The Story Behind the Picture: Kasper Løftgaard
It’s not everyday you get to live like a cowboy, it’s even more exceptional when it wins you Danish Picture of the Year. However Danish photojournalist Kasper Løftgaard did just that when he travelled to Texas to photograph cowboys. In this interview he describes the horrors of photographing a rodeo, romanticising the cowboy culture, and his Hemingway approach to photography of: write drunk, edit sober.
What initiated your interest in photography?
When I was 17 or 18 I was working at an ad agency doing graphics and all kinds of stuff. They had an in-house photographer who was really bad. Every time we had to get some pictures done we had to ask him, and every time he came back with pictures that were horrible. We decided to buy our own cameras and do it ourselves. It turned out it was really hard, so our pictures were even worse. I think that’s how it started.
The photo is part of a series called ‘Cowboys.’ What did the series entail?
I was doing my bachelors project in photojournalism. I had just done this very personal project about my childhood and taking pictures of my family and where I come from. I was looking into myself all the time. It was very interpretive stuff. I had two or three months to do my bachelors, and my main goal was to do something that was a lot of fun where I didn’t have to think too much — just go somewhere that looked nice and meet up with some people who I thought were funny. It was about not being depressed all the time and doing something that I liked. I asked my teacher what he thought about the story —just taking pictures of cowboys and rodeos — and he said, ‘I’m not sure you have a story, but it sounds like fun and it seems like you need to do something that’s focusing on having fun and taking pictures, instead of thinking too much.’ And then he just kicked me out and told me to go to Texas!
What inspired the picture you’ve chosen?
I had no idea I had taken the picture. We were out riding all day everyday and waking up at 4.30am every morning. When you take pictures on a horse you have no idea what you’re doing. You just fire and pray it turns out good. For that particular shot, when I came back and looked at the pictures I was like, ‘that’s pretty nice.’ But I had no idea when I took the picture. All the other pictures were really blurry and horrible.
Did you set this series up beforehand?
I pretty much just went to Texas. I had one phone call. My mom was really worried about me going, and I called one guy who was a rodeo coach at a college. I said, ‘do you think it’s all right if I come and take some pictures of all your students.’ He said, ‘sure that’s fine.’ He didn’t really say anything. I asked, ‘can I maybe sleep at the college or get somewhere I can stay?’ He said, ‘That can’t be arranged. You have to be a student to live here.’ He was my only contact. When I looked at the phone I realised I only talked to him for eight minutes. That was it. He just told me where he was going to be with his team on the day I was flying in. I think it was Brownwood. I just went there and booked a hotel room and met him. He introduced me to some other guys who were like, ‘you’re from Denmark — that’s very exciting.’ A few days later they called me and asked, ‘are you still living in a motel?’ and I said yes. Then they asked, ‘can you ride a horse?’ ‘yeah I think I can ride a horse.’ Then he said, ‘you can come work for me for the next week and you can just sleep on my couch.’ They invited me in and said, ‘you can work with us and live with us and you don’t have to pay for anything. Just be around.’
How long did it take to shoot the series?
I’ve been there twice for five weeks each time.
What’s shooting a rodeo like?
Horrifying. Absolutely horrifying. I think the first rodeo I went to I was waiting to take pictures and thought, ‘this is going to be so much fun!’ and I didn’t take any pictures. I maybe took a few shots. I almost didn’t take pictures of rodeos, because I was always taking my camera down to see if somebody was getting killed. I was so scared for them. It looks so dangerous all the time. I had to get used to the fact that they were fine with it and probably weren’t going to get killed. Then I stated taking pictures of it.
This image and the series in whole is not intrusive. Do you think the most important element of reportage photography is not being intrusive?
It depends on what you’re doing. Sometimes you need to be intrusive. I’m just not very good at it. The best way for me to take pictures is not being intrusive. It’s about getting to know people and becoming friends. I show them and give them all my pictures. They can use them for whatever they want. They see everything I’m doing, so they trust me and we become really good friends. In a lot of cases it’s a journalistic no no and you can’t do that. I’m not very good at being a badass and being up in your face all the time. I try to make friends and make sure they’re okay with what I’m doing. Then I get to go to a lot of different places, which people who are intrusive can’t go to because their subjects don’t trust them. However there are a lot of people doing very intrusive styles of photography who do amazing work. It depends on who you are and what you are good at.
It’s quite a dreamy shot, from the colours to the dust clouds. Was capturing any of that intentional?
I kind of knew that I wanted a picture like that, so it was intentional. I tried to ride behind people, because it’s almost impossible to ride in front of people, and turn around, and steer a horse, and take a picture at the same time. It’s way easier when you have to look ahead. I saw the sunrise coming up and all the dust and was like, ‘this might make a good picture if I can get my camera to focus.’ Which it wouldn’t. I was just firing 200 pictures and hoping one of them would be in focus.
The sun halo is an emphatic component of the picture. How relevant was the time of day in achieving that atmosphere and harnessing that natural light?
