This image was taken during the main procession of the wild and wonderful Rijeka Carnival in Croatia. Held on the last Sunday before Lent, this is one of the largest Shrovetide Carnival processions in Europe – an enormous event with up to 10,000 participants from up to 100 carnival groups, and well over 100,000 spectators.
Among the most striking (and these days, best known) participants are the zvončari or ‘bell ringers’, men dressed in shaggy sheepskin cloaks and elaborate head gear – horned masks, tall hats with garlands of paper flowers, or as pictured here, enormous cattle skulls – with wooden clubs and huge cowbells tied about their waists.
The zvončari come from Kastav and surrounding villages, in the hilly area just inland from Rijeka. There are several groups of them. They form part of an old pagan tradition in which men wearing these or similar costumes would go from house to house and village to village during the weeks before Lent, driving out evil spirits which may have gathered there over the winter months, and ushering in the beginning of spring – and as often as not, getting increasingly drunk in the process.
In the image shown here, the zvončari have stopped to form an outwards-facing circle, and are swinging their hips rhythmically to create an impressively loud clamour of cowbells. Away from the spotlight of the Rijeka Carnival, they still do their traditional rounds among the villages near Kastav, the various groups sometimes merging into a trail several kilometres long. The zvončari were inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.
This was the first of two years in which I covered the Rijeka Carnival, shooting with a couple of ongoing personal projects in mind. It was a fairly overcast day with frequent drizzle, turning to heavier rain in the evening. I was using a Nikon D700 with a 14-24 f2.8 – I prefer shooting events like this with a 14-24 and getting in as close as possible, rather than working within the 24-70 range. Having found a setting I was happy with, I simply switched to manual exposure for the rest of the afternoon and concentrated on trying not to collide with half drunk club-wielding men wearing sheepskins and cattle skulls.
Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel and documentary photographer and writer specialising in Croatia and Eastern Europe.
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