As a photojournalist in Southeast Asia, Erika Piñeros is used to training her lens on stark subject matter, such as forced evictions and dying traditions.
When she turned her attention to the sport of bullfighting in her native Colombia, she decided the only thing that could truly capture the heart of the colourful spectacle was sober black and white.
“The colours are amazing,” she says. “[But] I wanted to focus on the emotion of it, the bullfighters, the face of the bull.”
Under subdued lighting at Chinese House, where her exhibition Blood & Sand runs until June 30, the grainy portraits and dramatic arena scenes tell a compelling story of life and death.
Bullfighting is as controversial in Colombia as it is in Spain, which has an anti-bullfighting political party and revolving public debate on whether the age-old blood sport should be banned once and for all.
Given the preconceptions about the sport, Piñeros was half-expecting some backlash from viewers. So far, there has been none.
“I was expecting people to be more critical … Firstly, because everybody thinks bullfighting is evil and harsh.”
In Colombia, bullfighters – or toreros – are often thought of as “brutes” by opponents, and the bullfight itself little more than a glorification of animal slaughter. But in the northeast of Colombia the sport is inextricably tied to the region’s agricultural traditions, and the battle to ban the sport threatens the local breed of bull, the toro de lidia.
“As a photojournalist I’m not trying to give one side of the story ... I just wanted to show the good and the bad of bullfighting ... and show the ‘brutality’ of it,” Piñeros says.
Piñeros comes from the northeast, and her grandfather was a cattle farmer. She grew up in the city but spent a lot of her time on the farm, which had no electricity or a local supermarket to buy chilled pre-packaged steaks from.
“I know where my beef comes from!” she laughs. She says Western squeamishness to the reality of animal slaughter is tied to a disconnection from the land – something which is at the heart of Colombia’s bullfighting debate.
“I am Colombian, I grew up in this area, but I’ve only been to two bullfights in my life ... We grew up with this, and the first time I was like, ‘Oh my God, poor bulls’.
“[But] there is something beautiful about it... I feel bad for the bulls, and I never went back, but I’m not against it.”
The photographer was able to get up close to the animals and men before they stepped out into the arena, and the photographs show a revealing intimacy before the dangerous contest.
“I was in the house with [the bullfighters] when they got ready and they have their wives and children calling – they were scared.
“The other thing I wanted to show is that everyone thinks these people are stupid and brutish but seeing them [up close] they were very concerned about the bull, that the bulls weren’t too hot, that they weren’t too stressed.
“They understand the animals, it’s not going out and killing for the sake of killing.”
Blood & Sand by Erika Piñeros, runs at Chinese House until June 30.