Summer. The season when lingering daylight and warmer weather draw people outside to enjoy summer’s traditional events and amusements. Summer is in full swing at the offices of Rear Curtain and we wanted to share the season with stories.
Over the next several weeks we will be hosting summer-related stories from different photographers. Check back each week for a new story in our summer series.
Beyond the Arena
“Hey, how ya doing there Tonto?” the cowboy quipped with a big, fat smile as he and his buddy drove past in their golf cart. Moments later their female friends also drove past smiling at me. My first day as a photographer at Cheyenne Frontier Days began with me being rather confused. How should I interpret their question? They were smiling and clearly enjoying themselves, yet to me, their statement was blatantly racist. I had a horrible gut-sucking feeling and thought, “Here I am on assignment for Rear Curtain magazine and this is my first impression of the people I was to photograph. Well, at least it would be a challenge.”
A bit of my background first. I am Chinese, Korean, and Caucasian, born in Seoul, Korea as an American citizen. I have lived in Florida, California, New York City, Hawaii, Korea, Hong Kong and currently I live in Boulder, Colorado. I have dark eyes, dark hair, and I tan easily.
To my knowledge, I was the only photographer at Frontier Days shooting within the documentary genre focusing on life outside the arena. Most members of the media were there to catch the action within the ring and report daily to their editors about scores and stars, winners and losers. My topic was not preplanned, and with guidance from my editor, Ray Ketcham, I let the story naturally evolve and focus on life outside the rodeo arena. Despite my rather unique welcome, I realized I had to find out more about the kind of people who would call me Tonto with a smile on their faces.
People at Frontier Days live life away from the comforts and luxuries of home. When not participating in or watching the rodeo, they spent time shopping for groceries and preparing meals to feed hundreds of event participants who, despite the look of their lavish trailers, were essentially camping. Participants freshened up in multiple communal showers on the grounds of Frontier Park. Their laundry could be washed in communal washers and for some, a dry-cleaning service was available to have freshly starched shirts and pressed jeans.
They essentially lived next to their equine counterparts. When not looking after themselves, the folks at Frontier Days cared for their steeds housed in barns abutting their owners.
Most visitors spent their days playing cards, watching TV, or sharing stories of Frontier Days past with others. At night you could find them at The Outlaw Saloon or, for those not yet old enough to drink, with friends on the rodeo grounds. For many, Cheyenne Frontier Days was essentially a vacation.
After spending a week getting to know the people of Frontier Days, I came away impressed and somewhat enlightened. These were people who were very proud of their country and the efforts of the men and women in uniform. People who highly valued family, tradition, hard work, and humility. The point that stuck with me the most though was that everyone I spoke with upheld the idea of self-reliance—more specifically, the notion that “I don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t infringe upon me personally.”
Such a belief in outright independence is one of the main founding principles of the United States. Two hundred years ago, the ancestors of the people I met at Frontier Days settled the plains of America as ranchers and farmers after emigrating from past lives in their native homelands of northern and western Europe. The people I found in modern-day America simply descended from them.
I am thankful to have been a part of their lives no matter what they thought of me, my physical appearance, or any preconceived notions derived from where I live or how I talk and behave. Frankly speaking, I certainly had notions about them as well. In the end though, they invited me to dinner, into their trailers, and into their lives. If those actions don’t speak louder than any stereotypical judgments, then I might as well give into prejudice and hate.
You can find more of Josh Bergeron’s work here.