“The White Horses of the Camargue” by Tony Bonanno

“The White Horses of the Camargue” by Tony Bonanno ( website | Facebook):

I’ve photographed horses for many years, both for my own fine art portfolio and for clients.  I’ve photographed quarter horses on western ranches, grand prix jumpers, rodeo horses, and wild roaming Spanish Mustangs.  Equine photography has been one of my specialties.  

The White Horses of the Camargue in France?  To be honest, I had never heard of them. It all began in 2014. I was leading a photo program in Cuba and one of the participants was photojournalist Jodie Willard from Santa Barbara, California.  Jodie was an experienced equine photographer and she invited me to co-lead a photo workshop with her in the Camargue in the Spring of 2015.  She described the beautiful White Horses and the “Gardian” culture (the “keepers” of the horses).  Jodie and I did four workshops together.  That is how my love affair with the Camargue started.  I’ve been doing a workshop every Spring in the Camargue, but the Covid19 pandemic resulted in the 2020 workshop being tentatively rescheduled to early October, 2020.

The Camargue Horse is an ancient breed, estimated to be 12,000 to 14,000 years old.  Over the centuries, these horses adapted to the harsh environment of the Camargue wetlands and marshes of southern France. They are hardy, disease resistant, agile, and sure footed. The Camargue Horse is the traditional mount of the Gardian culture, but most Camargue Horses have never been ridden or broken.  They are wonderful animals to watch and study.. and to photograph. 

Today, most of the horses are semi-feral and live on large expanses of open lands (or mantes) managed by the Gardians.  The Gardians are responsible for protecting the herds and ensuring the purity of the breed.  The Gardians and herders are very passionate about their horses.  They’ve been working with these horses for generations and they are proud of their lifestyle, their culture, and their horses.  It is a love affair.  As one Gardian told me, they and the horse are one.  And a challenge for myself and my workshop participants is to capture this love affair in camera.

Photographing the horses in their aquatic environment, especially when galloping with the Gardians and the herders require a certain technique for best results.  Cameras with good focus tracking and high resolution sensors are really helpful. The rule of thumb is to shoot “wide” and create the final composition in post.  Aside from the equipment challenges, there is the environment itself.  You are in swamps, marshes, sandy beaches, muck, mud, and often in the water.  Mosquitoes can be plentiful, so working “covered up” with netting, waders, etc. is often the dress of the day.  One of the challenges (and rewards) is working “in the horse’s environment”.. in the same terrain that they reside in.  Most of my work in the Camargue has been done with the Nikon D810, D850, and D5 cameras.  The lens I use the most for the horses is the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8.

I am often asked by friends and colleagues if they can just go to the Camargue and photograph these wonderful animals in the same settings that they see in my images.  Unfortunately, the answer is generally “no”.  Since the horses are semi-feral or being used by the Gardians to manage their herds of cattle, getting access is complicated.  All these horses are on private lands.  If you go to the region, you will probably see horses from the roadside and possibly get some good photographs.   You can also go out on a trail ride from with a herder/guide along with other tourists.  If you want a more authentic experience, you will have to contact a local Gardian or herder and see what they can offer you as far as getting you “out” with the horses.  Often this will require several “herders” to get the horses to your camera.. and it gets expensive.  On a positive note, you will be helping the local economy.  The other option is to participate in a workshop.  The costs of the workshop will usually cover the Gardians, herders, locations, etc.  And it will be an adventure of a lifetime.

I keep going back to the Camargue with my cameras.  I want to tell the story of the Gardians’ traditional culture (while it still exists) and their role in managing the herds and protecting the breed.    

I’ve been working on a book, “The White Horses of the Camargue,” about the Gardian culture and the Camargue horses.  If all goes as planned, the book will be published by Art Guild Press, Santa Fe, NM, in the first half of 2021.

PS – Gardian is the French word for the “keeper” of the herds in southern France.  It is not spelled Guardian. :-).

Tony Bonanno is a professional photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He is a member of Nikon Professional Services, is a Red River Paper Pro, and an instructor at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. 

For more information about the Camargue Horse and the Gardians including information about Tony’s Camargue workshops, visit www.camarguehorses.com.

Other websites, etc.

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/tony.bonanno.790 

My upcoming Santa Fe Photographic Workshops (Nikon is a sponsor): https://www.santafeworkshops.com/instructors/2/ 

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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