Photographer Jeremiah Ariaz has spent the last several years photographing a rarely documented equestrian community in Southwest Louisiana.
His new exhibit, Louisiana Trail Riders, was recently installed at Columbus State University's ArtLab where visitors can see an excerpt of the project.
Ariaz recently sat down with Sunday Arts reporter Carrie Beth Wallace to discuss his fascination with the culture, the processes he used to document them and the reason he's taken a non-traditional approach to the exhibit's installation.
Q: How did you get interested in this specific project?
A: My work has always dealt with themes of the American West in one form or another. I live in Baton Rouge, La., so I’m in the South, but I’m not really in the environment that I’m usually making work about. I was on my motorcycle riding in the country in Southwest Louisiana and just literally came across a trail ride and it looked a lot like the first photo you see in the exhibit right here. They commanded the road. It was a small, two-lane highway. I had to pull over and allow these people to pass. There were probably 50 or 60 people on horseback and I had never seen anything quite like that before.
So I am sitting by the side of the road and there’s all of these gentleman on horseback riding down. I had my camera with me because I’m a photographer and I often travel with a camera. I took a few pictures as they were going by, and one the gentlemen at the end of the procession just kind of waved me along and invited me to ride along with them. So I pulled my motorcycle around and rode behind the group and made some photographs for the rest of that day.
Before I left, I got his phone number as well as a few of the riders, so I could get information about the next ride. Come to find out there’s a ride usually happening every weekend somewhere in the country. So if I could find it, I was invited to come out and join in.
Q: If you could find it?
A: Well, I mean, because they’re not really advertised. Even though some of these are on public roads, they’re not parades and they’re not for an audience. So it’s really something they’re doing for themselves and therefore it is something that’s not really broadcast.
Often, there is a handwritten note that’s xeroxed with directions and a phone number for the next ride.
Q: That’s wild. Are they all in the same area?
A: They’re all in Southwest Louisiana, essentially from the Atchafalaya Basin to the Texas border. So it’s a pretty large swatch of land. Everything is pretty much south of Interstate 10. That particular region is a grassland and sort of a prairie landscape. It has a black equestrian culture that goes back to the 17th century.
Q: Before this, did you have any knowledge of that? Or was it new information to you?
A: No. It was a startlingly new vibrant world for me to find.
Q: You said that the first trail ride was comprised of about 50 to 60 people. How many people approximately did you encounter in this culture?
A: I’ve probably been on about a dozen rides. I would say that the 50 to 60 people is a pretty good average of how many people are riding each weekend. I have been on a few that are larger than that- probably 80 to 100 in attendance. There have been a couple of smaller ones as well, but I’d say that most of them have around 50 or 60 on average.
Q: How long did you observe the rides?
A: When I first came across the trail riders it was late 2014. The most recent images in the collection are actually from two weeks ago. They’re not in this exhibit, but I am finishing up the collection this summer and they will be included. This exhibit is kind of an excerpt from that larger body of work.
Q: The collection includes a lot of action shots from the rides. Are you always on a motorcycle or do you ride a horse? What are the logistics?
A: I’m never on a motorcycle during the ride. The rides will also pull along a trailer, and in that trailer will be a DJ.
Q: I just saw the DJ in that photograph and was wondering about him.
A: One of the things that is really important about this culture is that there is always music. Zydeco music is associated with it. Every ride I’ve been on has had a DJ playing.
So what you’re seeing in that particular photo is the back of the truck pulling a trailer the DJ is riding in. Back behind me are some concert speakers just kind of blaring out down the road. So a lot of times I’m either on the trailer with the DJ or in the back of the truck. You can see it referenced in several of the photographs throughout the exhibit. That’s the position I’m taking. Some of the photographs are taken before and after the ride as well.
Another thing that’s good to know is that some of the rides have a trailer with seats across for the younger kids and wives and girlfriends riding along.
Q: I notice that there are some Indian headdresses present in a photo or two. Is that part of the culture as well?
A: That particular trail riding group is the Apache Riders. Each small town has its own riding club. For example, the Crescent City Cowboys, the Apache Riders or the I-49 Riders. You can go on and on. I have a list of them and the names are very musical like the culture itself.
Q: Is this anything like any other community you’ve ever been around?
A: No. Well, I grew up in rural Kansas, so I’m no stranger to horses. I’ve been around them and around people who ride, but there’s nothing quite like this. This takes sort of the popular conception of a cowboy and turns it on its head.
Q: Are all of the horses’ manes as intricately done as some of these I’m seeing?
A: No. I would say that they’re not all done like that. Some of the riding clubs do give a lot of attention to their horses. Maybe even decorating or dressing them in a way that nears their own appearance. You can see the insignias. A lot of the riders will wear the insignias of their riding club.
You can see this guy here — Mr. Real Deal — if he were to turn around, you could see that he’s got his group’s insignia on the front of his vest.
Q: I’m seeing lots of different ages represented in these photographs. Is it a priority to include as many people as possible?
