White Horses of France’s Camargue 2012 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Jun 12, 2012

In the United States it seems horses are found virtually everywhere—in ranchland habitats as diverse as snowy mountain meadows and flat cactus-filled deserts. So why in the world would anyone want to fly all the way to France to shoot a bunch of muddy white horses in a soggy marsh in Provence? The answer is the images produced there are absolutely fantastic!

The world-famous “wild” Camargue horses found in the South of France along the Mediterranean Sea offer incredible action photography opportunities with a “look and feel” to images unattainable elsewhere! Camargue horses are not exceptionally pretty. But, en masse, their uniformity of size, color and shape—short legs and barrel chests provide them the strength to race through the soft Camargue wetland at exceptional speed—produces images of determined white horses galloping as the water explodes around them in all directions.

Many of the Camargue horses are turned out to graze in large tracts of fenced wild land throughout the year. Their habits, when loose, resemble some of the behaviors of their truly wild ancestors before domestication and before the fencing of the Camargue marshland at the periphery of the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue. There are no truly “wild” horses remaining in the Camargue, but some of these come as close as you can get.

The horses we run through the marsh are corralled by the “gardians”—the Camargue equivalent of cowboys (but less rough around the edges than the typical cowboy stereotype). With the gardians on horseback, as many as 15 horses are driven straight toward us while we shoot as they go charging past. “In theory” we can orchestrate the direction the horses are sent barreling towards us. In practice, however, it is often an anything goes proposition—the horses sometimes finish their run virtually within arm’s-length. Anyone who shoots this will not deny it’s “damn exciting!”

Images of the Camargue horses racing through water are found on virtually every postcard in the region. Tourists expect to see this kind of behavior from the roadway and shoot it with their cell phones! If you travel to the Camargue on your own and drive around, don’t expect to see herds of horses charging around all over the place. You’d be very disappointed. Horses just don’t do that unless they are “encouraged.” Plus the high cost of renting the land for a shoot and hiring the gardians (usually 8–10 riders each day) make the proposition far too expensive, for most—unless you go with a group!

On our tour we stayed at the seaside resort town of Saints-Maries-del-la-Mer which provides access to dozens of wonderful restaurants specializing in seafood and other regional dishes. But what also made this trip extraordinary are the dinners at our hotel after a hard day in the field. Simply put, the food at the hotel was sublime. On all of my annual travels all over the world I get to enjoy cuisine from many cultures—but nowhere in the world during my 35 years of international travel were we served dinners as delicious as this! Ever. It is just one of those things you have to experience for yourself!

The Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau wildlife reserve that is a seasonal home to thousands of greater flamingos and countless other waterbirds is nearby. During a break in the horse shooting we took an afternoon to enjoy its wonderful photography opportunities. (And as soon as the good light was gone we zipped back to the hotel for another amazing dinner!) Many of the flamingos are very unwary and allow wonderful portraits, and other species like gray herons, little egrets, night herons, stilts and avocets can be photographed here. The small island heronry there provides great access to nesting herons. Amazingly, it resembles the species mix and close-shooting proximity of the famous Venice heronry in Florida. While overhead, flashy pink birds flying in a bright blue sky couldn’t get more vibrant!

The finale of this trip comes as we head to the coast to run some horses in the Mediterranean surf. Sorry tourists, you won’t see that on your self-drive around Provence, either! With a gardian in a wet suit, the horses are led into the surf while leaving some horses on shore to attract the photo subjects back to the herd (they’re herding animals after all)! We stand on shore in our own little herd, next to their little herd, and shoot like mad as the horses quickly go flying past in the breaking waves. Wow, what an exciting image! What a week of photography!

Join Jeff Vanuga in the Camargue next year. (Come for the horses—stay for the food!)