Though I’ve seen sepia cowboys, gray cowboys, and cowboys in technicolor, I’ve never seen a real one. Gabriela Hasbun’s book The New Black West changed that.

I grew up around Westerns because of my grandparents. It’s their favorite genre of television entertainment. To this day, when I visit, there’s always a carousel of AMC Westerns playing in the background. John Wayne, True Grit, Clint Eastwood. Admittedly, they didn’t hold my attention as a kid, but they still illuminated to me that there was a vast historical depth of the West. 

Gabriela Hasbun with her medium format camera. (Photo submitted)

It would be years before I realized they did little to show the full truth.

So, it’s been refreshing to see recent takes on the American cowboy that present more nuance like The Harder They Fall which pay homage to a history that was rarely taught. 

Bay Area photographer Gabriela Hasbun grounds these historical stories in the contemporary world through the portraiture and writing in her book The New Black West. It’s a work 12 years in the making that follows the Bill Pickett Rodeo, the lone touring Black American rodeo show in the nation. 

As much as the event is about riders, the relationship with their horses, and their effortless swag, it’s also about how Black folk— inheritors of the iconic symbol of the American West—celebrate themselves across generations. It’s a place where their heritage persists, even in shadow, even superimposed on the cityscape of Oakland, California. 

At the rodeo, show horses aren’t just an extension of the rider but a portal to stillness and refuge from harsh realities that surround them. 

Hasbun shows the beauty of how a community preserves heritage through those that participate, attend, and bring it back with them wherever they are.

Read below for our conversation about Hasbun’s approach to storytelling, sense of belonging, and witnessing reverence for a neglected history. 

Xandr Brown: I want to know what was your journey into just acknowledging that this is something that you wanted to capture in the first place?

Gabriela Hasbun: Well, for me, this process has been very educational. I’m an immigrant into a multiple immigrant country. I’m Palestinian, but I was born in El Salvador. And so figuring out where I fit in has been very controversial for me. There’s not a lot of people like me here. My tribe is not here in this country. I’m always looking for a place to fit in. And I think that’s where my journey really meshed with the cowboys because I saw this big, lovely community of people and they were so welcoming. And then I started learning the history, of course. The projects that I’m interested in are the ones that I’m learning more deeply about American history and African American culture, something I never had an education on.

Briana Owens at the BPIR Oakland 2017. (Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

“In El Salvador, there weren’t really any [Black citizens]. For me, that process was really about educating myself, as I was photographing this community, but also of feeling accepted and welcomed. That’s not the feeling I got when I moved to the Bay Area. I feel like people here were pretty cold, lots of subcultures I mean. I think for me, this project is really about highlighting this history that has just been completely ignored.”

XB: You have documented “ fat activists,” queer skaters, etc. So in the timeline, how does this project compare to the previous ones that you’ve done and how does this relate to your pursuit of belonging?

GH: I mean, there really is no timeline because the cowboys I’ve photographed in and out, during my career. I’ve met them for so long on and off, but it’s the same feeling. 

The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR) was founded in 1984 by Lu Vason, and to this day it remains the nation’s only touring Black rodeo. A hairstylist, concert producer, and promoter, Vason became interested in rodeos while attending the granddaddy of them all: the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo in Wyoming. He quickly realized that there were no Black cowboys participating in that legendary production. On his return to Denver, where he resided in the 1980s, he began his research at the Black American West Museum, exploring the history of Black cowboys, the contributions of African American settlers, and the opening of the western frontier. After more than two years of research and fundraising, Vason produced the inaugural Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Denver, Colorado. This heritage rodeo helps educate people from all over the world about the rich history of Black cowboys and cowgirls, and it highlights their overlooked contributions to American rodeo culture. (Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

I come from a group of large women…So for me to find this community was like learning about self love and self care and just really learning to say, “Hey, it’s okay to love your body just as it is.” It’s again, educating myself, and really just learning more about me in a way. I mean, I feel like all the projects you end up working on, they end up being more about you than so much about you as much as it is about them because I feel like a part of you sees yourself in them.

