The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

It`s a mad mad world


Just found out that someone died in the annual Pamplona Encierro or running of the bulls. I went tothis crazy event just over ten years ago and had a great time. I didn`t run, I wanted to but I also wanted to take photos and it is impossible to do both well i.e. safely. In fact it is difficult to do much there as the noise and lack of sleep make you go just a little crazy after 4 days.

I haven`t got any photos of the event scanned up yet so you are getting a generic bullfight image (sorry). Anyway I have precious little of the event to show you. Read the travel piece below to find out why.


Pamplona July 1998

              He was asleep, perched like a bird at roost along the top of the wooden barrier. How he was staying there I do not know because it was a rather sprawled, unconscious-looking roost, quite obviously drunken and probably un-planned. His head hung-down uncomfortably from his shoulders, pressing his chin into his chest from which his arms stuck-out in a crucified but cross-less rigor-mortis. His right-hand still held the bottle that had nailed him there and his legs, like a cornice, lay across the summit of the rough wood planks, heaping wet contours into his baggy trousers and slightly bending one knee around the stump of an upright.

           It was that upright in fact – that rose no more than a few centimetres above the top of the barricade – that seemed to be the only thing holding him up there. To the passers-by he looked more like he’d been dropped from above and unluckily landed in this precipitous position. He looked damaged by the fall: broken and bruised; comatose and helplessly beyond any help. He looked abandoned lost, unloved and yet as he sat, slumped there, against all the laws of body and gravity, he was attracting quite a crowd who were all stood staring at him.

           It really was an amazing position to find another human being in and like some novelty of circus endurance, no-one quite wanted to be the one to wake him up and end it; he looked as if he might fall at any minute anyway. The problem was that the barrier he had chosen for his dreams would soon be put to its true purpose and he would soon have to move whether he could or not. His precarious bed was about to become much, much more dangerous.

           It wouldn’t be long, already the morning was scrubbing over the sky, the streets were filling up and the noise of the white shirted and red-sashed alcoholics who were stumbling into the street was growing. Not that the streets of Pamplona were ever quiet or empty at this time of year. The great waves of noise that came from the hidden squares and other roads spoke for each reason of the fiesta. Indeed they shouted of the passion to be found in: food, fun, love, fights, and the extreme abuse of alcohol. It was a craziness so total that it was difficult to endure and yet so endearing that as people bedded down, bedlessly like our man asleep on the barrier, or sleeplessly roamed the park to escape the music, dancing, sangria scented vomit and the machismo of the San Fermin its legend took hold of every heart and pulled it from hate to love and a million other directions.

           It was, on one hand, a torture on your ears and stamina, an inescapable excess that hauled you like a sleepwalker onto the next experience whether you sought one or not. At times in the last few days I had wanted to just turn to the sky and yell out “Enough! I need a rest.” I was tired beyond a level I had ever felt before, I wanted, more than anything, there to be a place that was quiet, that was dark and warm, where I could lay down even for a minute and relax. That there wasn’t made the thing almost a torture. But on the other hand, such was its reputation that I felt I was letting down history with this weaker admission and the words never came out. Instead I stumbled on ricocheting of the walls, blind with sleep, deaf with trying to listen to all the voices around and definitely wobbled into stupidity by the noise and the soul-flaying energy of the fiesta. The trick, I learned, was to just keep going as long as you could, your body would know, I hoped, when it could do no more and would take over. It would have to save your life; no wonder a man could fall asleep on a wall.

           The mania reaches its peak each morning at eight O’clock with the enceirro, or running of the bulls. The shuffling crowd around the sleeping man had their various distractions on this thought. Some of them had come to run and as the clock ticked slowly towards the time when they would have to I’m sure most were sobering-up quickly. Each certainly looked to be working through some difficult ideas in their heads. The Australian tourists, targets painted on their backs, were of course drinking the last drop of bravado out of the morning and joking away their fears as they took photos of each other. They were here on a package-tour from London that couldn’t promise they wouldn’t be killed and you had the feeling that such an outcome was not exactly, at that time, unattractive. Hangovers throbbed and peace itself could probably only be found that one extreme way in this town at this time.

           Next to them a sickly-looking American romantic stood, crammed against the barrier wishing he’d never heard of Hemmingway. Like the Australians this was a right of passage for the young men of that continent. Yet with the need to attach some culture and intellect to at all, and with the big man’s shoes to fill, he appeared much more intimidating by it than the boisterous Australians. He looked up the road a lot as he waited debating with himself if he should or could run. When I saw him put his foot on the barrier I thought he had finally decided to climb out of harms way but he was only lacing his shoes tighter.

