A close encounter of the equine kind
By Andy Clark
“Hey bud, don’t blink or you’ll miss it,” the guy behind the counter said after I answered his query as to where I was headed.
I had stopped to grab a coffee along highway 97, about a five-hour drive north into the mountains from Vancouver. My destination was the town of Falkland, named after a career British soldier, Colonel Falkland GE Warren who had settled in the area in 1892. The reason for my visit was to photograph an annual event very popular with those living in the area, named the 94th Annual Falkland Stampede. One of the oldest rodeos in Canada, the stampede began as a community picnic in March of 1919 to celebrate the end of the First World War months earlier. Each year as the event grew, area residents gathered to enjoy local cowboys riding broncos and in 1969 the little stampede was sanctioned as a professional rodeo.
I first became aware of the Stampede while covering forest fires in 2003 just north of the area. I had seen a very weathered sign by a roadside and thought it might be worth looking into as a photo essay. Nine years went by, with me forgetting about the Stampede until the end of the event, until I finally arranged to shoot it.
As the coffee jockey had said, Falkland was a very small place nestled between two valleys. With about 10 shops and homes on the main street it wasn’t hard to find the stampede grounds. The old wooden stands with signs of recent repairs surrounded the small dirt ring, lined by white metal fencing and animal staging chutes at each end. For a photographer, finding places like this causes one to quietly say…Yesssss! As some will say, small rodeos like these are nothing new. Many have been photographed before and as I like to joke back, “That’s very true my friend, but not by me.”
For many photographers, covering events these days can be an exercise in futility when it comes to taking photographs. So many organizers are uptight about “their message” or “controlling photographers” that many times by days end I ask myself if its even worth it anymore. Not so at the Falkland Stampede. Everything was the exact opposite and very laid back. Obviously I had to demonstrate through letters and e-mails I was there legitimately to photograph the event, but after that was established, I was on my own. I could basically go where I wanted as long as I didn’t enter the ring during competition which I assured them was not something I would willingly do.
As a result of this quiet country attitude I decided not to scurry around sticking my lens in peoples faces. I spent the three days trying as best I could not to be noticed, many times being able to take pictures as if I wasn’t even there. Of course this meant I might miss a nice photo or two, which happened on at least one occasion. In that particular case I saw a nice moment of a cowboy preparing for the bull riding, spending a quiet moment mentally preparing. It was a photo I would like to have taken, but it meant sprinting about 10 meters and most likely disturbing his private moment. Though I walked towards him in hopes he would remain there, it was not to be. I thought afterwards that maybe I should have rushed towards him. And some will agree saying you “you blew it Clark”. Then again this ain’t the big city either, withchasing spot news down the street. There will plenty more where that came from and so there were.
After spending the first day photographing cowboys preparing (generally behind-the-scenes), I decided to spend day two shooting the action inside the ring. This was when I experienced a “Close Encounter of the Equine Kind.” While up against the fence during the saddle bronc competition, I was hoping to get a nice low wide-angle image if any of the horses came my way. About halfway through the competition a very aggressive horse inappropriately named ‘Tender Foot’ quickly threw his rider and came bucking in my direction. Seizing the moment, I quickly tilted my camera up and instinctively reached out about a foot under the fence firing away. What I had failed to notice was that an outrider was galloping full tilt up the fence line on my right to catch up to the bronco and bring it under control. How the outrider horse missed my hands and camera I will never know. Though my hands and camera survived unscathed, I did get a face and mouthful of flying dirt as payment for my inattention.
Overall my three days at the 94th edition of the Falkland Stampede was the best assignment I have had in many months. It was a nice exercise to observe and photograph instead of reacting as many of us are forced to do in the day-to-day news photography world. But remember – if you ever decide to visit and photograph the Falkland Stampede, “don’t blink or you may miss it…”