Sanfermines by Ramón Masats

In Pamplona, a white-walled, sun-baked town high up in the hills of Navarre, is held in the first two weeks of July each year the World’s Series of bull fighting. Bull fight fans from all Spain jam into the little town. Hotels double their prices and fill every room…..” With these words Ernest Hemingway, opened in 1923 a text about his first passage at the annual festivities in Pamplona, the so-called Sanfermines. He would return four more times to the festival and it is argued that his literary love affair with the Sanfermines has forged the modern concept of the festival.

In 1923 allegedly only 20 tourists had showed up to attend the nine days party. Today Pamplona attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. But, those who have been there and done it will know: despite the crowds, the Sanfermines have kept a good part of their authenticity. It is still crazy, it is still total madness. To say it in Hemingway’s words, the Sanfermines still turn “all other carnivals pale in comparison“.

How come that the fiesta has kept its authenticity? Is it because of the peninsula’s decades long isolation from the cultural homogenization in other parts of Europe? Is it indeed Hemingway’s legacy that is guarding the true form of the carnival? Or is it maybe Henri-Cartier Bressons iconic reportage in the early 1950’ies that definitively moulded the form of the fiesta? For sure, it is also Ramón Masats’ superb photo-essay “Los Sanfermines” that has shaped the Sanfermines fiesta as it is today!


Masats covered the Sanfermines in the late fifties for one of the leading magazines of the period (Gaceta ilustrada). In 1963 the Espasa Calpe publishing firm in Barcelona published his photographs in a book called “Los Sanfermines”. It contained 141 B&W pictures and 15 colour shots, all made in the late 1950’ies. For the first edition, Ramón Masats agreed to include pictures that were shot by other photographers as well. But he remained the final editor of the photographs and he also composed the pages of the book that won a national prize for the best edited book of the year.


In 2009 La Fábrica Editorial (Madrid) has published a new edition of this work, revised by the then 78 years old Masats: Sanfermines. The new edition exclusively contains Masats own B&W photographs and also the Hemingway alpha-text about the festival. Chema Conesa did the neat and beautiful book design which perfectly honours Masats’ sober, modern way of looking. Please look at the book’s prelude to check this out!

© Ramón Masats


So, what is it all about? Each year, on the 6th of July at 12 AM, a rocket (the chupinazo) is shot into the sky above the town hall square of Pamplona. From that moment onwards its inhabitants collectively enter that other, uncompromisingly carnivalesque dimension of their lives. They all take a nine days break from ordinary life full of economic hardship (poverty remains Spains biggest secret).


© Ramón Masats

During this annual break the partygoers no longer reckon with the normal time units (“It is Sanfermines all the time!”). Until the 14th of July, the fiesta unfolds itself as an endless, cyclic frieze of weird images, rituals, sounds, actions, smells and tastes. The new beacons of time and place comprise the famous encierro (running in front of the bulls), the procession, the kiosk concerts, the riau-riau, the fountain jumpings, and as a matter of course also the cruel enactment of a myth in which a drunk audience dressed in white celebrates the torture and murder of a black bull. Thus, the fiesta develops itself as a crazy filmscript in which the actors have to play every day the same role. A new order has taken over control.

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© Ramón Masats

What makes Masat’s book a masterpiece is that its composition closely follows the syntax of the alternative order which reigns in town.  Chema writes in his afterword: “What Masats was most insistent about was the order in which the images are placed to tell the story as it happened. As a maker of documentaries for television he was known for his meticulous editing and for the care he took with the tempo of each story. In this instance he was careful to respect the order of the events in Pamplona. Despite some unavoidable jumps the narrative decribes the development of the Sanfermines quiet accurately“.

A series of captions of gently dancing men and women taken on different locations in town act as “unavoidable jumps” between all the episodes of the fiesta.




© Ramón Masats

Masats’ “photo-essay” also mirrors very well the abundance itself of the fiesta. The book does never seem to reach its finale. Its pages are not even numbered! We cannot but follow the endless frieze of partygoers drinking, eating, dancing, strolling around, flirting, napping, playing, singing …… And, what makes the work all the more great and powerful is that we feel that Masats takes the participants as seriously as the participants take their rituals seriously.

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© Ramón Masats

Let us focus now on two specific elements of the fiesta as Masats is showing them in his book. Firstly, the dancing giants! Every day, as soon as the street sweepers have finished their impossible job, eight giants appear in the streets of Pamplona.  They are accompanied by so-called Cabezudo’s (thickheads), Kilikis (bodyguards among which Caravinagre or Vinegarface) and Zaldikos (half humans, half horses) who are entertaining both young and old spectators. Would these sovereigns not be the perfect metaphors for the partying people of Pamplona itself? During the fiesta they are freed from the constraints of normal life and they have merged and unified into one “gigantic” body.

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© Ramón Masats

Another interesting element of the book is that Masats does not neglect the roots of the Sanfermines. Historically it was all about  poor farmers and breeders from rural Navarra who came in July to the annual livestock fair in the provincial capital. The brave but pitiful labourers of the primary sector were allowed to join the wealthier bourgeoisie for nine days only. And that is when they built a carnavalesque utopian world in which they could feel like giants.


© Ramón Masats

Today, the peninsula is no longer isolated culturally. A globalized culture – with its ahistoric imagination very unlike the images of the carnivalesque giants- is spreading all over the country. Local farmers and breeders are disappearing also in Spain. Yet, the Sanfermines still attract crowds from all over the globe. And also the dancing giants still appear every day in the streets. As always they are putting a smile on the faces of their faithful audiences.

What a fiesta! Superbly forged and preserved by some of the finest artists of the 20th century? Thank you for this Mr. Hemingway. Thank you very much Mr. Masats!