Otherwise, why spend so much time working on a body of work that doesn’t mean anything to you or that you don’t see yourself in? And maybe with the cowboys, I wanted to be part of that community, and they just made me feel so welcome and at home and safe.

XB: I noticed in your acknowledgments, you mentioned Jeff Deval, who also wrote the book’s foreword, the regional coordinator of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR).  You say that he offered critique, he held you accountable with your work…there was some kind of conversation happening. Could you speak more about this relationship?

GH: I mean, I feel like all of my work, really the core of my work is really in being truthful and honest and really getting to the core of who these people are. And so that is the only hope that I can have as a photographer is to show my subjects in a very iconic, proud light. There’s no way that I would want to make them feel shamed or feel dishonest about any picture that I may have taken of them. And so with Jeff, I’d been trying to get a permit to photograph at the rodeo for years and I’d call Jeff like, “Jeff, I’m coming to photograph. Can I get a press pass?” And Jeff would be like, “Sure, just meet me at this place.” And then I’d never get a press pass. So I would just have to go in and do the thing and then just ask forgiveness. But overall… I was just there and I would end up showing him pictures from the rodeo after.

The Grand Entry at the BPIR is the most anticipated event at the rodeo, where guests are able to observe and celebrate the entire cowboy community, regardless of their participation in the competitive events. Riders glam up themselves and their horses to look their best. (Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

He just seemed whatever with me. And then he just noticed I kept coming back and he was like, “It’s this woman again,” and then he started remembering my name and I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I think for him to see that I wasn’t just a one timer that I was really coming back and I was bringing people. I brought my friend, George, who’s also Black. And then he did an illustrated piece on the rodeo. And then I started pitching the rodeo to the magazines locally. I was like, “Okay, you guys need to get attention. What can I do to help you get this attention? What can I do to raise awareness of what’s happening here?” It’s a bad habit I have trying to connect the world that I’m a part of. I wrote a piece for ESPN’s The Undefeated. So after I wrote that piece, Jeff called me and was very congratulatory and very grateful and very accepting. And that was the first time he ever complimented me, maybe 2018. And that for me, felt like I had just gotten a trophy because it meant everything to me that he felt like his community felt seen and heard. It was just kind of a big deal that time. And so since then, he was more trustworthy of me and… Our relationship from then on has just flourished, so that’s why I asked him to write the foreword…

XB: This speaks to a question I have. How did the ways that you positioned/introduced yourself as a photographer in the beginning of the project change over the 12 years that you continued to show up? How did that impact your style or vision for this project?

GH: The more I returned to the rodeo, the more people got to know me by name and people remembered me. I got to really know about people who wrote books. I’ve heard so many amazing stories from all the people who have been to the rodeo and they are just so… I mean, it’s an incredible community. I would just say really getting to know everyone one-on-one. I mean, that’s really what’s changed.

Joseph “Dugga” Matthew and grandson, Tabansi Burch at the BPIR in Oakland. Tabansi has been riding since he was 2-3 years old and is training to be a bull rider. (Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

I visit people at the ranches or I’ll meet them. We’ll meet up at the parades and stuff like that. They feel like old friends now, but that can also be tricky as a photographer, I have noticed because I tend to be very…It’s like “the more I know you, the more I feel shy about photographing you  sometimes.” 

I don’t know if that happens to you, but photographing… let’s say if my best friend were to ask me to do a headshot. I feel very self-conscious doing this headshot for them because it almost feels like they are rating me or giving me a grade. I don’t know.

XB: You start to take their opinions in more. You start creating like, “How do they view me now…”?

GH: Yeah. I could see why a lot of people prefer to have more distance from their subjects to be more objective, to see things more objectively. But it’s different ways of storytelling because I think for me, I feel like stories are told better when you’re part of something. An insider has more to share than anyone just dropping in for the day. I feel like there’s just a lot more intimacy in the images and a lot more depth. 

