As a result of the COVID-19 travel bans, news outlets have been sharing stories that offer their audience a feel of global connectedness. Over the last year and a half, The New York Times has produced a weekly feature, The World Through a Lens, in which readers can virtually tour the world through the eyes and stories of photographers.
Istanbul-based Bradley Secker connected with the publication to write about his experience witnessing the 35th annual Turkish Camel Wrestling Festival in 2017. He offers his words and images to tell the story of an ancient and timeless tradition that only a small part of the world ever knew existed.
In his career as a photojournalist, Bradley has previously worked with The New York Times and felt comfortable pitching a few ideas to them. The editors were immediately hooked by his experience at the festival, as not many photographers have captured this unique sport before.
The goal of publishing this feature was to help people experience and learn about something unique while sitting at home due to travel restrictions.
The festival is held annually on the country’s Aegean coast, in a town called Selçuk. Home to the Greek ruins of Ephesus, this area was once an ancient wonder of the world and is visited by many tourists in the summer months. In January, when the Camel Wrestling festival takes place, there are rarely any outsiders and Bradley was one of the only non-Turkish spectators at the scene.
Bradley had been eager to attend the festival since moving to Turkey nearly ten years prior. While his city friends remarked that the event was “mawkish” and for tourists, the camel lover didn’t let these opinions deter him from witnessing the spectacle for himself.
The festival happens in January when there are only a few international tourists in the area, which helped to authenticate the experience for me.
When Bradley arrived on the scene he was immediately struck by an array of sounds, smells, and colors that brightened the dreary winter chill. In a valley between ruinous hills, the arena is populated with spectators who bring chairs, tables, and food for a day spent watching the events. Many are seen drinking the traditional Turkish Raki, made with aniseed, and sip it while waiting at stalls for sizzling sausages that send smoke trails into the sky.
Although I attended the event in 2017, I still remember the low din of chitchat, the occasional collective gasp, and, of course, the smell of damp camel’s hair and excrement.
While camels are no longer used for transportation in this part of the world, the community of Turkish camel owners and trainers comes from a legacy rooted in ancient Turkic tribes. In the modern world, the festival honors the traditions of the past, yet is now geared more towards entertainment and socializing than competitive wrestling.
These days, it seems to be as much about socializing, gossiping, and drinking as it is about the camels battling it out in the sand.
In the wild, Camels instinctively wrestle with each other, which is how the Turkish tradition came to be. Although the event is competitive, the matches are staged and not intended to become boisterous or violent. These dromedary creatures use their elongated necks to force each other into submission and a camel wins by making its opponent scream, fall, or simply retreat.
Trainers remain close on hand to ensure neither party is injured. And at the end winners are rewarded with a beautiful mass-produced Turkish carpet.
In his three days at the festival, Bradley enjoyed spending time with the Turkish camel trainers, who he remembers as a lively and welcoming group. He witnessed the profound care that they have for their animals, which immediately took him back to his youth, where he owned and cared for a camel (Alfie) while backpacking through the Syrian desert.
I owned a camel in pre-conflict Syria, as a slightly naive backpacker in my younger years, so I had love and appreciation for camels before this project.
These camels are typically worth $10,000, with prized camels valued at $100,000 or more. As a result, the trainers and owners work hard to protect their investments from any kind of harm. One trainer, Yilmaz Bicak, opened up to Bradley about the deep connection he has with his camels and the lengths he takes to ensure their safety. Leading up to the festival, Yilmaz sleeps next to the camels overnight in a barn on the outskirts of town and rarely rests while monitoring their well-being.
As a photojournalist, Bradley knows the importance of capturing elements that cannot be understood until they are seen. His images speak to a part of Turkish culture that international visitors don’t often bear witness to, and provide insight into a practice that some readers might have mistaken as inhumane.
The pandemic has stalled what once was a time-honored tradition for the near 20,000 spectators who come to the festival annually. Bradley’s story offers a window into the enjoyment of past events and he hopes that international readers will seek out authentic experiences like these when travel recommences.
Photographer: Bradley Secker