A New Image of the American Cowboy: An Interview with Karoliina Paatos



9 minutes reading

Finnish photographer Karoliina Paatos (1979) has been photographing the cowboys of the American West for the last six years, focusing on various aspects of contemporary cowboy culture, such as daily life, macho attitudes and the gay community. She has now brought together a collection of portraits and scenes from ranch life into a new photobook, American Cowboy. She speaks with us here in this interview about the myth of the cowboy, the harshness of ranch life and a photographer’s need to adapt.

There’s a long-standing mythology surrounding cowboys. How did the fantasy compare with reality?

I tried to keep an open mind when I went there for the first time, because I wasn't personally familiar with the culture, but of course all the images from popular culture affect me, too. I would say there's some truth to the myth. A ‘cowboy’ is a job description, like a plumber or a teacher or a truck driver, so there are many different ranch jobs besides just cowboying, but the cowboys are often young males and solitary – they don't have a family yet and they do move around a lot.

What was maybe the most surprising for me, was how unchanged the work description is, actually. Of course, they use cars and tractors now, but you still have to use horses and in many places they rope with a lasso, too. And, all the clothing that they wear is very aesthetic – so it's a good subject for a photo project – but at the same time everything has a function. For example, the scarves they wear, called ‘wild rags’, are made out of silk or a similar material that’s best against the skin, and the leather chaps they wear, which differ from one region to another – whether chinks or chaps or shotguns – protect the legs against brush and cattle. For us, it just about the aesthetics but for them it's functional stuff. Though, the aesthetics are super important to them, too, so they’ll order handmade leather boots, for example.

In your images, you’re not just showing the typical ‘lone wolf’ cowboy though, you’re also showing families. How much of that did you see?

I wanted to broaden the popular image of American cowboys. Even with my title, American Cowboy, I'm not trying to define what an ‘American cowboy’ is, but I'm showing that there is more to it. I think that the culture is dying because it’s more and more a case of big companies owning ranches, rather than families, because land is getting so expensive that people can't afford it and there has been a drought in so many places for such a long time that people can't afford to feed their cattle with store-bought hay, so they have been forced to sell the cattle. So, it’s changing, it’s evolving. It will remain, but it will look a little different, not so many small family-owned ranches. Not so many people can do it anymore, because it's not an easy way of living. Many times, when people start to have children, they go to work at the gold mines or for oil companies – something that they get actual money from.

I'm not trying to define what an ‘American cowboy’ is, but I'm showing that there is more to it

How did you find the people that you photographed? They were spread out over several states, correct?

I’ve been taking pictures in a few states (Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, so, 6 states) but the work in the book is concentrated on this one specific Great Basin region of three states. They all belong to the same community, so everybody knows each other and if you meet someone, you might run into them again two years later, after they’ve been doing something else in the meantime. Then, they’ll end up working with someone else who I've also been photographing. So, they come around and go around and you meet them again. It’s three different states, but it’s really at the intersection, so it's actually a single region where I've been shooting and working. In the bigger picture, it's still just a tiny community, even if it takes hours to drive from one place to another.

How did you integrate yourself?

I was lucky, I encountered some good people on the first trip to northern Nevada. I didn't know anybody at first, but then, I got to know people through other people. When I’m there, I have to stay with them, because all these ranches are so remote. I can't go to a motel and come back in the morning. So, I'm living with them and they are loaning me their horses and saddles and stuff... I'm very grateful.

But I feel like it has gotten easier when people have seen my images and they’re able to see how I see their culture. I show them something that is special about it and something that they don't even realize because they live in the midst of it. It's their everyday life, but when they see it from someone else's perspective, I feel that many of them appreciated it. For all these years, this strange Finnish girl is taking pictures of them doing nothing... of course, my alibi is that I’m shooting when something's happening, and then I just linger, and I don't become invisible but I kind of become part of the group, and that’s when I get these moments of everyday life that I’m really looking for.

Were you helping out with the ranch work, as well?

Yeah, for sure, I helped as much as I can. I can ride myself, but I'm not an expert rider. I've been driving cattle many times together with them. For example, one time I was with the girls that you can see in the pictures and their mom, and we were supposed to take some roping pictures when they realized that the well is dry. The cattle were already dehydrated and getting thin, so we had to move them all of a sudden. We just had one bottle of water between us that we shared and two apples or something, but they are used to that kind of life. The girls didn’t even complain! Even though afterwards, the mom said, “Yeah, they wouldn't complain to you!” But they're great girls and I was so impressed.

You know, sometimes we pushed cattle for hours. You have to take them from one spot to another and it might take eight hours. So, I'm there to take pictures but, of course, whenever I see that there's a stray or something, I do my share. They know I'm not experienced like them, but I've learned over the years, and they say that I have an eye for cows.

You mentioned these young girls in your photos. What is it about them that impresses you so much?

Well, the image of a cowboy is basically a young dude. A rascal, a solitary hero. And then I’m showing these two little girls who do exactly as the big cowboys can do. They are so handy and brave. They compete in rodeos and they rope calves and are just so skillful. I feel like they're excellent role models for everyone and they're very hard-working. Adolescents will change and it’s not set yet what kind of choices they will make and what kind of people they will become, especially there, as it's still a very masculine culture.

There's a seriousness in your images that makes life there seem quite severe. Is that the case, or just the perspective that you wanted to show?

Of course there is happiness there, too. People smile and have relationships and it's also a good life, but how I see it – my vision, that is – is that it’s a very hard life. It's a very solitary life. There is a lot of loneliness and a lot of beauty and a lot of freedom but, at the same time, you are subject to all the forces of nature and you just have to adapt. There’s always the possibility that something bad will happen... actually, it's not even just a possibility: Something bad will happen, you just have to hope it won't be too bad.

Life and death are ever-present there. In wintertime, cows die and they freeze to death in the snow. There is a harshness to life there that I felt I had to include. But also, because it's so beautiful there, if I would just show the sunshine and happiness, it wouldn't give the right impression, even though I want to share that, too. So, now I feel like the balance is right.

There are good moments... but it's a hard life. I couldn't do it. I can visit but I couldn't do it. I'm not stern enough.

What were the challenges for you as a photographer?

Well, you have to be able to ride and take pictures, so if you get a horse that's super antsy, it's very hard. Hopefully you will get a horse that you get along with and it's more of an older, calmer type. You have to be outside a lot, so in general, you have to protect your gear from the weather and work in hard conditions.

I'm not such a huge fan of teleobjectives, but if I'm riding, many times I use my 70 – 200mm because I can't get so close with my horse. The surroundings are so vast that if I would use the 50mm that I really like, then everything would be as small as flies in the wide open space. And something that makes everything look very cool is dust, but there's so much dust there, it's amazing. They call it ‘bug dust’ because it's so fine that when an insect walks on it, you can see his footprints. It gets everywhere, so if you want to change your lens – you don't! (laughs)

Of course you also have to be careful with the animals. They’re very large, and you can't just focus on shooting because you have to be aware of your surroundings and what's happening behind you. So you have to be able to work with animals as well as people.

I think the challenges are the same everywhere: you have to adapt.

American Cowboy has been published by The Angry Bat in an edition of 750 copies and is available for sale online.