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The story behind the picture: Joust Of The Saracens

Mathew Lodge / August 10, 2009 Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestmailFacebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestmail

On the front page of Lodge Photo is a crop from a photo showing a man on a horse with a lance, tilting at a strange target. It’s one of a sequence of four:

Joust of the Saracens, Arezzo

This is the Giostra del Saracino – Joust of the Saracens – held twice a year in Arezzo, Tuscany.

Italy is alive with various contests that have been around for hundreds of years. Siena‘s twice-a-year horse race, Il Palio, is thought to be the world’s longest running sporting event. In a world of disappearing traditions, it is worth a moment’s thought to ponder why. If you go to one of these events then I think it becomes clearer. These events are form of social cohesion, fun and commerce for the communities within the towns. As one eager participant in the enormously popular Siena Palio explained it to me: “The Palio is an excuse to have fun with your friends for a week”.

In Arezzo, the joust has not run continuously like the Palio; it was resurrected some years ago as a way for the town to come together and, let’s be honest, as a way to boost tourism. It takes place in early September on the day of San Donato, the town’s patron saint. There are four main districts of the town – a bit like Siena’s Contrade – each with their own colors and contestants. The jousters ride towards an effigy of a Saracen King, who holds a target in the crook of one wooden arm. The lance is tipped with chalk and the contestant gains points for accuracy. The other arm holds a “cat-o-three-tails” – three leather strips with heavy wooden balls attached. These swing around and the jouster has to dodge them or risk being dislodged from his horse. The winner of the tournament is presented with a golden lance, that part of the town goes wild, and vast quantities of wine are consumed.

The photo sequence you see was taken the evening beforehand during practice. This is a good way to get better photo access than you would at the event itself (this also works, to a certain extent, for the Palio). The light was declining rapidly as the contestants warmed up and took their turns, which presented a problem. Flash wasn’t an option as it would have upset the contestants and wouldn’t have illuminated the entire scene. By using a fast (wide aperture) lens, dialling up the ISO sensitivity on the camera and selecting shutter priority mode, I was able to select a shutter speed that was fast enough to isolate the action but not so fast that the riders and horses appear completely frozen. This gives energy and a sense of action to the pictures while ensuring they’re properly exposed.

If you’re wondering why the Saracens (Turks) get such a rough deal, consider that when this tradition emerged during the middle ages, the Turks were surging through Eastern and Southern Europe: a clear and present danger to Italian principalities.

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