‘I love Robert Capa’s war photography and I think of these boys in this daredevil way, almost like they’re going into battle. If they were born at a different time, they’d be going off to war to prove themselves instead of riding a bull,’ says full-time artist and photographer Victoria Dempster. The protagonist of her Travel Photographer of the Year (TPOTY) 2019 runner-up award in the People and Cultures category, has been in the wars. ‘When Dominic was 12 he was shot in the left leg by his friend. Before then he was never into guns or bull riding but after the shooting, he wanted to prove what he was capable of.’
Dominic, now 15, has a prosthetic leg which often flies off when he’s competing. He’s not on talking terms with his friend although his mum bought a pair of cowboy boots for Dominic. The law didn’t really get involved in the shooting, which perhaps isn’t surprising as Victoria explains: ‘It’s quite a rough place. Since I’ve been there, one cowboy has been crushed by a bull, another, aged 18, killed himself in a car accident and another became paraplegic from rolling his car. Riding bulls is really dangerous, it’s insane what they do, I think that bleeds into their everyday life.’
The everyday life Victoria is talking about is in and around Utah, USA, where she now lives. After 20 years teaching art at a secondary school in north London and 20 years keeping in touch with a mountain-bike guide she had met on holiday, she chose marriage and swapped the city for the desert.
‘Once I landed in America I was looking for a project and went to a rodeo nearby. It’s a photographer’s dream, good looking guys, dust, floodlights and great stories. I kept going to a “local” one, 100 miles and a two-hour drive away. I got to know the cowboys quite well and started to ask if I could photograph them at their work or house, which they were more than happy to. I think my English accent helped a lot. They’re quite amazing, the teenagers are submerged in their culture, super-friendly and have the confidence to hold a conversation with me.’
Away from the rodeo circuit, Dominic lives in a trailer with his mother and her boyfriend, his sister and her boyfriend and his twin brother. His life in Olathe, Colorado, famous for not much other than the annual Sweet Corn Festival, is very outdoors, and much of it lives with him indoors – budgerigars, a parrot, dogs, rabbits, fish, cats, lizards and a chameleon. Many feature in Victoria’s photographs including a snake, won by Dominic in a competition, coiled around his belt buckle. She also photographed the cuddly toys given to him post-op, a framed prayer on the wall and the rifle leant next to his bed; there are echoes of photographer Roger Ballen. It’s a life of contradictions captured in Victoria’s contrasty black & white photographs – a result of exposing for the highlights and sliding up the clarity on the digital files from her Nikon D750 cameras with 85mm and 35mm prime lenses.
TPOTY award recognition
Victoria has temporarily swapped cowboys for Indians. ‘After the 2004 tsunami hit, the London school I worked at raised money and began a partnership with a school in the Tamil Nadu region of southern India,’ she tells me. She has visited regularly for over a decade and witnessed a dozen orphans of the tsunami go on to further education and develop their lives in remarkable ways. Victoria plans to travel with them to the villages they grew up in and document the regeneration.
It was while travelling through Asia that Victoria learned of her TPOTY award, she had previously been a finalist. ‘Apparently that’s common. You have to get your name in there. Keep sending the photos in. It’s nice to have a pat on the back,’ she says from the end of a crackly line. For this photographer, only a few years out of teaching and trying to clear her photographic path, the TPOTY exposure matters. ‘When I go back to the cowboy circuit, for them the award will be a big deal. It gives me more of a way in and shows the project is actually going somewhere. It would be really nice to get Dominic some sponsorship, that would be my dream.’
Victoria Dempster is a British photographer now based in Utah. A former teacher, she tells the stories of those she meets through photography and has been published in various outlets, including The Telegraph and Blueprint magazine. This year, she placed as a runner-up in the People and Cultures category of Travel Photographer of the Year. For more information, see victoriadempster.com.