Cowboys of the Camargue

Each year a special festival takes place on the beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, France. It’s the perfect place to mix travel and action photography and send a postcard home to tell you family you’ve ended up in hospital, writes Andrew James.

Bonjour Rodney. Comment ça va aujourd’hui? Apologies to any French-speaking Foto-Buzzers because my French isn’t the best, but I still love France. It’s such a diverse country with interesting landscapes, wildlife and traditions that are brilliant for photography. But in my experience, France is the European country that Health and Safety forgot. So, when Foto-Buzzer Rosie Jackson mentioned a festival on the beaches in the Camargue involving large numbers of horses, I thought – what can possibly go wrong? Yep, everything – and that sounds like my kind of thing! Before you could say pomme de terre I’d booked a flight heading south and found myself standing on the beach with Rosie, the Mediterranean lapping around our toes and the sound of thundering hooves echoing behind us. Photography has a special power to take us to places and give us experiences to savour.

The beach in question was wide, relatively featureless apart from a few raised dunes here and there and the weather was pretty good. I didn’t really know what to expect. The festival involved the various horse farms (menades) attending and showing off their horsemanship by grouping together and herding a few bulls in the centre of the horses from one end of the beach to the other and then on into town. In principle it seemed relatively simple as the famous white (grey actually) horses of the Camargue are certainly photogenic. I wasn’t 100% sure how I wanted to photograph the event. I wanted to show what was happening but also try to capture a little bit of what the whole event felt like to me. As the first few horses started to head up past us towards the starting point, I snapped away without a plan. I’d carried my 300mm prime, 100-400mm and 16-35mm zoom and was still pondering my approach. The 300mm gave me speed and excellent image quality, while the 100-400 would give me flexibility. The wide-angle would, if used, give a completely different feel. Sometimes there is no right or wrong in these situations.

Exif: f/8, 1/500sec, ISO 400, 300mm

Feisty horse: I started with the 300mm. It’s my kind of focal length, not so long you start to feel separated from the subject but far enough to be able to stand back a bit and pick off detail shots like the one above. One horse was looking a bit feisty and I watched as the rider tried to keep control of it. Focusing with a single AF point on that wild eye I fired off a couple of shots. The horse looks jumpy but the rider is calmness personified. Watching all the riders, young and old, it was clear there was a lot of skill on show.

Wet cowboy: A little later I spotted a single horse being taken for a quick trot in the ocean, presumably to let off some excess energy. I got myself as low as possible and watched as it grew closer. The light was quite interesting and in the far distance you can see the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer bathed in morning sunlight. As the horse came almost prancing out of the surf I made sure my shutter speed was high and using continuous focus tracked them as they charged directly towards me. What I didn’t notice at the time was the absolute look of disgust on the rider’s face as he got a soaking from the cold sea. Clearly French cowboys don’t like getting wet!

La cigarette: I have to say that not everybody looked the part. There was a relaxed dress code going on from both a fashion and a safety point of view. Most rode with normal headwear or none at all, and safety helmets were almost non-existent! However, I liked the look of these two guys striding along casually, with the long drag on the cigarette typically French.

Le chapeau: One thing that did strike me as I was shooting was just how friendly everybody was – both riders, other photographers and general watching public. Most people were happy to be photographed and I am pretty sure some riders showed off in front of my lens! This guy gave us a wonderful grin and a raising of his hat. Talking of photographers there were quite a few on the beach but numbers weren’t excessive.

Crazy gangs
When the horse ‘gangs’ began to advance down the beach I started to become really interested. I’d start out standing immediately in front of the middle rider as he or she was like the figurehead to rest of the gathering. The horses were stunning and I was struck at how impressive it all looked. Of course, working with the 300mm I didn’t have long to stay in position, so it was shoot until they were so close I couldn’t focus anymore and then run like hell out of the way. The more safety-minded (sensible) could shoot from the side.

It took a bit of doing and while they weren’t moving that fast it was slightly scary as the thunder of hooves grew louder and the horses loomed larger in my viewfinder. Thanks to no health and safety, there were no restrictions to my positioning but commonsense and my survival instinct kept me smart! I’d shoot for as long as I felt vaguely safe and then run out of the way as fast as possible. I probably looked ridiculous but it was fun.

The disrupters
When I first spotted a man standing and appearing to push against the lead horse as I was I was really confused. What was he doing? Had he fallen off a horse? I kept shooting anyway and soon began to realise that he was doing his best to disrupt the procession. Later I learned that this was quite normal and all part of the festival. In this case, the man’s intention was to try and make the group of horses break apart so there was a gap that the bulls hidden behind could escape through. It’s all part of the fabric of the tradition and it’s up to the riders and horses to show that despite the disruption, their skill meant the group stayed tight together and the bulls remained enclosed.

I left my exit from the centre of the advancing horses pretty late on the image below and this frame is NOT a crop but I wanted to see and record the action for as long as I could. It looks pretty dramatic but I was sure the man would come off worse. If you look in the slight gap between the middle and right-hand horses you can see the bull in the shadows. I don’t know what happened to the ‘disrupter’ as I had to make a late dash to the side. All the horses then passed by me and the next group started to head down towards my position so I started shooting again. For all I know he’s flattened under the sand to this very day! It was all a game to riders, horses and disrupters. The riders are chilled if you look at their faces and these are people who are born to a life with horses and who love the Camargue horse with a passion.

Getting a feel for the festival I learned that most of the ‘disruption’ occurred nearer to the end of the beach so made my way down there to find people dashing about all over the place waving things about to distract them. I suppose it’s a bit like police horse training and I have to say that the horses took everything in their stride. It does look rather crazy though.

Finally I switched to my wide-angle lens and decided to get right in the thick of the action. As I’m in my mid-50s, this kind of behaviour is probably pretty daft but it really did get the adrenalin coursing through my veins and on two occasions with horses now moving pretty quickly, I did have to shut my eyes and put my trust in both the horse and rider not to plough over me. I am pleased to say I survived intact but I might reconsider these tactics if I return to the beaches of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer!

Published in Travel
  1. A fantastic set of images, a real sense of the Gallic casual ‘joie de vie’, and the riding skill born of a lifetime in the saddle. As a local event it has the intimacy that is lost in larger more structured gatherings. Jolly bon, thanks for sharing, mucky buckets Rodney!

  2. What a brilliant article AJ, I can’t wait to get down there with you when the opportunity arises. So lovely action packed shot that really do convey the excitement of the event.

  3. love it….british bulldog on speed! Might be adding that to the list of places to visit

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