Several years ago, Shanghai, China-based photographer Marc Ressang saw some captivating photos of the intense game “Buzkashi,” taken in Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Then last year, Marc encountered a game in a remote part of Uzbekistan while traveling. Once he had seen the game in person, he was hooked and felt he needed to spread awareness of this underreported sport.
Buzkashi, translated as “goat dragging” in Persian, is a fast-paced and intense sport played on horseback in several Middle Eastern cultures. It was developed between the 10th and 15th centuries by early nomadic Turkic peoples and is still played today.
The game has different play styles and game structures that vary by region, but competition is always fierce. Tajikistan, in particular, has a very loose play style that often lends itself to a chaotic free-for-all. Absent of team allegiances, individual riders compete against all others to gain control of the carcass (buz) and carry it to a goal. Games are comprised of many short matches and individual victors are awarded prizes.
The players, or “chapandaz,” wear heavy clothing and head protection to protect themselves from any number of environmental hazards, which includes whips from other riders. Rules are kept to a minimum and typically protect against intentionally whipping or unhorsing another rider, although many variations exist.
Marc had two central goals for this project. He wanted to see the frenetic game again in person and document the sport in an engaging way that would be more interesting than typical documentary coverage.
I wanted to transfer it into a video format through which people could experience the same amount of amazement and excitement that you would get seeing it live.
Much careful planning went into the preparation for the shoot. Marc learned that the game is primarily played in the winter months, and the biggest games are scheduled around Nowruz, or Persian New Year, coinciding with the first days of spring.
Being of Turkic descent, the game is only found in Central Asia, so he expected to travel for this project. Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan, so Marc initially considered traveling there but was unable due to budgetary and safety considerations. Instead, he opted to travel to Tajikistan, which was only marginally easier to accomplish. Once there, Marc had to locate a fixer to help him navigate the terrain and the culture, and most importantly find an actual game of buzkashi.
He needed to pack light for travel and stay mobile to document the games. He loaded up one small backpack for his minimal gear and set off to find the game.
Shooting the sport was incredibly unpredictable. Marc was surprised by the general lack of safety measures in place for players and fans. There were no physical barriers for the field, and Marc was able to walk around before and after the games to get shots.
It was interesting to see the players’ preparation rituals, with shows of intimidation – you can really feel the testosterone building in the air.
He could also walk directly onto the field during an active game.
There was no separation between the crowd and the field, making us very much in the middle of the action and at times, in danger of getting trampled by a swarm of horses.
Marc’s challenge was getting close enough to the players to get shots while still avoiding being flattened by a frenzied mass of chaos. While maintaining a crucial spatial awareness, he was constantly switching between video and shooting stills on both digital and film cameras. This proved to be quite the challenge.
The best part was just the constant adrenaline rush while watching the game, trying to get the right shots and dodging one hundred horses running straight at you.
Marc had to duck out and run for safety several times. He stowed away some of his gear in a central location that would provide shelter and keep them safe from the scrum.
There were some walls and fences to jump behind once the game came too close. But that didn’t stop the riders. They would occasionally take their horse off the playing field to score points, even if it meant running through the crowd or parking lots.
Marc’s project has received positive reactions. The story and images have been scooped by several outlets and his prints have sold well. He has also encountered a fair amount of criticism on the treatment of the horses. It’s undoubtedly a rough sport for them as well.
Marc plans to continue this project by creating a photo series focusing on portraits of the riders. The trick is getting back to Tajikistan. He’s pleased with what he documented so far and is content to let his circumstances dictate the future of the project.
It is an amazing sight to see a few hundred riders tightly controlling horses in the pouring rain with steam rising from the heat of their bodies. The intensity is just something I can’t describe in words, so I tried with video instead.”
Check out Marc’s incredible video below to see the game of Buzkashi in action. View it full screen. Seriously.
Photographer: Marc Ressang