Think West Volume 3: Ivan McClellan & Eight Seconds

Ivan McClellan, photojournalist, designer, and creator of passion project Eight Seconds, grew up in what he describes as a “weird place” in Kansas City, Kansas where it was an equal mix of urban and country. It was everything you would expect in a city, including gang violence, combined with a lifestyle that was characteristically country western. While he lived on a busy city street with an abundance of cars and went to a large high school with 2500 other students, he also lived on five acres of land and enjoyed quintessential country life. He spent summers picking black berries with his sister until their fingers were sticky; they would run home through thistle and pick thorns out of their socks on the front porch; and when the sun went down, they would catch fireflies in mason jars and people-watch as neighbors rode by on horseback. During Ivan’s youth, while some of his friends were engaging in illegal activities, others owned cattle. So throughout Ivan’s upbringing, which he says “was very similar to many other Black people,” he developed an association with cowboys being esteemed. He also associated cowboys as “this image that you would see of John Wayne,” he told us. It wasn’t until he first went to an all-Black rodeo with a friend in 2015 in Okmulgee, Oklahoma that he realized that the definition of cowboy is bigger than what he had previously seen, and in fact, his idea of cowboy had been very limited up to that point.

Photography by Ivan McClellan

It was at this particular all-Black rodeo where he met an athlete wearing a Kansas City Royals baseball cap that sparked Ivan’s revelation. “He had this leather face, like a raisin, because he's been in the sun for so long,” Ivan said, “and he shook my hand and his felt like 12 grit sandpaper. His hands were so rough that mine almost started to bleed because my hands are soft as dragonfly wings from working in tech for so long.” As opposite as these two men seemed in this moment, when they got to talking they discovered that they grew up in the same neighborhood in Kansas City. “He lived on the other side of the five acre field behind my house. He knew my grandma. He knew my pastor. We went to the same high school. It was just this point of relation that really made it click at that exact moment. In fact, half of the people at this rodeo were from Kansas City. It just expanded my thinking: not only are Black people cowboys—something I hadn't connected before—but Black people across the field from my childhood house are cowboys as well.”

It has been five years since this transformative moment in Ivan’s life and he has been singularly focused on this subject ever since. “The cowboy is about these shared set of values. It's about integrity. It's about looking a man in the eyes, saying ‘Yes sir. No sir.’ And it’s about hard work,” he said. “The images that we are given to Black people in popular media do not always represent those values. So just by donning a cowboy hat and showing a man on a horse, you're immediately aligning this image of a Black person with all of those values. And it's really important. It's important for me. It's important for my identity and definition and I think it's important for a lot of young people too.”

And this is the passion Ivan brings to his work Eight Seconds, a personal project aimed to expand the cowboy icon to include people of color. We connected with Ivan to learn more.

What specifically about Black cowboys and cowboys of color drive you to make that your primary focus?

“When I first got into producing images of Black cowboys and cowgirls, I was one of the only photographers doing it. It is messing with the archetype of the cowboy. You think of the cowboy as this grizzled guy with a gun on his hip and he’s wearing a cowboy hat in the desert with a handkerchief around his neck and without variable, he's white. That image has just been drilled into our head. The cowboy for me represents American independence. It represents grit. It represents all of these positive, noble and heroic things. I don't at all want to replace that image; I want to add to it. I want to show that there are a lot more people that identify with this culture and this way of life. And when my kids draw a picture of a cowboy, I want for them to color it in with the brown face, because that's something that they can identify with and something that they can be proud of.”

Do you have a specific goal in mind with this project?

“Initially, my goal was to make a book. But now, it's to make a complete anthology of this entire culture—a very important, very heavy encyclopedia of Black cowboy culture that takes you days to read it, days to flip through all the pictures, because it is such a comprehensive volume of every in and out of this culture. The work, I feel, is bigger than me. It's really outgrown me, my ambitions, and my self-promotion. It has become more about amplifying the voice of the people that I photograph. I have this opportunity to elevate their stories and elevate their image to national and international audiences. I get to propel the images of different people in the culture and it’s becoming part of the narrative that's going on about Black people more broadly in America. People are really interested in this identity and knowing this culture a little bit more.”