A: For me, that’s one of the most striking elements. I found this idea of passing the tradition on to another generation very evident. It’s sort of what drew me to make these photographs. I think that part of that was because it’s so contrary to the images of black America that are being projected by the media. I wanted to show this real tenderness — the father and son relationships — like in this photograph here — became really important to me to share. It’s beautiful.
Q: Have you gotten to know some of these people?
A: Some of them I have. There are a couple of people that I’m in regular contact and have gotten to know over the years as I’ve photographed them. A lot of the same people go to these rides every weekend. They’ve come to recognize me as “The Picture Man from Baton Rouge.” Somebody who often uses their truck to pull the trailer, they’ll invite me to jump in the back. You know, none of these rides take place in Baton Rouge where I live, so they’re not people I see out and about. But I do see them when I go to the rides. As soon as I get there they’re all like, “Hey Picture Man!”
I also make a point to give everyone that I’m photographing the image that I create. That also creates a bit of a link to the community as well.
Q: Were the trail riders welcoming to you?
A: Very. Extremely. I mean, for them to just invite me along? This guy on the side of the road with a camera? They’ve been incredibly welcoming. I am so grateful for how open they have been. That’s been my experience every time. They are just incredibly gracious.
I mean, even last weekend, the last ride I was just on, I was walking for a lot of it because I just wanted that perspective. When we got to the end, I kind of fell way far behind everybody and some circled back and said, “Hey, you want to ride? A beer or whatever?” I’ve always felt very welcomed.
Q: It looks kind of like a block party that travels.
A: (laughing) Yeah. It is, kind of. It’s a festive atmosphere all the way through. Because the rides end with a zydeco band playing, they start and stop at the same location. So basically, you get where you’re going and everyone’s arriving with trailers. They get the horses ready to ride in the afternoon, usually starting at noon, and they go to the half way point and stop and rest or have some drinks or whatever in a field. Then they head back to where the ride ends. When the ride stops, that evening there is a zydeco band. At least one or more. Last weekend, there were three bands.
Q: Does the band ride, too?
A: Usually not. I mean, I’ve been on a ride where that happened. One of the rides that was particularly special to me was a very large ride. There was a flat bed trailer and a zydeco band that played for most of the ride. Most of the time though there’s a DJ instead and the band plays when everyone returns. From beginning to end, it’s a big party. On occasion, a zydeco band will play at the half way point in the field, but not always.
Q: You said this originated a long time ago. The 17th century?
A: From what we can tell. It’s clear from public records that there is a black equestrian culture that dates back from the 17th century or perhaps even earlier. We know that because of the brands for cattle. That’s kind of the first records from the state. A lot of those early brands were attributed to African Americans that owned property and had horses. That equestrian culture has been predominant in the region for a long time.
Q: I’m not seeing anyone that I would consider older. Where are the seniors?
A: A lot of times they’re there. They just may not be riding as much. I would say that some are older. There are some older people that ride, but I’d say the majority of the riders are middle age to younger folks.
Q: This first image is my favorite. The one with the trail riders coming down the road toward you. It is so interesting. What drew you to make it the lead photo in the exhibit?
A: I love the ear buds on the lead rider. It sort of places it in modern day. I’ve tried to include information that places the date. I love the contrast in this intro image. This was very much how my first encounter happened with the trail riders. It’s shocking. The guy with the ear buds and the other one on the cell phone.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say about the project?
A: I’d love to talk about this exhibit in particular. It’s a fairly non-traditional installation of a gallery exhibit. It’s non-traditional because rather than sticking to a center line and keeping things evenly spaced across the gallery, I wanted to create a sense of rhythm and movement to pay tribute to the movement of a trail ride and simultaneously to the zydeco music that accompanies it. So the images are kind of staggered, there are images pushed to the edge, some images radiate from a corner, and my hope is to expand the viewers expectations of how they encounter a gallery.
I know a gallery can be, for many people, an intimating space or a space people wouldn’t necessarily enter on their own. I very much want the work that I create to be accessible and for me when I look at these photographs, my first audience I think of is the riders themselves. They really are the first audience because I give everyone a photographic print. So I want the work to be accessible and appreciated by anyone and everyone that comes in.
Q: What have you taken away from this project? What has impacted you the most? What kept you going back for years?
A: I think there are lot of interesting stories to be told. This is one story that is not told very often. Even to folks in Louisiana this is very foreign. To these riders it is a way of life. I think it’s at once kind of familiar to many Americans- the image of a man on a horse is so iconographic and so much a part of the American story. But it’s important to realize that there are many sides to that story.
Formal education: Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Kansas City Art Institute, Master of Fine Arts from the University of New York-Buffalo
Occupation: Photographer, associate professor of art and photography at Louisiana State University
More to Know: “Louisiana Trail Riders” is an excerpt of part of a larger work Ariaz is currently finishing. He hopes to have the project developed into a book in the future.
If you go
What: “Louisiana Trail Riders: Photographs by Jeremiah Ariaz”
When: March 12-April 12
Where: ArtLab, Seaboard Depot, Corn Center for the Visual Arts, 921 Front Ave.
Call: art.columbustate.edu or 706-507-8300