XB: The majority of the photos that you took, just at first glance, have a ruralized aesthetic. But in some of your photos, you can see evidence of an urban environment. You can see the fences and you can see the murals in the background, you can see the trash on the ground, the graffiti on the ground. How do those worlds collide?

GH: It’s just a very big and broad topic. Cowboy Sam Styles is one of the cowboys towards the end of the book that’s in that. He talks a lot in his interview about how horses saved his life really…He talks a lot about how he was going into a very negative lifestyle and how he was really just going in the very wrong direction…And he had grown up being on a horse when he was younger. His mom had taken him to a camp in Oakland for the summer, but he has a lot of brothers, so she couldn’t afford it. But he was so helpful that he ended up getting a scholarship to this horse camp in Oakland.

So, when Sam started riding again in his early twenties, he was able to [get] rail his life back on track and get it in better head space and in a better direction. He’s been doing that for maybe 12 years and his horse Cookie, his first horse that he had, recently passed away. But Sam is one of those that he’s always trying to give back. So on weekends at his ranch, he’s always having kids over and I don’t even know if he even charges most of them. He ends up trying to introduce them to horses and try to get them to calm their bodies and find ways of helping these youth to figure out who they are. And getting to know what the power of the horses can do to a child and to an adult. Honestly, I think it’s not just for children. I think it does a lot for people of all ages.

XB: It’s interesting to see this traditionally rural western, mythos flex to urban realities. It’s not that you’re not able to just capture the ranch like, “Look at the horses and they’re wearing nice outfits”, but it’s also that these people are not just heralding a symbol. They’re active. They’re very active in trying to almost create something more whole.

GH: Yes. Well, and that’s what’s so beautiful about this community. They act like a giant family. It’s like they’re all trying to create something bigger than themselves. By trying to lift everyone up instead of just themselves. So it’s like, “If I can do this, you can do this too. Why don’t you do it with me?” And that’s what’s really been so inspiring to see with these cowboys.

XB: I want to know, on a photography level, what guided the momentum in the images that you captured? How did you identify, “This moment is a moment that I’d like to keep”?

GH: I think a lot of that was really based on beauty and my eye and the lighting and just really what attracts me visually and what looks beautiful. What I would want to see if I were standing, if I was reading a book or seeing. I didn’t know I was putting a book together. That’s the crazy thing, this was not a planned thing.

Cowgirl Juanita “Sassy” Brown at the BPIR in Oakland 2017. Brown is a lifetime member of the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association. (Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

It’s probably my favorite body of work because I’ve surprised myself. And I think that’s really hard to do as an artist. How do you surprise yourself with the work that you’re doing? I guess I never really thought about that, but I think it’s really challenging after a while. How do you get excited about your own work? 

I’m really hard on myself, I’m a very harsh critic on my work…I could tell you a hundred times how much better I could have made this. Instead of pat myself on the back and say, “Gabby, you did a great job.” For me, I didn’t do enough.

XB: When on this journey, did you know that you were going to make a book? Because I know you said starting out, you had no idea.

GH: Most of the pictures were completed by the time I decided. It was 2019, it was right before the pandemic. It was the fall of 2019 in September. I was like, I have so many pictures it would be amazing to do an archive of all this. Like have compiled this as a collection, as a gift back to the cowboys. Otherwise, these images just sit in an archive that never get the light of day.

I didn’t know until September that I would try and do this. So in September, I sent out like a hundred letters to different publishers reaching out, pitching the idea, and then I only got like two responses back of interest. 

In the end, Chronicle Books was the only one willing to go forward. That was February 2020, right before the pandemic. I had most of the images completed. Everything that happened at the rodeo had already been taken. That photo of Bri Noble that you mentioned was one of the newer ones. Then this one of Sorai, that was the Juneteenth march in 2020. That was also in Oakland, on Lake Merritt. Other than that, everything else was taken before.

