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Portfolio & Interview: Tony Chirinos' Fighting Cocks

Don Quijote, 2000 -- Tony Chirinos

We are pleased to announce a portfolio of images from Tony Chirinos. Titled Fighting Cocks, Chirinos' photographs give a glimpse into a cockfighting community on the island of San Andres, Colombia. Through his special use of flash, Chirinos is able to render his subjects with a startling dimensionality. The photographs of the cocks are especially eerie, their plucked legs and confrontational stances make them appear as fierce creatures, more closely resembling images of dinosaurs than fat and docile backyard hens. Chirinos’ images bring us to the fights, though the photographs are never graphic; the fighting itself is clearly not what Chirinos finds compelling. While the images center on the birds, the men who own them are always on the periphery, creating a unique tension where the birds become reflections of something bigger, the culture that breeds them, the men who hold the sport in high esteem.

Chirinos' interest in cockfighting goes back to his father's stories of his own childhood encounters with fighting roosters. For Chirinos, photography is a way to interact with his heritage and long-standing cultural traditions. Both the series and Chirinos' background are intriguing, and on the occasion of this portfolio, I've asked him to tell us a little bit more about each. -- Sarah Bradley


Altar, 2000 -- Tony Chirinos
Sarah Bradley:     A certain audience will bristle at the mere notion of cock fighting -- which is illegal in the United States -- yet your images seem to avoid simple judgments and instead look deeper, the creatures becoming a metaphor for the masculine culture that breeds and fights them. What drew you to this sport and what has making these images showed you about the culture of cock fighting that you hadn’t previously understood?

Tony Chirinos:     What drew me to cockfighting were the stories that my father would tell the family during dinnertime. My father grew up in Cuba during the most prosperous time that the country ever experienced and yet he was very poor but managed to live a life full of youthful encounters. One of those encounters was owning roosters for cockfighting. He would tell us about the training, shaving of the feathers, cutting the crest, feedings, the preparation for the fight, the spurs and even how to cook a dead fighting rooster. During those hard times nothing went to waste. All those stories that my dad told have vividly stayed in my memory and I was able to relive my father’s youth through my project and images. What my images showed me is that my father’s stories were real; just like in the movie Big Fish directed by Tim Burton, I too was not sure if everything my father told was real and or exaggerated by time.

La Familia, 2000 -- Tony Chirinos

SB:     You've mentioned that you were welcomed into the cock fighting community of San Andres. Can you elaborate on the experience of shooting this series and your interactions with both the men who raise the birds and the animals themselves?

TC:     Well, I became a spectator for two years before I even introduced the camera and I feel that that time gave me the knowledge of all aspects of this sub-culture we call cockfighting. For example, the words that are being used during the fight might seem irrelevant to someone experiencing this chaos for the first time but for the skilled owners of the cocks the same words can mean your cock is winning or loosing or your cock is hurt or the house bets just changed to double or nothing. Those words were very important for me to learn and master because it gave me insight into what was going to happen next forcing me to prepare for the next visual experience that I can capture. The men that participate in this sub-culture range from very humble to mean, aggressive and dangerous and I experience both. Wolly Time was a humble man who invited me to experience the way he trained his 70 cocks. Unfortunately I also saw Wolly get shot and die during a dispute in a cockfighting festival that occurs every Christmas week holiday in San Andres. I also befriended a very aggressive and dangerous man who also owned cocks. I have to thank Carlos Gordon who became my guide and confidant during the seven years that it took to finish this project. As for the birds, I just wanted to make portraits of them not pet them.

Serenata, 2000 -- Tony Chirinos

SB:     I'm curious about the distinctive manner in which you shot this series, utilizing multiple flash heads, which gives the images a unique look. What made you chose to shoot the series like this?

TC:     I can’t speak for all photographers but at least for me I am very fascinated by the fact that we acquire our subjects from the real world but the resulted is always printed on a 2D surface. My interest as a photographer is to open up the spatial distant between the foreground, middle ground and background by using lights the same way the movie industry does, which allows me to recreate a 3D world on a 2D surface. For example, each of the three flash heads are illuminating a specific area of the structured image with very specific light intensity resulting in sculptural looking photographs.

Coño, 2000 -- Tony Chirinos
SB:     In Cocks, as well as a number of your other photographic series, you use photography to explore your Hispanic background. How does your cultural background interact with your photography and how has it influenced your work?

TC:     I feel that I don’t belong and that I am lost in this world ethnically. Born in Venezuela from Cuban parents and migrated to the United States at age of six created this dilemma for me. Who am I, Venezuelan, Cuban or American? I don’t know but I am understanding bit by bit from each photographic project that I complete. My cultural background comes from what I have heard from relatives or seen in pictures and I think that what I am trying to do is recreate that glimpse of culture through the projects that I photograph. For example, Where Men Gather, is a project about Latin Barber Shops and the relationship between men and their longing for home. Photography is my culture and it’s where I best fit.

El Tuerto, 2000 -- Tony Chirinos

SB:     Your photographic background is interesting as well -- you spent years as a bio medical photographer. Can you talk about your path to fine art photography and how this background helped develop your eye?

TC:     This is a very interesting question but a very important one at least for me. My path to fine art was not clear; what was clear to me was that an image/photograph had POWER to effect the viewer and that fascinated me. Fine art is just another category that people try to associate you with what you are doing. I consider myself a documentary style photographer making work that engages the viewer aesthetically and intellectually that also moves beyond mere entertainment to ask the viewer to think critically. I feel that my experience as a bio medical photographer amplified for me the understanding of photography as a visual language, in the same way that a writer masters diction. Being able to express myself using images rather than words gave me the confidence that forces me to have high expectation of what I do and why I do it. Every image/photograph that I produced during my tenure as a bio medical photographer had to be perfect both in technique and in narrative and perfection is what I thrive for.

View the complete portfolio

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