Eduardo Leal

This week we are bringing work by documentary photographer Eduardo Leal. His project Forcados caught our eye a while ago. We chose this image to publish. The bright yellow background immediately drew us in only to see the elegant and elaborate outfit marred by blood. All these things contrast beautifully.

I am a Portuguese freelance documentary photographer, focusing on Latin American social issues and politics, as well as Portuguese traditions. At the moment I am based in London but I spend most of my time in South America.

Portuguese forcados lie somewhere between the bull riders of the Americas and the bloodier bullfighters of Spain. Unlike in Spain where the bull is stabbed to death if the matador manages to win the contest, the forcados wrestle the animal (whose horns are capped) with their bare hands as a display of determination and bravura.

The Spanish recently moved to permanently legalise deadly bullfighting (after the region of Catalonia outlawed it), but Portuguese royal law banned the killing of bulls in the arena in 1836. While few can say the bull enjoys himself much in the Portuguese arena, he does live to see another day.

Usually a group of eight forcados challenge the bull in concert. The front man provokes the bull into a charge so that he can perform a ‘pega de cara’ (a ‘face catch’). He secures the bull by its neck or horns and must maintain himself on the bull’s head until the other members of the group can hold the animal and enable the man to extricate himself. The team’s rabujador then holds on to the tail to finish off the performance.

The forcados are amateurs. Each team earns as little as €600 per contest, which allows them to pay for the group’s insurance and perhaps a celebratory dinner after the match. But still they do it year in and year out because they are young men with much to prove, and a tradition to uphold.

I started to work in projects around Portuguese traditions after living for so long away from my country. I realised that after years abroad, I knew other countries better than I did my own. Exploring its traditions would, in a way, let me discover the country and also my roots.

Though I do not support bullfights, the forcados always got my attention since I was a child. I remember watching television and looking at these crazy men wrestling a bull. I always wondered what motivates them to do that.

So, when I started focusing on Portuguese traditions, it was a good opportunity to explore and understand this world. I have always been interested in documenting religions and popular culture practices since it explains who we are and why people behave in a certain way.

The Forcados project fulfilled my interests as it mixes religion with tradition. At the beginning of this project I wanted to photograph portraits only, planning to do a diptych of the forcado before and after the fight. As soon I got to the arena I understood that it would be impossible. The arenas were small, there were people running everywhere and before a forcado enters in the arena, they are so focused about all the aspects of the performance that the last thing he wants is to sit in front of a camera.

I had to take a different approach, and decided to do a more documentary, story-telling piece. After I realised this, I start hanging out with them, not just in the arena but also outside of it, getting to know them and understanding what I would like to show. Figuring out what aspects of the story would be interesting. Only after I had a clear idea did I start to photograph.