CNN Photos

A passion for pigeon racing

When Hernan Montoya first arrived in Barcelona, Spain, he had no money, no place to stay, and he knew no one. He left behind the familiar in his home country, Colombia, for a brighter future in Spain.

It was while resting on a bench in a public square that Montoya first noticed the pigeons flying overhead. For days, he watched the group of pigeons glide across the sky before realizing they were racing pigeons.

He followed the pigeons to their residence, a decision that would turn his life around.

“His first days in Barcelona were very hard,” said Serena De Sanctis, an Italian photographer who spent a year with Montoya documenting his relationship with the birds. “That day (he followed the pigeons) changed his life.”

Once Montoya found the rooftop home of the pigeons, he met the man who cared for them and who offered Montoya food and a place to sleep. Montoya began to look after the birds, and his host helped him find a job.

Thirteen years later, Montoya is living in the same building caring for the pigeons.

“The story caught me completely,” De Sanctis said. “It was magical.”

She first met Montoya through the Federation of Pigeons in Barcelona, an organization that facilitates pigeon racing competitions.

“I wanted to document the races and what was behind the federation and this sport,” De Sanctis said. “The president (of the federation) told me that I had to meet Hernan, one of the best in the competitions.”

Almost as soon as De Sanctis met Montoya, she knew his story was special.

“When I met Hernan, I realized that he was the perfect person to help me understand this sport because of his passion,” she said.

Montoya’s love for his pigeons is evident in De Sanctis’ photographs. One can sense how deeply he cares for the pigeons and how dependent they are on each other.

“I've been always interested in animal behavior,” De Sanctis said. “In this project I had the opportunity to be close to these animals to observe their life. They are extremely intelligent and faithful animals.”

In two of the images, Montoya stands in an open field preparing to release his pigeons for a competition. De Sanctis traveled with Montoya and other pigeon fanciers on a long journey to the starting point of the race.

“We spent many hours in the truck before we stopped to sleep for the night,” De Sanctis said. “When we woke up, we started again to travel to the point of the release of the birds.”

De Sanctis captures the moment all the pigeons are freed from their cages. She is so close, one can almost hear the wings flapping.

“The release is always a magic moment,” De Sanctis said. “The sound of hundreds of wings is loud until they are so far that you cannot hear (the birds) anymore.”

Montoya credits the pigeons with saving his life. Because of the birds, he found a home and companionship in a new city.

“It is always exciting to meet people with passions — passions so strong that they are part of their lives completely,” De Sanctis said. “We all need this.”

- Allison Love, CNN