Black Cowboys

I never planned on becoming a professional photographer. I always thought I’d be a missionary doctor, but during my senior year in college that passion took an unexpected detour.

Shortly after I bought my first camera, then one day while browsing in a bookstore, I found a magazine titled Darkroom, with Ansel Adams on the cover and an unknown man to me. A few glances at Adams’ powerful black-and-white landscapes left me hypnotized; at that moment, I had a feeling that the camera I had just purchased was a connection to my future. I went home with a Darkroom inside a plastic bag and within days, I was on the telephone with Ansel, who also became my friend and mentor.

Years later the understanding to care for humanity led me and guided me to migrate to documentary projects. Then during a flight In the early 1990s I sat next to an African American gentleman who participated in the Black Cowboys rodeo circuit and who educated me about the history and the great contribution of black cowboys in the wild west.

Our extensive conversation was enlightening. My previous knowledge was based on Hollywood movies, not any historical materials, which omitted the participation of black cowboys. Intrigued, I was eager to explore and examine the elements and regional influences, within this developed subculture group, which has been unknown to most, yet according to Smithsonian magazine, in the late 1800’s, 1 in 4 cowboys were black.

On my return back home I called and pitched this incredible story to all my editorial clients. They didn’t show any interest, except one called Emerge. The art director loved the idea, and he presented it to the managing editor and his reply was, “when can he start on the Black Cowboys project?”

I started the journey to show my project to the world. This incredible documentary took me to rodeos, farms, ranches and family homes all across the US.

During an early rodeo coverage, the significance of what I started to create became quite clear to me. At the end of a hot humid afternoon, I was getting ready to pack my gear and march away. It had been an uneventful day, until I walked by the corral, noticed, and was captivated by two young brothers. They wore matching shirts resembling the American flag, and were relaxing between a rodeo event. In that moment, with the stars and stripes in their eyes, with a glint of hope and young dreams, I saw painted on their dusty faces the hardship, pain and sacrifices endured by generations before them, and quite relevant today. I pulled out my Hasselblad and started to photographed them. – Manuello Paganelli

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