           Not everyone here was running, though enough were to make the road tight with people who you could tell were not used to this level of exercise or fear. Most looked prohibitively hung-over to attempt such foolishness and slouched yawning at the wood walls mumbling envy at the sleeping man. The local Basques meanwhile were cool, sober and neat. Dressed in pressed white shirts and wearing red sashes, they stood in groups: clean, thin-belted and attractive, looking at the tourists with ill-concealed disdain. Many nationalities were here to take part; different languages and accents mixed in among the rumble of other noises but the locals, un-befuddled by alcoholic corruptions stood silently, rolling their newspapers in one hand and their cigarettes in the other.

           As the time of the bulls` release approached the people all around went strangely quiet, talking in whispers to themselves and breathing heavy snorts of air. There was a seriousness in the road that flowed around the corners of the buildings like a flood. It was hard to ignore even as the music still blared across the dawn; louder, if that were possible, than the day and the night before. The smell of sangria was on the wind, sugaring everything it touched and we breathed it deeply into our lungs to give ourselves energy even as the last, desperate cigarettes fogged it stale.

           It was the smell of a city running on dangerous automatic; an air so caloried with hedonism that to think too much was to find yourself sent crazy at the totality of it all. The current lunacy was everywhere; evident in the rumoured breaths of a day, hardly yet begun but already old and the incessant, endless, tornado sound of life. Edged in among the chaos though was still the taste of the desert plains, emptiness, mountains, forests and all the silent world beyond that I had only recently left. But so far was it beyond the road beneath my tired feet that it seemed too fantastic now to ever have been truth. Nothing, it felt, would ever be quite the same again. The long roads I’d trodden to get here seemed dreams now. I was caught in a world that was in the process of exploding, slowly and violently, and I had invited myself to enjoy every; last, destructive, beautiful second of it, there being no respite from it, no rest, no time to stop, escape or even gather thoughts.

           The police came in the end and moved the sleeping man from the top of his wall. They woke him with none-to-gentle prods from their nightsticks and a rough humour that suited us who waited and watched nearby however much our fatigue empathised with him. It was their job to clear the route and this they did. Very efficiently and with little in the way of debate. It was seven- fifty-five, the time of the bulls was upon us and there was already enough foolishness abroad.

           The rocket that signals the start of the Encierro goes off at eight o`clock from the town-hall. Not that we heard it of course, the crush of people squeezed against the barriers could hear only their own addled blood pumping in their ears. Up the road the other runners were clearly visible to me; waiting and nervous, constantly rolling forward on the balls of their feet in preparation for the next, needed stride they would take. They kept looking back, up the street towards where the bulls would come from and I watched them for any clue on when they would appear. The tourists behind the barriers meanwhile watched us standing there on our little patch of road; their eyes dotting the wooden barrier like Christmas lights.

           Two minutes past eight and behind me the runners moved a little, a false start that is followed immediately by a real one. Everyone was watching the corner of the building that stood behind us and was the limit of our horizon. The jogging runners were joined by others that emerged from around that corner at a faster and more urgent pace and we all breathing in together, both runners and watchers, and suddenly the air was spent and useless and I was gasping on it. It is hard to explain exactly what it felt like to feel the bulls coming. Maybe the ground shook; maybe we knew instinctively that we were in danger. Whatever the reason I knew when it was time to run and the people ahead broke even before I did. Those behind came fast now. There was little bravery left in the faces that fled towards us: fear, panic, misery and worry yes but no one was brave at that moment. No-one.

           Ahead the runners were already moving, those behind were at my heels and as everything came clear upon me I knew it was a bloody stupid thing to be standing here waiting for it all to barrel over and envelop me. A man ran passed and jumped up at the barred windows of a nearby house where he hung and stared, open-mouthed up the road. Other men came-by running fast, their heads turned backwards and shouting at friends. They were moving slowly in my mind though, each footfall loudly registered, each jolting movement as slow as all potentially lethal realities seem to do. It is this that saves us perhaps, the way the world slows down and gives us time to plan our way out of it all. Up to this point it had all seemed too fast, too out of control to be in anyway memorable. But now I had time to look around.

