Hiding in plain sight.
Five and a half years ago, my family and I left the bustle of central Madrid for a small mountain town called Cercedilla, situated 60km NW of Spain’s capital. For the first 4 years, we lived away from the town centre, before moving into the heart of the town in the summer of 2022. During our first two years in Cercedilla, we didn’t attend the annual fiestas held in September as we were away travelling, while in the first part of the pandemic, the fiestas barely happened. However over the past two years, the festivities have bounced back with a vengeance.
Although I’ve been living in Spain for more than ten years, I’m still figuring out certain aspects of my relationship with the country. Now that I have a son born and raised here, my ties with Spain are becoming stronger – but there are often things that surprise me and challenge my perceptions.
The bull ring in Cercedilla sits high above the town centre. It’s somewhere I’ve passed by a hundred times – on one occasion I photographed the main gate leading into the arena, and noticed that the stands to the north were framed by Siete Picos, the iconic mountain that is a backdrop to the town. For me it’s only ever been a landmark – a quiet, ageing monument, a harking back to a different time.
The iconography and echoes of bullfighting are hidden in plain sight in Madrid province, and the Sierra de Guadarrama is no exception. Posters periodically appear on lampposts in neighbouring towns; square holes capped with metal lids line certain streets, permanent placeholders for the fences that are erected for ‘encierros’ – bull running events like those you have probably seen in Pamplona. And in some bars, archival photographs of toreadors adorn the walls, and TV’s screen the bullfighting events live from the Ventas bullring in Madrid.
During the 2022 fiestas in our town, I didn’t notice any programming centred around the bullring. It turns out that the local government at the time, a coalition of left leaning politicians, didn’t want to invest public money in the activity. Not too much anyway – it turns out that there was one bullfight, a raucous affair past midnight in front of a baying crowd, lubricated by the days libations. A few months ago, a new local government was voted in – still a coalition but with a new mayor. Suddenly, bullfighting in Cercedilla was back.
Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never been in a bullring. My opinion on bullfighting has been that it is an unnecessary pursuit, needlessly provoking the animal, and for what? However, I’m also of the opinion that it’s important to challenge your preconceptions. With that in mind, I accompanied my friend Gus to one of the encierros and spent an hour in the bullring watching one of the more informal sessions – not a bullfight as such (no animals were slaughtered), more just a bunch of local teenagers and young men taunting, dodging, and fleeing a bull. In the stands were whole families, groups of high-schoolers, a brass band playing tight, upbeat compositions; many faces that I recognised amongst those I didn’t.
Being in attendance that afternoon didn’t change my opinion on bullfighting, but it has started to give me an understanding of how deeply the tradition is embedded in my local community. I returned a couple of days later as the fiestas came to a close, to watch the parade from the town centre up to the bullring, led by two women on horseback, a marching band following behind as fireworks were launched skyward.
To understand my place in Spain and how I want to photograph the country I now call home, perhaps the best place to start is by learning about the community on my doorstep, and trying to interpret traditions that are so far removed from the everyday rhythms that formed my upbringing in the UK.