Louisiana Trail Riders
Through various projects, including Reconsidering Landscape, Staging the West, Tucumcari, Fact and Fiction and most recently, Louisiana Trail Riders I have sought to deconstruct the mythology of the American West. My work exposes the contradictions of the imagined, frequently romantic, American frontier and inverts expectations of popular Western figures.
Trail Riding Clubs have their roots in the Creole culture formed in South Louisiana in the 18th century. Today, trail rides are an opportunity for generations of people to gather, celebrate, and ride their horses. The riders form a distinctive yet little known sub-culture in Southwest Louisiana.
While riding my motorcycle in rural Louisiana, I encountered a large group of people riding horseback. They commanded the road, and I pulled over for them to pass. I retrieved my camera from the saddlebag of my bike and took a few photographs as they rode by. A gentleman near the end of the procession waved, encouraging me to join. So began my ride with the African American trail-riding clubs.
I spent my childhood in Kansas and had a particular image of a cowboy shaped by popular culture. He was gruff, serious, white, and situated in the West. The trail riders in Louisiana are a stark contrast to most depictions of cowboys, offering a radically different vantage point to consider images of the West and acknowledging that black equestrian culture stems from a time when the American West was Louisiana Territory. In the unique region of prairie grasslands divided by water in Southwest Louisiana, a population of Frenchmen, Native Americans, and free people of color took root over a century ago, becoming the Creole people of today. Horsemanship became a common way of life. According to folklorist Connie Castille, “for many of Louisiana’s black men, the horse is still associated with freedom, independence, work and respect.”
My photographs assert a counter-narrative to historic representations of the cowboy and prevailing contemporary images of difference and despair in Black America. I embarked at this project at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of many of the achievements of the civil-rights era including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, yet I saw few positive images of African-Americans in media. Instead, there has been increased racial strife and a heightened awareness of the disregard felt by many to young black lives. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, violence and indifference has been brought to the national spotlight in countless incidents from Ferguson, MS to Dearborn Heights, MI to where I live in Baton Rouge, LA. In the context of this national backdrop, my photographs assert joy, pride, and family bonds, particularly between fathers and their sons who are taught to care for and ride horses from an early age.
Some of Louisiana’s Trail Riding Clubs include the Crescent City Cowboys, Desperados, Buffalo Soldiers, and The Stepping In Style Riding Club. I’m drawn to the multi-generational gatherings, the mix of rural and urban sensibilities, and the zydeco music that provides an-ongoing soundtrack to the weekends. Since 2014 I’ve been photographing weekend trail rides across South Louisiana creating a body of work for exhibition and publication that reflects the culture and the celebratory spirit of the rides.