My job with the rodeo is a unique one. I don’t ride or rope during the performance, but I spend my entire night on the dirt, and even though you probably see me, if I’ve done my job right, you’ve forgotten about me by the time you’ve left your seat. Actually, I’m not even fun to watch, but I’m having just as much fun as anyone in the place, if not more. I’m the rodeo photographer.
The job starts when my pickup stops in the parking lot. I’ve already downed a Monster drink on my way to the show, and I’m ready to go as soon as I’m on location. In fact, my camera is out of the bag, powered-up, and ready to go before my boots hit gravel, because you just never know what you might see on the way to the gates.
It’s not the first time I’ve said it, but the best part of the rodeo really is the people. One of the most fun things is walking into “the office” and seeing people you know. It’s handshakes, hellos, and how-are-yas with people who are friends, and those who are about to be friends. Rodeo is a tight community, and that’s exactly how we like it. There are plenty of opportunities to shoot photos of the livestock, people, and all the action behind the scenes. There’s a feeling of the calm before the storm, and every participant loves it. For me, it’s a chance to get detail shots of all kinds of things. There’s a story in every bareback rigging, pair of chaps and spurs, and all the other unique pieces of rodeo tack hanging around. They’re evocative of the sport we love, and western gear is just so handsome. There’s plenty happening before the first gate swings!
Once it does swing, all hell breaks loose. In every other type of photography, there is a saying that “the shot comes first,” but this does not apply in rodeo photography. In this game, safety comes first, and the shot second. The most important thing to the rodeo photographer is knowing where safety is, which means knowing where you can climb out of the way of oncoming rough stock. A ladder or panel will do just fine, but when a bronc is flying around the arena, it really doesn’t care where you are, and only one of you is going to give, so my policy is to bail early. As soon as I have the slightest inclination that an animal is coming my way, I have a hand on my escape rail. It’s just not worth the risk of physical harm. (People frequently ask if the bull riding is the most volatile section for me, but I find that the broncs are more concerning. Bulls will run at you, but horses kick high, and sometimes even when you’re all the way on top of your panel, those hooves get awfully close. This is not to say that the bull riding is time to get comfortable….)
Each event has its own challenges. A bronc might run right at you, taking you off your mark, or straight away, leaving you with a less-than-ideal shot. Bulldoggers operate in a dark space between two horses. Team ropers can run a mile apart, meaning you might get the header *or* the heeler in a shot. It can be very dark for the barrel races. All this and most bull rides give you fewer than four seconds to get the job done. It’s a constant process of getting in the right spot, checking and re-checking settings, and constantly reminding yourself how lucky you are to have a job that lets you do this. If it was predictable, it wouldn’t be fun!
By the time the night is over, I’m worn out. Now, I would never say that I work as hard as anyone else in that arena, but the mental taxation that comes from having your head on a swivel and the lens tricking you as to the distance between you and the action is plenty for me. It’s a lot of thinking, a lot of running, and a lot of “what if” for three straight hours. The drive home doubles as a second-prep on the day, because, by the time I’m done, there are a few thousand images on SD cards, waiting to be discovered, culled, and processed. At the end of the day, I’ve not only made a day full of memories, but I’m carrying the memories of every person who trusted me to capture their run or ride. Sometimes I’m done by 2 a.m. and sometimes I’m barely started, but one thing is for sure:
When I do this job, I am never, ever bored. I’m not just the rodeo photographer. I’m a rodeo junkie.