Suggesting violence without having to show it
On the face of it, detail shots in photography many seem like a one-trick pony – you just close in and change the scale dramatically – but in fact they have a range of uses, three of which we’re looking at here in this feature. As photographers we can think of them as visual solutions, either to get out of a rut or to solve a problem posed by the broader scene. Closing in on detail is especially useful when
the wider subject doesn’t lend itself easily to an acceptable picture. There are all kinds of possible reason for this. It might be too obvious, too wellknown, too diffuse, or even, in some way, offensive.
This last was the kind of problem I faced when shooting fighting cocks in Colombia. Cock-fighting is a blood ‘sport’, and while it’s culturally interesting, it’s very unpleasant and, by modern media standards, not really acceptable. Nevertheless, I had to shoot it for a reportage assignment, so the issue was how to shoot a strong lead picture.
Spur to action
I already had shots of cocks actually fighting, and all the surrounding activities, like training. One approach might be a studio portrait, relying on good lighting and hoping to catch an aggressive pose. I did that, but it was still ‘just’ a portrait. These are, after all, quite familiar-looking birds, albeit birds with attitude. Then something caught my eye. I hadn’t realized until I spent time with the owners that they all carry a set of vicious-looking artificial spurs, which are strapped to the birds’ feet. They’re not adapted from anything else; they’re specifically designed to help the bird fight more effectively. They even come in their own case, like a fly fisherman’s tackle. As an outsider I found them fascinating, but at the same time unsettling.
From the series of images I took, the most effective of all was when the fighting cock had them fitted (below). Much better not to see its head. The strutting posture, confident and aggressive, was perfect, and the spurs seem to fit the bird all too naturally. I liked that aspect of menace: a warrior bird with its sword. Lighting, as always, plays its part in whatever idea you have for a shot, and in this case, I shot with the sun behind the subject and to one side, so that it would light up the translucent spurs – which are made from horn – and help them stand out against the darker background.