Because the rodeo hasn’t happened since 2019 and this year they’re going extra. Apparently, they’re bringing in, I spoke to Jeff yesterday, he said that they’re bringing in the Buffalo soldiers from Washington. They’re going to be part of the parade with the African American flag at the beginning for the grand entry. It’s the most awaited part of the rodeo. Right at the beginning there’s this hill off the arena and two riders come down it with the flags, first the American flag, then the African American flag, I think. They’re going to have the Buffalo Soldiers ride down with them and then enter. It’s going to be monumental.

XB: There are very few spaces within Black culture that are allowed to be treated with reverence. And that’s one of the reasons that these photos struck me and the mention you wrote about that, the national anthem, and just there being a space that Black Americans share together to have reverence for something that is truly theirs. 

GH: Yeah. That’s what the rodeo is. It’s really about celebrating every piece of the Black heritage that you have. And I feel like that’s why 99% of the participants are Black and 99% of the attendees are Black. I think that’s why no one else knows about the rodeo. It’s because it’s kept a hidden secret almost. I almost wonder if it’s intentional that they’ve kept it in because you feel that sense of safety.

At this heritage rodeo, families in Oakland come to honor the Black cowboys who helped settle the West. More than eight thousand Black cowboys rode in the western cattle drives of the late nineteenth century. This image is from 2018. (Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

 I feel like for me, I had no idea there was a national Black anthem until I was at the rodeo. I had no idea because we don’t hear that anywhere else at schools. I don’t hear my kids saying, ‘oh, we sang this at school.” Why don’t we, you know what I mean? So this is a very crucial part of the beginning of the rodeo. And then they parade the African American flag as well at the beginning. That’s also pretty huge.

XB: So, when you decided that this was going to be a book, you could have just published a book of photos. But you really took your time with the captions and identifying people and talking about their lives and their demeanor. How did you see the relationship between the text and the photo going into it? What did you want to accomplish?

GH: I could have taken that easy route for sure. It would’ve made my life so much simpler, but then I would’ve left out so much of their voices and so much of those stories. I think that the heart of the book would be missing.

To me the quotes, the interviews are so deep and so honest that they even say more than the pictures do. I’m glad that we went that route because it did take me a lot longer to do everything. But I’m so glad we did and I had an amazing editor, Natalie Butterfield at Chronicle Books, who was so kind, so compassionate, and just very great at editing my writing, chopping it up, and she was a great guide. She also championed that idea and made sure that we could do that, that we could add the text and then let the pictures breathe.

XB: So, about the process. I don’t know if you want to talk about gear or format, but was there any, I guess specifications that you had going in? 

GH: I’ve been photographing most of the project on film. So I really like medium format film and it was the format that I felt the most comfortable with back then in 2008 and it’s just a slower process, kind of cumbersome…You’re just like throwing out your back after every use, because I’m not a tripod user. But I feel like it was just really good because it slows me down and it just kind of makes me really be also present and just really try and hone everything into that one image. So I have a lot less frames per setup instead of, when I shoot digital, I’m shooting like a hundred pictures per frame, per setup instead of like three. It’s huge.

XB: Prince Damons, you have a quote for him. You say “Prince Damons rides daily near his home in Fremont. When I ride,” he says “It takes me away from everything else that I’m thinking about. Any other things that are stressing me out or cause my brain to overthink. When I’m with the horses, it just kind of mellows me out. I’m just in the moment.” How has photography as a medium creates any or similar experiences for you and if you’re able to relate to what he was saying?

GH: I think like what I was telling you about loading the film. You have to be very intentional and very present about what you’re doing and I think when I’m with a person, I’m giving them a hundred percent of my time. I call them therapy sessions almost because we kind of have to connect on a subconscious level almost because I feel like it just, there’s more depth to it if you’re completely present versus constantly pulling out your phone and checking it and just having all these other distractions. But for me, when I’m with another person that I’m photographing, I’m just kind of submerged into that world, trying to be fully present.

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