfighting schools, opening the door to this evocative series.
When describing his first experience of bullfighting Harvey said he was immediately gripped by the sense of anticipation and passion among the crowd. For its exponents and fanatics, bullfighting is regarded not merely as a sport but as an art form. The performance of the matador, accompanied by a captivating wind instrument band, creates a palpable tension, something Harvey has captured brilliantly in his work.
He acknowledges the challenges of the assignment – his internal conflict, grappling with the clash between Spanish tradition and the ethical concerns surrounding the killing of animals for entertainment. However, he maintained a commitment to leaving his personal beliefs and values aside, recognizing that his role as a documentary photographer was to provide a means of exploration, allowing the work to spur conversations without imposing his own agenda.
Harvey’s photographs capture the essence of his subjects with honesty and directness, shedding light on the lives of the young bullfighters and their experiences within this contentious art form.
The depth, richness, and nuances of colors bring a unique, tactile quality, resulting in captivating images reminiscent of classically painted portraits that emphasize the historic nature of this practice, but also its incongruity in contemporary society.
Yet photography, and indeed art of any kind is open to subjectivity, and in contemplating the impact of his images, Harvey recognizes that their interpretation and influence lie beyond his control.
“I try not to think about how the images will be perceived and the potential effect of those images, as that has always been out of my hands. Perhaps if anyone is looking at these images in years to come, they will show a glimpse into the life of the bullfighting stars of tomorrow, or perhaps it will be a documentation of an ‘art form’ that has ceased to exist. I guess time will tell!”
Ultimately, Harvey’s powerful visual storytelling invites us to explore the multifaceted world of bullfighting and reflect upon the intricate tapestry of human identity, challenging viewers to confront their own beliefs and engage in conversations about tradition, ethics, and the complexities of cultural heritage.
All images © Owen Harvey