Bullfighting Explained – Warning – Graphic Photos

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This past weekend I had the opportunity to watch an authentic bullfighting event in the beautiful and historic city of Seville, Spain.  In anticipation, I read as much as I could in order to get a firm understanding of what I was getting myself into.  What I actually experienced was something extraordinary.  Feelings of excitement, nervousness, disgust, and sadness radiated through my body as I watched the first duel.  As much as I wanted to turn my eyes away at times, I tried to keep the camera pointed at the action and continued to shoot away.  Warning: You may find the following pictures disturbing, so I apologize in advance if I offend you. Please let me know if you have any questions as I try and explain this remarkably bizarre event through my photos.

First some brief history.  Bullfighting is believed to be a direct descendant of gladitorial combat from the Roman times.  There are theories it was introduced into Spain by Emporer Claudius, as a substitute for human combat.  It later spread to Spain’s Central and South American colonies, and in the 19th century to France.  Initially,  the fights were held in the central plaza of a town as entertainment during religious festivities, royal weddings, and other celebrations.  As popularity grew, dedicated buildings were constructed to house the events.  First square, they were later constructed in the shape of an arena to discourage cornering of the action.  The modern style of Spanish bullfighting is credited to Juan Belmonte, considered by many as the greatest Matador of all time.  Today, bullfighting is still practiced in Spain, as well as many other areas of the world, however support for the event differs.  Proponents state that bullfighting is a culturally significant tradition, on par with painting, dancing, and music.  Younger generations and animal rights advocates state that it is equal to a savage blood sport, resulting in the suffering of both the bulls and horses.  Bullfighting was recently banned in the Catalonia region in Spain.

Seville boasts the oldest bullfighting area in Spain, the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla.  Say that 5 times fast.  Here is a photo from inside the arena:

On to the event.  For a traditional corrida de toros (running of the bulls), three matadores each faces two bulls.  Each bull is between four and six years old and weighs no less than 1,000 pounds.  Each matador (also called torero in Spanish) has six assistants: two picadores (lancers on horseback), three banderilleros (also toreros, but carry two small spears and no cape, or capote in Spanish), and a sword page.  Together, they are called a cuadrilla (entourage, not like those prissy boys on HBO).

There are three distinct phases, each announced and followed by jovial music.  The first phase is a grand parade, where the participants enter the arena, saluting the presiding dignitary.  The actual matadores are easily distinguished by their golden costumes, where the rest of the participants will wear silver or blue. The cuadrilla observing a moment of silence:

At last, the bull is released, ripe with anger and adrenaline.

Now that the bull is finally let loose in the arena, the matador will test the bull’s behavior.  This is accomplished with a series of passes with his cape.  Some might see this as taunting or playing with the bull, but he is actually formulating a strategy for his later face off. The initial face-off.

When the banderilleros assisting the matador are charged, they quickly dart into one of many “safehavens”, or small openings in the ring.  This guy got a little too far from the opening.

Next, two picadors enter the ring on horseback armed with a vera (lance).  The horse is protected from the bull with what appears to be kevlar, though prior to 1930 the horse did not wear any protection at all.  This resulted in most horses being disembowled by the bull’s horns.  Usually, more horses than bulls would perish in a reguar match.  Here you can see one of the picadors stabbing the bull with his lance.

The picadors will attempt to stab the bull in the upper back, weakening the neck muscles and drawing the bull’s first loss of blood.  The matador will watch the bull attack very closely  to determine his approach when he faces the bull again.  These first two blows also weaken the bull in order to (hopefully) prevent the it from raising its head.  Notice the protection worn by the horse.

In the second stage, three banderillos attempt to stab the bull in the shoulders with two sharp, barbed sticks.  This was pretty unbelievable.  These guys literally have two sticks and nothing else, facing an angry bull head on; oh, and they charge the bull as well…  This further infuriates and weakens the bull before the matador faces it.  These guys amazed me… Check it out.

The final stage, or the tercio de muerte (the third of death), begins when the matador re-enters the ring with a small red cape and sword.  There is a common misconception about the color of the cape angering and drawing the bull’s attention, because bulls, in fact, are colorblind.  It is thought the reason the cape is red is to mask the bull’s blood, but today it is matter of tradition.  The matador uses his cape in a series of passes with the bull for two reasons: to wear it down and to produce a display of faena (graceful movements).  After watching Flamenco dancing a couple nights before, I could see the matador moving in a very similar style.  It appears as if he is gracefully dancing with the bull, sometimes brushing against its side as it passes.

I particularly like this shot because it appears the matador is literally going “head to head” with the 1,000 pound bull.

This must be done with extreme care.  Even though the bull is injured and fatigued at this time, it is still very deadly.  One of the matadors we watched miscalculated and was trampled very badly, his assistants dragging him from the arena.  I will do a post on that “situation” another day but here are two of the pictures.

