In September 2012 I arrived in Manila with no idea of what I was doing there and no story ideas whatsoever. But through a series of random meetings and strange luck I was invited to pitch a tent in an empty patch of land in the working class neighbourhood of San Andres. Though living in a tent in the middle of metro Manila was strange enough, the piece of land I was living on also happened to be the site of an underground cock-fighting farm and training ground. I wrote a short article at the time talking a little about what it was like to live on the farm, but I neglected to post many photos for some reason or another. After digging around in my archives I realized that I had quite a few decent images and thought I’d post a more comprehensive visual story about these illegal death matches happening in the street outside my front door, so to speak.
From the cradle to the grave, these animals are raised only to fight, and most likely die. Large amounts of money can be won on these fights, so a champion bird will most probably fight again and again until he is no longer able to win. Since the blades used are 10cm long and razor sharp, not winning is probably synonymous with death – though there is a potential for the lucky to receive only a blinding or severe maiming.
The fights are illegal. Cock Fighting is one of the most popular sports in the Philippines and is even broadcast on TV, but those fights are regulated and licensed. The fights on the streets of San Andres were underground and subject to police raids. On more than one occasion the local police rushed into the area on motorcycles after a fight was over and admonished the watchers. Typically the losing bird (most likely dead), was given to the officers in payment, presumably to be grilled and eaten down the street at the local police station. Illegal or not, the fights are going to happen, and the police accept this as long as they get something out of it.
What I found particularly confusing about the whole spectacle is the bipolar nature of the affection for the birds. When alive, the proud owners would hold them up and stroke them lovingly. They display them and compare them to their friends birds. A champion is treated like a beloved pet. They obviously care about them greatly, yet the moment the cock loses a fight it is tossed into the gutter like a piece of trash. When I asked one of my local friends, an owner himself, how they can have such a dismissive attitude towards an animal they had spent so much time with, he replied simply “fighting cocks are for fighting.”
I should maybe mention that this story is perhaps not as comprehensive and exposing as I would have liked it to be because after a few days of shooting I realized that I was making enemies. Apparently many of the bird owners believed that it was bad luck to have their fighters photographed and legitimately blamed me for their loss. So out of a mixture of respect for their beliefs and fear of their anger, I stopped taking pictures of the fights themselves.
Note: Some of these images are bloody. This is not a case study in animal rights or ethics. I have my own opinions on cock-fighting and this story is neither condemning nor supporting the practice.