February 24, 2017 – Tucson Rodeo

Jabe Anderson III, of Dillon, MT, earning a 6.1 second time during Thursday’s steer wrestling event.

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Yesterday I found myself in familiar territory: the Tucson Rodeo. The Fiesta de los Vaqueros.

It’s bittersweet, now. It always will be, from this day until my last. I’ve spent my entire life pretty disinterested in sports and competition. The eye-liner and dreadlocks and high school were a pretty strong hint. I never had the time or the patience or the interest to learn the rules; football still confuses me, and baseball still bores me.

Several years ago, however, when I was unemployed and struggling to find work and fill the empty hours, an old college friend asked if I’d like to go to the Tucson Rodeo. He was a press photographer and said he’d fudge the facts a bit, call me his assistant, and get me a press pass. He was good like that, knowing that I was a motivated photographer with little that was going my way, few excuses to pick up my camera.

I hadn’t been to a rodeo since I was in elementary school, a field trip to the Kansas City Royal. I said ‘yes’ to my buddy, of course, even though I didn’t really feel any spark or drive to go. I knew I didn’t have any excuse not to go out and take pictures. And would you believe it? The fish out of water – the industrial rock androgynous artist – had a really great time behind the bucking chutes, smelling the livestock, watching the men and women riding beautiful, giant, muscled horses. It got into me, and it has never left.

For several years, my friend William and I, regardless of what was going on in our lives, found each other at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds. We photographed beside one another, and we huddled over our computers at the end of the day, flasks of whiskey or shared pitchers of beer at Danny’s Lounge, combing through all the images and critiquing one-another’s work.

Sports photography is radically different than any other kind of photography I was ever familiar with. Everything happens so incredibly quickly. You have to be focused. You have to try and anticipate what’s going to happen next. And you never walk away feeling like you did the best job; you always feel like you could have done it better. That’s good for a photographer. It’s good for an artist. It’s good to be in situations that challenge you.

My friend shot himself a couple of years ago. My best friend. He left his friends, his family, and his wife behind. This is my second rodeo without him. I almost don’t feel like going out and doing it anymore, except for this strange sense that I’m reconnecting with him every time I put on my cowboy boots and feel the crunch of dirt beneath my feet in the arena. All of the other people in the press trailer knew him, too, so we tell stories and reinforce our memories of him, our love for him.

It’s more than just cowboys and horses for me now.