After wearing the bull down enough and completing the faena, the matador will maneuver the bull into a position where he can strike the deadly blow.  He will aim between the bull’s shoulder blades in order to strike the bull’s heart.  The matadors we watched were not the top performers, so it took three and in some cases four attempts to land the sword.  The sequence below, while pretty graphic, depicts this.

One particular fight was successfully completed by the youngest matador, only 19 years old from Mexico.  He was awarded the bull’s ear because of his pristine performance.  In very rare cases, if the bull has shown exceptional bravery and strength, the crowd will petition the president of the ring to grant the bull a pardon, sparring its life and allowing it to graze out its days as a stud bull.  Here is the victory moment and the winner parading with his prized ear.

Finally, after the bull has been brought down, one of the banderilleros will take a small knife and “finish” the bull off if it is not dead already.  Not particularly easy to watch. Music plays and a chain is hooked to the bull’s horns so a trio of horses can drag it from the ring.  Notice the “sweeper” running after the bull cleaning up the blood as it is pulled from the ring.

There you have it.  Some of this information was taken from a combination of websites and the rest from my firsthand experience a couple days ago.  Like I said, pretty gruesome stuff, but a very unique and interesting experience nonetheless.  All comments and questions are welcomed.  Feel free to download/share the pictures and information but I ask that you please link back to this page.

Thanks for visiting!


  1. Neetu says:

    Mother of God!!! I prefer the angry monkey!

  2. Rosa says:

    watching through your pics and story it as been a bit like follow a real Corrida…
    now I know why I have never seen a real one!
    nice jobe buddy! 😉

  3. michele says:

    Wow, great pictures, great story, I loved it. Of course i like bull fights.

  4. Outography says:

    wow! That’s lots great photos.

    I like the first two, which seems to be HDR processed. Nice color and contrast.

    Personally, I don’t like the killing at the end, but that’s what is supposed to be as expected.

    Great shots!

  5. John says:

    Very great photos. I went to this same bullfight and I also experienced the same emotions. There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for this. I noticed very young kids with parents in the crowd. There were also people that left after the first fight. This is not for everyone.

    • Adam Allegro says:

      Thanks John. I did want to document it and show people what it is like, as many will never get the chance to experience it for themselves. I did feel guilty at times firing away with my Nikon, especially when that matador was getting trampled… Feel free to share with your friends. Thanks for visiting!

  6. Chris Pienaar says:

    This is a very good description supported by excellent pictures , telling a strong story . Good photojournalism.

  7. […] thorough account of how a bullfight unfolds was written by photographer Adam Allegro, who witnessed one in Seville […]

  8. Eileen says:

    “The matadors we watched were not the top performers, so it took three and in some cases four attempts to land the sword.”

    How anyone cannot be sickened by bullfighting is beyond me. Bullfights are nothing but animal torture. I don’t care how dazzling the costumes are, how “traditional” this excuse for a sport may be, or what kind of “I’m bad, I’m so cool, ain’t I great” faces that the matadors make, bullfighting is animal abuse and animal torture and it should be stopped worldwide. The people who like bullfights are sick people. Please don’t promote bullfighting by going to them and please support organizations trying to stop this heinous “sport”.

    • abner says:

      As a vegetarian, let me say that if bullfighting is banned, then that is fine with me. Spain’s 17 communities have animal welfare laws regarding pets, farm animals & wild animals, but bullfighting is exempt from almost all of them except for bullfighting rules and in Canary Islands (1991) & Cataluna (2011)where it’s illegal.

      It’ll be hard to try to make bullfighting illegal in Spain & some Iberoamerican nations because of culture, tradition & the fact that the bulls are killed for meat. Which gets to can some1 eat beef but still be consistent in being against bullfighting? My guess is that 95% of Spaniards eat meat as does 95% of Central & South America’s population with most eating beef. Since restaurants & markets in Spain get some of the beef from bulls killed in bullfights, it’s hard to get laws passed against this. Again I’m a vegetarian (have been since 2003 when I stopped eating fish) & if bullfighting is made illegal, then that’s fine with me. But @least they do eat their kills with bullfighting & as long as people eat beef, don’t expect bullfighting & hunting to disappear anytime soon.

  9. bull fights should be banned they make the animal suffer and have long since killed people as well, people should not be so dumb, as to climb in a ring with such a large and strong animal and expect it to not harm them. when the first bull fighter killed that bull he made a mistake that became a tradition. that tradition is like killing the first born child every century. its tradition so you must do it. same concept.

  10. mellll says:

    this is discusting whoever did this too the poor bull should die himself,animal cruelty the bull should not get hurt!!

  11. […] Bullfighting, we had no idea of what was involved ……. We certainly do now! Here is a website that pretty much explains it in layman’s terms. I was ready to leave after the first fight, […]

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