Growing up in Mexico, Antonio Gomez practiced rope tricks with his friends. After living in the U.S. for many years, he returned recently to attend a wedding steeped in the Charro culture he’d left behind. His new series captures the drama of the sport best described as traditional Mexican horsemanship, but experienced as a deep connection between riders, animals, and God. Gomez is currently crowdfunding with Kickstarter to produce a photobook.
Emily von Hoffmann: How did you become interested in a documentary project on Charreria? Are you or your family involved in it, for instance?
Antonio Gomez: Ever since I can remember I have been interested in Charreria. As a little kid, in Mexico, I would practice rope tricks on the street with my friends. My dad was also a horse jockey and would take me to the races. My family was never involved in the actual sport, however, we had friends that practiced it.
AG: One of those family friends had a 50th wedding anniversary and after taking a couple of images at their wedding I was reminded just how beautiful the Charro way of life was. Since I had been living in the U.S. for over 20 years there was a longing for this type of photography, as it reminded me of my roots and my old way of life. After that occasion I decided to do a series on Charreria.
AG: When I discovered that there was a Charro association here in Vegas I immediately searched them out and now I know a lot of them through my photography.
EvH: You wrote that “Charro, Portrait of a Way of Life,” is about “the struggle of many Mexican immigrants who make it their mission to pass on equestrian precision and human nobility to the next generation.” For our readers who may be unfamiliar, can you please describe what is so special about this tradition? What needs to be preserved? Why is it under threat?
AG: Immigrants in the U.S. are often seen as outsiders — Donald Trump recently said that Mexico sends rapists and murderers to the USA. We are often marginalized and seen as a lower class. The Charro culture is one of the things that gives most Mexicans a sense of pride.
AG: Immigrants often forget their roots and adopt the American culture, not that that is wrong, however, we should not feel ashamed of who we are and where we came from. The Charro culture is something that we can hold on to with pride. Forgetting our culture will only cause the younger generation to feel less significant.
EvH: Which are the most celebrated relationships in the culture? Is it the bond between horses and riders, or spectators and participants, for instance? What is the source of the joy? What is sacred?
AG: Charreria is a sport in which respect, dignity, love for the animals, and a strong relationship with God is observed. If you have ever listened to Mexican music you probably recognized that most of it is quite festive and joyful. This is also seen in the charreadas (as the actual event is called).
AG: Charreada first became a sport when neighboring Haciendas would hold friendly competitions to see who had the best riders, cattle handlers, and who could perform the best rope tricks. The spectators were mostly families who would cheer for their family members.
EvH: What were some challenges that you, as the photographer, needed to consider when documenting charreria?
AG: My biggest challenge for documenting the event is getting the best shot without getting hurt. I am not allowed to go inside the ring while the bull riding is taking place, but unfortunately I really need to be inside in order to get the best shot. So I am working on getting permission to be inside! It is mainly an insurance issue.
EvH: Can you please describe one or two of your favorite images from the project, and the situation surrounding them?
AG: One of my favorite shots from the series is an image I captured of a group of people overseeing a rider who just got hurt. There is a lonely boot on the right side of them. I like the shot because it was unexpected. The single boot says so much. You can tell that something bad happen and someone got hurt without seeing the actual person.
AG: I like it because it is simple yet really loaded. It reminds me that you don’t have to show everything to identify what is happening. Sam Abell once told me that in order to emphasize something you sometimes need to leave something out.
EvH: You have an extensive portfolio of work, including portraiture and documentary photography. What would you say is the common theme of your work? What inspires you to select particular subject matter as a new project?
AG: I love photographing people. A portrait can be a document as well. Most of my images have a Latino theme. I love Manuel Alvarez Bravo as much as I love Luis Gonzalez Palma and I think you can see those influences in most my work.
EvH: Can you share with us any plans for future work that you’re particularly excited about?
AG: I am hoping to publish my Charro work as a fine art photo book. Look for it on Kickstarter if you’d like to support it.
I am also working on a series about Las Vegas that is quite different. I am documenting the Las Vegas Boulevard from where it starts to where it finishes and making some social statements about the diversity and strangeness of this place. Look for that on my website. I am also working on an autobiographical series with my son who wears a Luchador mask that takes a look into my upbringing as an immigrant that is quite close to my heart, for obvious reason. Also look for that series in the fine art section of my website.