I was really lucky because they ride out in the morning to the end of the pasture to see where all the cows are. It was the best time of day. It was right when we rode out, and it was the same every morning. We’d meet at 5.30am at a cafe or something and just wait for the sun to rise. I would have the perfect picture opportunity every morning, because I knew the sun was going to rise just when we rode out. It was the circumstances that made it intentional. Photographers especially ask me, ‘how’d you get that halo?’ because I have it in several pictures when I shoot into the sun there’s a big halo somewhere. It’s because I photographed everything on very cheap lenses because I didn’t have any money. They make these weird halos and flares. I really like them, so I usually take pictures on really crappy equipment!
What camera was this taken on?
It was Canon 6D and a 28mm.
How important was using Photoshop in editing this image?
Not too much. I don’t spend a lot of time Photoshopping. I have these basic actions I do, with a bit of contrast and making the colours a bit more vibrant. I don’t really alter anything.
Personally I feel if John Steinbeck was a photographer he would mimic your style of photography. What do you hope people will feel looking at this photo?
When you start out studying photojournalism you’re always taught to go and change the world, and I never really wanted to change the world. I’m really glad people go to conflict zones, but I can’t do stuff like that. My mind is way too fragile. I just hope people see it and sense that there’s this culture that they don’t know about. I hope they find it intriguing, and the basic thing I hope for is for them to like the people I photograph. Because I really like these people, even though politically we’re so far apart. Most of them voted for [Donald] Trump and I’m in a whole different category, but I still like these people, and I love this whole culture that they still ride horses and still do rodeos. They are very old school in what they do. I hope people see these picture and like these people and not just think that everybody in Texas votes for Trump and they’re dumb. Most of these people are really smart and really nice. I hope people will see something different from what they’re told in the media.
You talk about forming friendships, do you get a different kind of shot if you’ve actively tried to be friendly compared to someone who’s a bit more aloof?
Definitely. That’s the reason why I got to go to so many different places. The reason I got to photograph so many people there was because I made friends who vouched for me. They were like, ‘this guy is a photographer and he’s going to come here and take a bunch of pictures, but he’s a good guy. Don’t worry about him.’ They know I won’t exploit them in any way, so they trust me and they introduce me to other people who I wouldn’t have found on my own. When I take pictures of them I can take pictures everywhere. It’s very subjective. It’s not an objective story where I have to go and be all journalistic-y and tell them about my political views. I just want to show the culture and it’s very un-journalistic that I’m not hard on them. I don’t ask them a bunch of hard questions about how they feel about the world. Especially where I come from they have so many statements that would be blown totally out of proportion if it was printed in Danish media. They know I’m not going to do that, because that’s not what I’m after. I want to show the romantic side of this culture.
Do you strive for originality in your photography?
I’m not sure that I’m very original at all. In my case if I try to strive for originality and doing something that’s never been done before I get to a point where I overthink everything. It turns out to be total bs. I go for my intuition. If I like the place and the people I will take pictures. Hopefully in the end it’s going to be something people haven’t seen before. I think having originality as an objective to go for, in my case at least, is not working for me at all. I don’t feel original. I think I’m just copying everyone else.
You won Danish Picture of the Year. How did that feel?
It felt very very good. That was one of my way out in the future goals. Maybe someday I’m going to win one of those, because the competition is crazy hard in Denmark. It’s actually really stupid to be living in Denmark and especially in Copenhagen, because the competition is so hard. Everyone is ridiculously good. It’s crazy to try to compete with those guys. I think I did a very clever edit because I sent my picture to the sports feature category, and usually the sports features are short stories where people cover one day or a week. Since I spent one and a half months out there I just had a better chance because I had a bigger body of work than the other people. It was a very strategic move, which is not very like me, but it turned out very well.
Is your style inspired by anyone in particular?
I don’t have a lot of idols that I follow. I try to read a bunch of photo books all the time and see stories on the internet. I love Robert Frank, but in a lot of ways if you try and copy those guys you’re going to feel sorry for yourself, because it’s unachievable. I try and see as many pictures as I can and get inspired by them and erase it all from my memory.
What lies ahead for you?
Right now I’m doing a lot of daily assignments to try to get my name out there. I’m trying to keep travelling and continue this cowboy story. For the next few years I’ll keep going back to the US and finding cowboys.
What does photography give you that nothing else does?
It gives a lot of things if you use it right. It’s the greatest way of getting to know people because you feel like you have an excuse to do a lot of stuff. I would never go and try to live as a cowboy if I didn’t have a camera. That would just be weird. Since I have a camera I can tell people, ‘I have this camera and I’m trying to make these pictures. Do you want to teach me how to be a cowboy?’ and they are like, ‘yes. That sounds like fun.’ It’s the greatest passport into everything and at the same time I really like the quick feedback you get. You go out and take pictures and if I shoot it on film it’s going to take a few weeks, but if it’s digital I can see it the same day and be like, ‘I did this. I did something’ It’s a sense of achievement that comes very fast. I feel like I’m doing something. It’s nice instead of sitting at a desk and working all the time. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything. Now I have something to show. ‘What did you do for the past four years?’ ‘I have two hundred thousand pictures I can show you.’