Looking back at my 38 years of holding a camera, there have been a few key moments along the way. Maradona in 1986 being my initial prompt. But it was probably way later in 2014 when I took the picture Mankind in a cattle camp near Yirol in South Sudan that my life changed. To borrow from Eddie Cantor “it took me 30 years to be an overnight success”. There have been many failures along the way.
I had recently considered returning to South Sudan to re-photograph that exact location, but a combination of COVID and an uptake in conflict in the country made that impractical. I also always have reservations on reshooting any previous set, it can hint at a lack of original thought.
Meanwhile, we had an idea. Our anthology to the “Wild West” - now in its six month of production - had allowed us to become familiar not just with the topography of much of the west, but with many cowboys and ranchers whom we now consider friends. The cowboy is integral to the enduring myth of the Wild West and no more so than in Texas, where the great cattle drives were first initiated. No state played a greater role in the trail drive era.
West Texas and South Sudan ostensibly don’t have much in common, but from a filming perspective there are some similarities. The land is flat and arid and in both locations the cattle are special. The horns of the cattle looked after by the Dinka in South Sudan, are magnificent, but the Texas Longhorn is no poor cousin.
With the help of two renowned Texan working cowboys - Craig Carter and Ryon Marshall - we spent last week filming near Valentine, not far from the Mexican border. I knew what I was looking for; a frame with depth; so as in South Sudan, I brought a ladder and a frame with contextuality and breadth; so, I knew that any lens with magnification would be a big error (it normally is anyway when a sense of place is integral to the creative vision).
I settled on a standard lens, but we had a problem, the dust being kicked up by the drives was intense. If the wind took the dust towards me, there was not just the inability to film, there was a danger of the thundering herd not seeing me. On one initial drive, they came out of the dust cloud just yards from my ladder. Not something I would recommend.
So, we worked out the formula, we would shoot against the light and with the herd directly downwind from me. As we rose at 4 am, we prayed the local weather forecast was accurate.
The cowboys, led by Ryon Marshall, were magnificent and after 72 hours we got the job done. The closing down party in the desert last Thursday night was something I will always remember. Great food, the most engaging company and, of course, country music. My team left with a warm glow and a real sense of connection with the cowboy culture down there. We can all learn something from it.