Tripping the poop fantastic

August 19, 2010 

One of the best parts about this job is that it takes you places you’d never go just for the fun of it. And while I feel it’s necessary to always go into these foreign situations with an open mind, some things just don’t float your boat. Sometimes, though, you find something that makes you wonder where it’s been all your life.

While shooting track and field is still atop my list of favorite sports to cover, rodeos are a very close second. And leading the reasons why I love rodeos is the borderline child-abusing event of mutton bustin’.

Last Wednesday, we planned to run a shot from mutton bustin’ to kick off our coverage of the Farm City Pro Rodeo in Hermiston. I remember having a tough time tracking down Carter Poland’s name in 2008 after getting this shot:

So I made sure to abandon my Umatilla County Fair feature hunting nice and early to catch the tiny riders before competition and get some names. Hayley Heller, 4, got nervous and clung to her dad Ryan before deciding to pull out:

I hung around comparing names on the registration cards with the actual kids and their families, making preparation frames along the way. I was trying to capture the semi-hectic scene by layering Sarah and Rigo Contreras helping their brother Daniel, 6, suit up while Dave Kirkpatrick did the same for his son Trevor, 6,

but didn’t like the space between them and couldn’t get things to line up to my liking, so I moved closer to the Kirkpatricks:

When it came time to ride, I opted to shoot it pretty conventionally, hoping to get something similarly funny to the shot of Poland a couple years ago. That one was never published outside of its gallery and with how quick and unpredictable these rides can go, I didn’t feel confident enough to try something quirky.

Four-year-old Ryan Rettkowski’s ride ended quickly,

but I didn’t think this would be a good front page shot. It’s comical and cringe-inducing, to be sure, and I like the expression of the hands in the upper left of the frame, but the focus is on his boots and I didn’t like the frame enough to have a strong argument against the complaints we were sure to get.

This shot of Gigi Follett, 4, about to crash is OK, but I wanted to see more of her face:

I like the gritty toughness in this one of Trevor Kirkpatrick, 6, but it suffers from the same faceless and emotionless syndrome.

Another factor to consider was that the top three riders from each day would qualify for the finals. Despite the light nature of the event, I figured it would be best for the photo in the paper to feature one of the winners. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything good of Cameron Jones, 6, and my best shots of Daniel Contreras, 6, were either boring:

or a contextless shot of a kid eating dirt:

Thankfully, my favorite shot of the action also featured Sydney Stocker, 4, one of the finalists:

I like the lighting, the stride of the sheep and Stocker’s determined intensity as she seemingly clings on with only her legs.

After mutton bustin’ I had to shoot some rodeo action for our sports coverage. Working an earlier shift, however, meant I only had time to shoot the first event — bareback riding. I kept it simple again and ended up liking the flying chaps and expression of George Gillespie IV:

The next day, I worked a later shift with the intention of covering bull riding for our sports section. Since it’s the most dangerous, intense and crowd-pleasing event, it’s always scheduled last, which can make things tough logistically. I took the opportunity to mix up my angles during the earlier events, including round two of mutton bustin’:

and bareback,

also working tighter to focus on expressions and the details of the cowboys’ equipment,

or capturing a moment of multitasking by one of the horses:

And while I still prefer shooting from in the ring, taking the higher angle also let me capture why shooting from in the ring is so exciting, as evidenced by East Oregonian photographer E.J. Harris jumping onto the fence to avoid getting trampled:

It’s fun, keeps you on your toes and can make for some good action, like when Steven Turner of Cochrane, Alberta, came charging toward me during steer wrestling:

But while I love being close to the action, I definitely err on the side of caution once the bulls come out. I’m not nearly as tough or protected as the trained cowboys who ride those beasts:

The extra distance I kept hurt me in a different way, however. Keeping my focus around infinity with the very thin depth of field offered by the 200/1.8 meant that I didn’t have a ton of cropping latitude. I cropped in a bit for the photo we ran of bullfighter Donnie Griggs jumping in to protect rider Kyle Joslin after Poison Oak the bull threw him off,

but there are a lot of distracting elements around the background. I would have preferred a tighter frame like this,

but you can see the technical deficiencies in the shot at this forgiving web resolution and the photo was going to run fairly large on the sports front. Further complicating things are the dim, old lights that shift colors and throw off autofocus, as well as my focusing screen that recently stopped staying in place, meaning I can’t really tell if my shot will be in focus anyway. I’m sure I could have moved a little closer to help close that gap, but it’s already freaky enough when a bull loses its rider, turns around and stops to look at you — even at my distance of around 50 feet away.

It seems more likely to get run down by a berserking bronco charging around the outside of the ring as cowboys chase it down to release its flank strap, but as E.J. pointed out during a Facebook chat the other day, “it isn't personal with the broncs. With the bulls it is. They see you. They want you.” Sports reporter Annie Fowler sees it a little differently, noting that the bulls are generally pretty docile while waiting backstage in the pens. It’s when they’re out in the spotlight that their aggressive or playful natures come out, she says, and she sees the broncs as running their victory lap. While it’s impossible to know what the animals are actually thinking, from my view inside, they look like mindless killing machines.

On top of all this, wearing a cowboy hat is part of the required dress code for photographers working in the ring, making it tough to shoot with the camera in certain orientations. And while I’ve seen oblivious members of the media get away with covering funerals in denim shorts, the rodeo takes its dress code seriously in the ring. I was even kicked out once for wearing a short-sleeved button-up shirt, which apparently ruined the ambiance of livestock using a giant dirt pit as a toilet. I’d love to play the race card, but aside from an (un)wisecracking racist rodeo clown who spewed anti-immigration jokes and singled me out as he wondered why Japanese people loved taking pictures so much (I’m Taiwanese and there were plenty of other photographers in there with me), rodeo staffs have been very friendly and accommodating to me.

Still, as a svelte, long-haired Asian, I definitely stick out while covering rodeos. But it’s working outside my comfort zone, plus the slight element of danger, that keeps me coming back for more. After a night at the rodeo, there’s always poop on my shoes, dirt on my pants and a smile on my face.

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