Mustafah Abdulaziz is a documentary photographer based in Berlin, Germany. He has been a member of the international photography collective MJR since 2008. This work is from his series, Patagonian Cowboys.
When did you work on this project about Patagonian Cowboys? Was it over the course of multiple trips?
‘I didn’t set off to make this project. A good friend of mine gave me a book called “In Patagonia” by Bruce Chatwin sometime in 2006. Instantly I was enamored. Chatwin’s blend of mythos and history had already painted a vivid picture in my mind and I wanted to go down there and see for myself. I set off at the end of 2007 for Buenos Aires with a backpack and two cameras and decided to train, bus and hitch-hike my way through Argentina and Chile for 3 months.’
You seem to have access to several different aspects of the cowboys’ life. How did you manage this?
‘I came across the cowboys by chance, having met a German girl who had dated a guy who ran an estancia on a peninsula off the bottom of Chile. I then began to come across them more and more, at rodeos and on my travels to the point I found myself spending more and more time with different cowboys. Each time was different. Some I met in backs of trucks I hitched with. Others I met outside a train station one early morning near the Rio Negro river. They showed me how to get on the passing train for free. Each meeting led to another and in Patagonia this is quite normal. I rode with them, ate with them, slept in tents and floors. In my country I think the American cowboy is a relic of a bygone era. We still maintain some facets of the culture and promote an identity relating to our understanding of their lifestyle but for the most part it’s not a present feeling.
‘I found them to be some of the warmest, hardest working individuals I’d ever come across. It was’t so unusual to meet a cowboy and spend three or four days riding with them, sharing our life stories through my broken Spanish and hand gestures. In Patagonia I felt such a genuine human connection and I think that played a large role in how I photographed them. Stanley Greene once told me photography is about psychology and memory and I think there’s a truth in that. I’m very critical of this work for this reason: it was an adventure and experimentation for me and not meant to encapsulate anything more than that.’
You have an interesting mix of the romanticized view of the cowboys along with more modern details like a bottle of Sprite and a camcorder, Can you comment on your viewpoint and what was happening in the camcorder photo?
‘They lived a life I only had memories of from movies. The aspect of them adopting more and more modernity is for me the most interesting thing about these photographs. I wish I would’ve gone deeper down this path and it still bothers me to this day that I didn’t. Their way of life is so far removed from the modern world in a lot of ways but in others it’s not. Like people everywhere they want to remember moments in their lives and so the camcorder isn’t so unusual after all. In this image the cowboy is watching a replay of him and his friends lassoing a horse. He wanted to see his performance. It reminds me of coaches in locker rooms after a game.’
Your work for the Wall Street Journal on fashion week is so interesting with the lack of glamour in its viewpoint. How did this project compare?
‘The work I did on fashion week was a similar stage in my development. I’m a self-taught photographer so with each project or assignment I try to learn as much as I can from it and make something for myself. I’m not particularly interested in fashion but I’m interested in how people live. I like a lot of fashion photography and some of my favorites photographers are in fashion. But my personal interest is how you can make someone feel a part of the world around them. So I approached fashion week from an outsider’s perspective. People looked at me and saw a guy with holes in his shirt and a camera and so assigned me their assumptions of what I was doing. I found this incredibly useful. They had an idea of themselves, saw me and tried to use me to promote their idea of how they wanted to appear. But instead of a glossy photograph of their clothes, I looked for when they forgot themselves in the moment, when they didn’t understand their own context. They saw their own world in one way and I saw it in another.
‘After fashion week it got me thinking about the possibilities of applying this method on a larger area. Now my work is what time and circumstance has made me. It feels more in tune with what I want to achieve with photography than anything else I’ve done. But understanding where you come from is useful to understand where you’re going.’