What story do you strive to capture when shooting the American cowboy?

“Just something authentic. I find people who are really born into it and who have lived it their whole lives. I look for that authenticity and then I just show up, blind a lot of times without a specific plan. That's how I approach the work. It's just showing up with an open mind and an open heart with no expectation so that I don’t miss a big opportunity. There's a bull rider who got his spine shattered riding bulls. I was in Houston and I had an extra day before I had to go home, so I called him up and asked if I could hang out with him. I showed up the next day at 7:00 a.m. on his ranch as he was loading a bull to drive to College Station to sell it. I sat in the back of his truck, hauling a bull that's banging his horns against the trailer which is shaking the truck, and he and his dad were singing George Strait at the top of their lungs. This was the first time I heard Black people listen to or sing country music. That was new to me. I had no clue that was a part of the culture. While we were driving, they told me everything about stock contracting and bull riding. They told me their stories and I took pictures of them in the truck, took pictures of them negotiating a price for the bull. It was such an interesting story that I could never have orchestrated myself.”

Is it difficult to keep your content fresh in terms of finding new stories to tell or new people to highlight?

“I had planned on doing this project for one year. I thought I would go to a few Black rodeos, go to a few people's homes, I would publish a book, and then I would be done and on to my next project. But five years later I'm still doing it. And I'm doing it with more frequency and more ferocity than I ever have. It doesn't end. Just when I think that I've got it covered and I've done a full review of Black cowboy culture, there's just more and more. It just keeps on building. I haven't even gotten into farmers. I haven't even gotten into ranchers. Regionally, all of my stuff has been in Texas and Oklahoma. I don't really know what's going on in the East Coast. There are riding clubs out there that I haven't explored yet. After five years, I feel less than 10 percent done. There are just so many more people to talk to. The people are not the same. They don't act the same. They don't dress the same. Their stories are totally different. And their photos are different. I have, realistically, tens of thousands of photos and I could talk about any individual one for 10 minutes, at least. Some of them I could talk about for an hour. Because not only were they open to have me photograph them and to share that with me, but I also got to lean on a fence with them for 30 minutes and listen as they share their perspective, share their world, their background.”

What specifically inspired the name for your project, Eight Seconds?

“I just wanted something that started a conversation. A lot of my audience are people like me. They're people that live in the city and they don't know a lot about cowboy culture. They don't know a lot about rodeo. So it's a conversation starter. Everyone always asks, ‘what is Eight Seconds?’ And I tell them that's how long you have to ride a bull to get a qualified score. Instantly they want to know more, and then we're rolling.”

What is your take on cowboy culture?

“I think it's fascinating. I'm not a cowboy and I spend a lot of time at rodeos. I'm learning to like the smell of cow manure. I roll up at a rodeo and I get out of the car and I smell that smell and I'm like, ‘Oh man! It's time to get to work.’ We're out of the city. We're in the real world now. I try not to look at it like anthropology, as if I'm observing some lost or dying culture. I really look at it as individual people who are extremely interesting and have chosen to live by those Western values. It's fascinating the way that people relate to each other, the nuances, the ins and outs of how people talk about things, the different components of horsemanship. It's all just endlessly fascinating and it's something that I can never catch up on.”

What is your technique in terms of the way you shoot your subject matter?

“I try to get as low as possible, which is scary at times because it's tough to get back on your feet when you're shooting a bull on your stomach. This technique comes from old propaganda paintings of always looking up at your leaders and looking up at your heroes in imagery, it’s a composition thing of staring up. I also shoot very close to my subject matter. Shooting up and shooting close not only presents a heroic view but also creates this energy in the photos that I think is really important. You can feel the danger. You can feel the energy of that moment in the photos. I think that comes from the fact that you are looking through my eyes and my perspective and I'm not a hundred yards away. I'm right there in the middle of the action. It's taking this individual and not just pointing a camera at them and showing what they look like, but showing my perspective of them as a person who is elevated and esteemed and is doing something that is important and rare. If you can get all of that out of the photos, then I think I'm doing what I set out to do.”

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