BLOOD SPORTS: The London photographer finding humility in bullfighting

Oliver Eglin in conversation with Alex James Taylor

Hero Magazine, July 2016


For London-based photographer Oliver Eglin, bullfighting represented both an unknown quantity and an intriguing cultural heirloom. Travelling to Seville’s annual April fair – a weeklong festivity culminating in nightly bullfights – the Royal College of Art graduate immersed himself in the culture, culminating in his series Et In Arcadia Ego – named after a painting by French artist Nicolas Poussin.

Juxtaposing the spaces used for bullfighting with the ruined remains of an ancient Roman amphitheatre in Italica (the ruins of a Roman settlement on the outskirts of the city), Eglin explores the role of the spectator through time, riffing on man’s voyeuristic urges. Shifting focus away from the visceral nature of the controversial sport, Eglin documents an alternative mise-en-scene. Capturing his subjects in serene moments of self-reflection, his images riff on themes of mortality and humanity. 

Presenting his work at the RCA graduate exhibition this weekend, we caught up with Eglin to chat about his travels and how his work reflects his experiences.

Alex James Taylor: What was it about bullfighting and Seville that first piqued your interest?

Oliver Eglin: Last year whilst writing my dissertation one of the themes that I picked up on was the depiction of violence and warfare in both photography and literature. I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian where there is this incessant cycle of bloodshed that is deliberately unyielding and repetitive. It was the idea of violence incarnate that intrigued me and I began to look for physical traces of this in the landscape. It is hard to say exactly when bullfighting entered into my thoughts; I think that we all have some latent image of it embedded in our minds, whether that be from art history, Manet or Picasso for example, or popular culture. Being British I felt on the one hand a kind of distance to the subject, culturally it was very remote from anything I had experienced, and yet there was this resonance of something which seemed somehow familiar. 

AJT: Did you travel to Seville because you knew the amphitheatre was there or did you stumble across it by accident? 

OE: I was initially drawn to Seville because of a fair held every April, which is a weeklong festivity culminating in nightly bullfights. Consequently it was initially only the time of year that led me to Seville. Reading around a subject you inevitably stumble across things, however you draw your own correlations between them and that’s one thing I find really exciting about photography. My work always begins in the research stage; I tend to gather pieces of ideas in my mind, which then accumulate, eventually forming something that is coherent enough to stimulate a body of work. In that sense the photographs emerge through a combination of research with a physical exploration of my chosen environment.

AJT: By juxtaposing the ruined remains with the very physical and instant sport of bullfighting, what did you aim to achieve? 

OE: There are obvious parallels to be drawn between bullfighting and the gladiatorial events held in amphitheatres. I was thinking about the way that bullfighting resists time, it has remained relatively unchanged for centuries and that was fascinating to me. So I had this idea already of bullfighting as a kind of living relic, then when I discovered Italica – which is the ruins of a Roman settlement on the outskirts of Seville – it seemed an apt way of disrupting any sequential reading of the narrative. I am interested in photography’s ability to flatten the perspective of time and how I can realign a reading of the work through experimentation with scale and sequencing. Whereas a film or novel will sit you down and narrate a story to you, a photograph can give the viewer a space to create an impression of something that is unique and quite personal.

AJT: Did you speak to the bullfighters (or the spectators)? Did they tell you why they do it and what it is that excites them about it? 

OE: My aim for the work was always to approach it through an alien lens, so although I did speak to some of the spectators, or aficionados as they are known in Spain, the intention was always to keep a certain distance from the subject. I wanted it to be as much about spectatorship in general, as anything specific to bullfighting. I saw an interview with Orson Welles where he describes bullfighting as being both ‘indefensible and irresistible’. I find that quite poignant in that there is this ambiguity to it, the stakes for a matador could not be higher and for the audience there is this catharsis in being reminded of their own mortality.

AJT: In your images the bulls take on an almost humanistic quality, appearing somewhat lonely and isolated. Either stood alone below the spectators or in the background of one image. Would you agree?

OE: I am not sure about loneliness necessarily, but there is a certain quiet stillness that I often look for in photographs. I found it slightly disquieting to see these incredibly powerful animals positioned below their comparatively small human observers and there is a kind of melancholy to that, which I am definitely drawn toward.

AJT: Can you tell us about the way you composed your images and what you wanted that to portray?

OE: The framing devices I employed were specifically designed to trigger this awareness in the viewer of their own position to what is represented in the frame. So, for example, in the image of the lone bull in the corral I deliberately included the edges of my viewing window (a cement wall built to protect observers from the bull’s horns) within the frame of the image. This positions the viewer directly within the mise en scène, you are no longer on the outside; it is about challenging the position of spectatorship and how complicit you are as an observer to an event. Even in framing the physical prints for the show I was thinking about how I could add to this idea; by including the celluloid border that surrounds a negative within the print itself, it was a conscious attempt to refer back to the very nature of photography being this window into another world.