Flying bulls in Manhattan
(AFP Photo / Jewel Samad)
NEW YORK, January 21, 2015 – I’ve worked for AFP for nearly 15 years, and I can say I’ve covered pretty much everything – but this was my first rodeo. I went there thinking it could make a nice little feature, but after the first few riders, I was hooked.
The Professional Bull Riders "Monster Energy Buck-Off” is billed by organisers as a showdown between the best bull riders in the world. They come from all over – from the United States, Canada, Brazil…
It seemed like fun, and I was excited about the day. I turned up on the Friday, the day before the competition, to watch the animals being weighed. One of the beasts was being weighed in a pen outside the Madison Square Garden arena, right in the middle of New York. I wanted to get some shots of a bull with the concrete jungle in the background.
The next day, I went backstage to watch the riders prepare. For them it’s a ritual thing, definitely. You see a lot of them saying prayers before they start. In terms of actual equipment, though, they have nothing much: just boots, gloves, ropes and a cowboy hat or helmet. No saddle of course – that would be too easy.
Up until that point I was still thinking of this as a photo feature - not a real sports story. And then I saw them ride.
When I saw the first bull come out, I thought, ‘It’s flying bull, right there before my eyes!’ Then I looked at the pictures on the back of my camera, and decided: this is fun! I wasn’t planning to stay for the whole event — but after the first bull I was hooked. I had to stay.
Seeing it up close, this is definitely one of the top sports there is – in terms of danger and toughness. It’s a 2,000-pound bull. Riding it is just crazy. The thing wants you off its back and is trying to push you off - you can be thrown off in any direction.
The riding itself goes very fast – they have to stay up for eight seconds to qualify for the next round. Many of them can’t even stay that long.
I saw a few riders fall and get hurt. But nothing very serious. Once down, they make sure to get out of the bull’s way – and there are three or four people on the ground to help just in case. For those who complete the qualifying time, they jump off the bull to safety.
Most of the bulls are trained to get back to the chute by themselves after the rider comes off. There is also a cowboy on horseback with a lasso to send the bull back to the chute if they run around.
In the course of two hours I watched 35 riders - billed as the best in the world. Most of them really young, 22 to 28 years old. A few of them older, in their mid-30s.
I grew up in Bangladesh, reading about American cowboys. And these guys were just that, your typical boot-wearing cowboys. They fit the stereotype exactly.
As for the bulls, they all have different names – like “Big sleazy, “Botox” or “Fun Size”. You can tell they are well cared for - they are as important as the riders.
Here in the United States, the atmosphere is always intense when sports are part of the mix. But when I saw these kids singing the anthem wearing cowboy hats, I had to take a picture. The people in the crowd might live in a huge city like New York, but it seemed like for a moment they all felt like they lived in the Wild West.
Jewel Samad is an AFP photographer based in New York. He has previously worked in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and on the west and east coasts of the United States.