The passion of the Palio

By Matthew Knight, CNN

Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT) September 29, 2015
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The Palio di Siena is a horse race like no other on earth. The mad, sometimes brutal dash around the Tuscan city's Piazza del Campo has been contested since medieval times.

The biannual event, which takes place on July 2 and August 16, sees Siena's neighboring districts battle it out for supremacy and bragging rights. The race lasts barely 90 seconds with 10 jockeys riding bareback three times around the piazza in front of a baying crowd. Unlike traditional racing, horses that unseat their riders can still win.

As Siena gears up for this year's second race on Sunday, British photographer Greg Funnell explains what it's like to be in the thick of the action at this extraordinary spectacle.
© Greg Funnell
"Covering any large sporting and cultural event like the Palio is an exciting opportunity," Funnell told CNN.

"The spectacle provides ample opportunities to grab a wide range of images conveying the event and surrounding atmosphere. Races have a defined timeline which means building a narrative is quite straightforward but often involves shooting ahead of the race as well as after."
© Greg Funnell
"The Palio is a hugely colorful event but I've always enjoyed shooting in black and white -- for me the Palio feels quite timeless, and the absence of color helped maintain that feeling," says Funnell, who attended the event in 2014.

"The race itself takes places after hours of parades and build up ... the importance of the race to the cultural identity of the Sienese cannot be taken lightly and is something very difficult for an outsider to fully grasp."
© Greg Funnell
"I find there is much to be gained from turning your camera on the spectators and the crowd, often the energy and suspense is reflected in their faces -- the tension becomes palpable," the London-based photographer said.
© Greg Funnell
"Moments before the race the 60,000-strong crowd is almost deadly silent. When the canon fires and the rope drops there is intense excitement but also relief -- it feels like a huge collective release." © Greg Funnell
"The race itself is over in 90 seconds -- the local authorities allow a limited number of accredited photographs onto certain parts of the track -- so there's nothing separating you from the horses."
© Greg Funnell
"You really only have two attempts to shoot the horses as by the third lap the crowd are starting to get up from their seats and invade the track." © Greg Funnell
"A few of my shots towards the end of the race were blurry because I was shooting and moving at the same time. I debated pulling the image from the story but I think it goes a little way to describing the sense of heightened drama." © Greg Funnell
"Getting shots after the race was chaos -- all around people are running and screaming, embracing, cheering, crying; and it takes a lot of mental energy just to stay focused and work on getting shots as there is so much to take in -- it's total pandemonium." © Greg Funnell
"My favorite jobs are when I'm sent to cover something of cultural or historical significance. I love a story with sense of drama and romance ..."

Greg Funnell is represented by Stem Agency and his photo assignments can be followed on Twitter and Instagram: @gregfunnell

All images in this gallery are © Greg Funnell
© Greg Funnell