The passion for breeding birds and their birdsong has a long tradition throughout Spain. This passion is nearly exclusively male and has its roots mainly in the rural areas of southern Spain. As a result, bird associations and clubs are primarily located in the outskirts of Barcelona, as many people moved from more rural areas closer to the city in recent years.

Many of the “birdmen” in Spain learned the techniques for breeding and training their birds from their fathers. These groups of men meet on weekends from January to July in order to participate in competitions organized by the individual clubs around Catalonia. There are around 500 clubs with nearly 10,000 members throughout Spain. Despite what you might think, this passion is shared by both young and old alike. Some of them work, but many are retired. Likewise, a few of them are very competitive, while others consider it a pleasurable way to pass the time together.

During the so-called “speed” competitions that I documented in my project, the birds are divided by species, numbered, and lined up on a table. As soon as the clock starts running (timing varies for each round), any bird that sings is removed from the table by the umpire. Those birds move on to the next round. This continues until the winners are decided. As there are no cash prizes, the participants compete only for the personal glory that comes with a first-place award.

Outside of competitions, especially on warm days, it isn’t unusual to see men out and about the city with their bird cages. They are usually looking for sunny spots where they can train their songbirds. Sometimes they meet up in parks or squares to exchange opinions and tricks of the trade.

The passion and dedication of the birdmen encouraged me to follow them and develop this story. I was also drawn to the small “rituals” that these people practice before, during, and after competitions: the way they cover their cages, the special words they use to describe their passion, the routines they adhere to during the training and competitions, their special nicknames…all of these details painted an intriguing picture. It took me some time to gain their confidence, and yet after a few weeks most of them had become used to my presence; they started asking me to take photographs of them and their birds. Eventually, they taught me the rules and the different aspects of this hobby, introduced me to other participants, and guided me towards their meeting places.

Although my own feelings about this pastime vary (I certainly don’t like the idea of keeping birds in cages), I understand that for these enthusiasts, the hobby goes deeper: they seem to truly love their birds. They love taking care of them and relish their singing. The birds also link them to their roots and family. For many of these birdmen, these gatherings introduced them to a community of people with shared interests and values. Though there are, of course, participants who are driven solely by the thought of winning.

But even after spending months shooting the project and getting to know my subjects, there remained one unanswered question that stood out to me: can you love something and still keep it locked in a cage?

—Ezio Ratti

Editors’ Note: This project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2016—don’t miss the work from all 50 of these outstanding, international talents!

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like these previous features: more ‘birdmen’ in the South American country of Suriname (and the Netherlands); School of Shepherds, Joan Alvado’s project on the young men and women in Spain who are reviving this traditional occupation; and Desperately Perfect, a photo essay on the trials of young ballet students at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia.