This summer, Tiger Woods became the world’s highest-paid professional athlete, pulling in $78.1 million from prize money, endorsements and appearance fees — a stark contrast to professional cowboys, who risk their lives to win a mere $800-$1000 (per event) competing in rodeos.
“Photographically, the action is fantastic,” he tells The Weekly Flickr in the accompanying video. “But what people don’t understand is unlike some professional sports, there’s so much heart and passion involved. It’s incredible and extremely humbling.”
Rob travels throughout Canada and parts of the U.S. attending what he calls grassroot rodeos. These are smaller events ranging from 800 to 2,000 fans, but allows him amazing access to the athletes.
“You’re so close to the action,” Rob describes. “You can actually feel the bull breathing on you as the cowboy is getting ready to go out. There’s so much activity, color and motion. It’s a wonderful thing.”
The crowd may be smaller than most televised rodeos. The excitement and energy level, however, is just as palpable.
“Bull riding is probably the highlight of the rodeo,” Rob says. “It’s what people are sticking around to watch. There’s a lot of danger. These guys get on these animals, end up flying through the air and landing in the dirt. As a photographer, it’s very, very exciting.”
One of the most powerful moments to capture is the moment the chute opens and the bull comes flying out. Each cowboy is hoping to stay on the bull for a minimum of 8 seconds. Rob admits, however, even if one can hold on for that long, the worst is far from over.
“If you do cover and stay on the bull for 8 seconds, you’ve still got to get off this animal,” Rob explains. “And that’s always going to be a problem! When you get off a bull, they’re mad and coming right at you. You’ll see people flying off bulls and landing hard.”
Most people would call it quits after a couple falls, but these cowboys don’t give up. Instead, they’ll dust themselves off, tape themselves up and get back into the saddle.
“The guys are amazingly dedicated,” Rob says. “And they’re doing it because they love it. There isn’t one person there whose primary goal is to win a lot of money. It’s all for the love of the sport; it’s addicting.”
Rodeo life isn’t easy. Full time cowboys often drive all night to get to a rodeo. They’re vagabonds who sleep in their trucks, eat quick-and-easy meals, all the while getting beat up by animals. And then the next day, they’re driving again — hundreds of miles to different cities — to compete in another.
“Certainly an accountant wouldn’t look at it as a viable opportunity,” Rob says. “They’re not making that much. You’re paying $90 to enter, driving around constantly and if you’re lucky you’ll win maybe $700? You compare that to what a ballplayer would make. They’re making more than that, ten times more on every pitch they throw or every swing of the bat. But these cowboys don’t care. It’s exciting for them and their circle of friends to win and walk away wearing a large silver buckle.”
Rob has been a sports photographer for years, covering professional sports like football and baseball. He keeps coming back to rodeos primarily because of the incredible comradery between the cowboys.
“The first time I photographed a rodeo was in Jackson, Wyoming, where I was testing camera prototypes for Sony,” Rob explains. “During lunch, I went behind the scenes, and just to see the friendships the cowboys have with each other is remarkable. There’s a lot more fellowship between the cowboys than I think you’d find in any other sports where they’re competing against each other. These guys are offering help to one another, rooting for each other; the only one they’re competing against is the animal.”
Rob wants everyone who looks at his photos to feel like they’re spending a day at the rodeo.
“I want you to sense the dust, smell the leather and feel a bull breathing right beside you,” he says. “But I also want you to see the faces of the cowboys; see their friendship and respect. It’s just fantastic.”
Visit Rob’s photostream to see more of his photography.
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