           Above me the wooden barrier that until recently had been someone else’s bed was pierced with a thousand eyes all looking as scared as I thought I must. Across the tops the luckier tourists crowded the views to be had there. It is where I had wanted to stand, but the police had kept moving us, and from the front I had ended-up moved to the back far from the things I wanted to see. That is how I happened to be here, in the street with the runners and that, as is the way of both good and bad ideas, is how I had thought this might be a good idea worth following through. At least for a while. Yet now there was no way I wanted to risk it any further. Not today with my camera out and the speed with which it was all until just then unfolding. I looked up the road but it was all a blur of people. Where were the bulls? If I saw one that might make the difference. Which direction it would take me was not the point, I wanted to see them, then decide. But though I waited I saw none. All the running people continued pushing passed, faster and faster and more and more frightened. I could see nothing behind them. It was then that I realized, I might eventually come face to face with a bull a little too late to do anything about it. It was about than that I decided to duck under the barrier. I’m not proud of it and purists would argue of missed opportunities but I don’t care. I do really if I’m honest but at least I am alive to have those regrets.

           So with the imminent bulls still unseen, but somewhere announced in my evolution, I ducked down and rolled to the side. Pulling myself under the barrier I looked around, legs and panic rushed by but nothing that looked like a bull yet. I pulled the rucksack with me, it stuck a little on the low wood and the difficulty of moving those few metres with it told me I had made the right decision. What was I thinking trying to run with a rucksack?

           The other side of the barrier was quiet, strangely so. The still air as famished as it was just before we started to run. I stood up quickly and found a hole in the barrier through which I levelled my camera in the hope of catching the bulls charge and the running men. But the street was empty. I saw a thin, bored looking cow trotting passed and I had to think a minute before realizing that it wasn’t a bull and that it was all over. Climbing up on the barrier to get a better view I noticed, laying in the middle of the street, the man who had early jumped onto the window bars. He looked crumpled and beaten. He was bleeding from his ears. Paramedics were already pushing their way injuriously through the crowds of tourists to reach him.


3 responses

  1. Great story bro.
    Sometimes its better not to get the picture.
    As Susan Sontag said “photographers are voyeurs in other peoples lives, and if they are photographers long enough they become a voyeur in their own life”

    I love photography but sometimes I want to live my life unmediated by a lens.

    July 13, 2009 at 12:41 am

  2. Hi Damon !
    The best place to see the bulls in Pamplona is a good bar with a good tv and good breakfast after a long night out.
    I feel sorry for the guy who died , seems like he was a great runner and aficionado…
    I was about to go there last monday as I went for a few days to my hometown (Bilbao) , but I was travelling back to Japan the day after and it was just to much for me , I´m not that young anymore …
    By the way , great story !
    as you said …It´s a mad world …

    July 15, 2009 at 2:44 pm

  3. Hikari san it is a real pleasure to have you visiting my little site and thank you for the kind words on this piece. Coming from someone of your skill with a lens and a tale it means a lot. I spent a lot of time in Bilbao by the way, had a friend who used to live around the corner from the Guggenheim, could see the dog from his living room window! Great city and even better hinterland, I set of from there on a two month wander and hitch along the Pyrenees to Barcelona (with a side trip to Pamplona for San Fermin on the way) taking in some small, private areas of the Basque country, Navarra, Rioja and Zaragoza along the way. Great days, great people and amazing countryside. Never have I felt so alive and free. Good to have you here and as always enjoy the images on your site.

    Adrian, my friend, thanks also to for the kind words. As I said above that time across the top of Spain was amazingly life giving for me and mostly the camera came out only for certain things that had to be photographed. I was much more of a tourist with a camera on that trip, not so great shots, not so important to me to take them either. I had Laurie Lee`s books in my rucksack and a poetic rythmn in my head that made me look at the world in a way that helped me see more of the things I experienced than ever before. Certainly more than I would see through a viewfinder anyway. It was great, i travelled to explore a country that i didn`t know and had no designs on; a country i didn`t even have words for when I set out. In bars that had no signs on the door because no one who didn`t know where they were ever went there, i learnt Spanish because I didn`t want to starve and chose my next direction on whims and half understood advice from the patrons who were surprised to see me there. I met great people in these small villages most of whom i never photographed and on the road or track, on my own with no map and no deadline i saw amazing things that i pointed embarressed lenses at amateurly. It was free and fun. I miss those days now that i need to justify any such movement with licenced possibilities and captured moments and chased-down, stressfully seredipity. Though life through a lens does have some different advantages I don`t think i`ll ever have the same feeling I had on that journey again. Maybe that`s just my age though!

    Anyway too introspective, got to go earn money with this plastic art of ours. catch ya later.

    July 29, 2009 at 2:59 pm

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