The Other Side of Bull-Riding

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(Photographer: Steven Styles/Belator Media, taken in “the shark cage”)

All high-octane video clips of Bull-Riding notwithstanding, this last weekend I became acquainted with another side of the sport: a visual story of stage hands, production crews, tense moments of worry (followed by relief), camaraderie and patriotism.

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As Photo Editor for Belator Media, it is my privilege to select, process, filter, crop, keyword and upload each and every photo that makes it to our main website. What I saw in the images from photojournalist Steven Styles were all the people who make the PBR shows possible, as well as the more human side of the seemingly Herculean feats being performed in the hazy, sawdust-laden air of the ring.

In stark contrast to the roar of the crowds above, a sober calm filled the halls below the Golden 1 Sports Center, as riders and stage crew of the PBR BFTS Sacramento Clash (Jan 27th-29th 2017) show escorted the photographers out to the stage:

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The show began with much fanfare. Even as the riders were introduced, many of them bore expressions of intense concentration… and, perhaps a hint of respect for the powerful animals they were about to ride.

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A brief time of quiet ensued as the national anthem was sung. Hats removed, the riders and staff stood with local firefighters to unfurl and honor their flag; the audience stood with them until the very last notes of the anthem died away.

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The show began in earnest with harrowing moments of intense activity as rider after rider burst from the gates to the auctioneer-like voice of the announcer booming over the Center’s advanced sound-system. Multi-color behemoths–in the form of bulls–leaped forth while feet away, crouching in what show hands referred to as “the shark cage” Steven Styles caught nearly 1-ton animals performing maneuvers that the nimblest of acrobats would envy:

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The audience alternately yelled for their favorite and gasped in horrified surprise during each 8-Second battle of man and beast. A family affair, many youngsters braved the noise and crowds to enjoy the show.

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Not to be outdone, the bull-riders exhibited practiced moves of their own, whether in their control and rhythm in hanging on to the flat, braided rope, or in rolling off the bulls to safety, or ‘falling’ off with practiced professionalism.

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Often the riders were thrown…

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… or had the appearance of being trampled underfoot.

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But, every time the rider would rise and dodge deftly away from the mangling power of the hooves, usually with only a small trickle of sweat upon the brow. s-pbr-bull-riding-1-27-2017-221-of-9

As impressive as these athletic feats were to behold–even in stills–the production crew and show staff were also captured, performing their parts just as admirably, proving the notion that the whole is indeed nothing more than the sum of its parts.

Ensuring the safety of the riders, respect for the bulls and the smooth transition of one spectacle to the next appeared to be no easy task.

Properly called bull-fighters (what many folks mistakenly call “rodeo clowns”) the darting forms in bright shirts were in nearly every shot, aptly distracting the angry, wound up bull away from their respective riders the moment they hit the sawdust, running away with apparent ease from a nearly-1-ton animal intent on goring the first thing it sees…

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In the midst of the action and danger, humanity was also present in the form of the sports s-pbr-bull-riding-1-27-2017-256-of-2medic standing warily in the stage door, ready to spring out at the mere suggestion of need, or in a simple, wordless gesture of sympathy… a pat on the shoulder as a rider stumbled by, having come just short of the required 8 seconds.

What fascinated me most was the full range of expressions of both the bull-fighters and fellow riders and production staff–watching from around and behind the protective gates–which displayed elation, heartfelt winces, anticipation and then unreservedly shouted support at their top of their lungs.

My favorite shot was a true ‘decisive moment’, which appeared to show a production manager in a nice sports jacket–and some photographers–hastily scrambling up the gates as a loose bull thundered by…

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Photojournalism can be interpreted so broadly these days, often associated with breaking news, violent altercations, exotic travel destinations or extreme weather, but, for myself–and for many others–the word is most significantly displayed in the photographs of the ‘everyday’… even in something as simple as a production crew member’s silent satisfaction of a job well done:

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Article by L. R. Styles 1-31-2017. Photographer: Steven Styles/Belator Media.

(Click this link to view the full PBR Golden 1 Center 3-day event album)