Bullfighting has captivated Imperial resident Ruben Martel ever since he saw his first one in Mexico City while visiting with a friend in November 2008.
Since then, he has traveled all over Mexico and Spain to see some of the most prolific bullfighters and bullrings in history, and his photographs of bullfighting have been featured internationally.
“I think, for me, it’s the beauty of the bullfights, because you have to look beyond the blood and just see everything else, from the tradition, the music that’s played in the plaza, the intricacy of the work that goes into their clothing,” he said. “It’s the intricacy of those details compared to what people consider something brutal.”
After seeing his first bullfight, he began to schedule his travels in Mexico around bullfights and even went to Mexico’s largest fair, held in Aguascalientes, where bullfights occur daily.
In April 2010, he bought his first semi-professional camera and soon began to amass an impressive portfolio of bullfighting photography, taking in everything from the matador’s customary visit to a chapel before the fight to the dramatic action shots during it.
Martel was drawn in by the “pageantry” of bullfighting as well as the camaraderie of the matadors and others involved in the art. “It’s a close-knit community because there are so few of them,” he said and Martel quickly has become known within the community, giving him photographic access few others have.
In a somewhat taboo move, he even photographed one matador’s ceremonial preparation of getting dressed before a bullfight, a time that is often only reserved for those closest to him as the matador mentally prepares himself. It’s considered by some to be bad luck if photographed during this time.
Bullfighting is heavily influenced by both tradition and religion, he explained, and there are innumerous small and large traditional steps taken in the time leading up to, during and after a bullfight.
While in Spain, he waited outside a bullfight for the customary act to carrying out the triumphant bullfighter to begin, and as the gates opened, the enormous crowed quickly filled the street like a river, carrying Martel along with them.
During ensuing chaos, Martel ended up right in front of the carried bullfighter as a young fan desperately lunged at the matador trying to pull off parts of his clothing. Martel captured the intense moment and plans on submitting the strong image into some worldwide photo contests.
Magazine/website “Sangre Brava” asked him to participate in a national bullfighting photography exhibit in Mexico City in October last year, and he was the only U.S. citizen participating.
His unique photograph of a matador’s silhouette as he looked down from his hotel window at the bull ring in Mexicali was even featured on the show’s tickets and promotional materials.
Two bullfighting clubs in Tijuana then asked him to present in an exhibit solely featuring his photography in September, and there, Martel displayed roughly 125 photographs. For Martel, photographing bullfights is the chance to see “little details you don’t get to see in the stands.”
He shoots things like a Virgin of Guadalupe image embroidered into a matador’s hat as well as the extremely specific way that his pieces of clothing are folded.
He used to be an enormous fan of the prolific Mexican artist Frida and his friends joke about him “giving her up.”
“The difference is everything to know about Frida is already out there,” he explained. “But with bullfighting, it’s something new every day.”
Bullfighting has started to disappear from parts of the world such as Barcelona as some raise concerns about animal cruelty.
“I fully understand people’s opinions about it. I just choose to see it from a different perspective,” he said while looking at an up-close photograph of a matador’s clothes. “You look at this (photograph) and you don’t think of blood or anything. You think who made this? It’s so beautiful. Everything in bullfighting has a history or tradition to it.”
A company based in Guadalajara, Casa Toreros, is bringing the top bullfighter in the world, Julian “El Juli” Lopez, as well as other famous matadors like Alfredo Gutierrez and Joselito Adame to Mexicali at 8 p.m. Nov. 15.
The event is to commemorate the 38th anniversary of the bullring in Mexicali.
Martel said there are actually a lot of local people interested in bullfighting and they regularly get together to watch bullfights online or on special cable channels.
To say he’s psyched about the Nov. 15 event is an understatement.
“How better to have it back here on the anniversary of our bullring than with two of the best bullfighters around right now, both from Spain and Mexico?” he said excitedly.
Tickets cost between 160 and 1,200 pesos and are sold at the Plaza del Toros Calafia bullring box office between 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., Hotel Araiza and on Boletea.com