Inside the Dangerous, Tight-Knit World of Australian Rodeo
"They’re completely sunburned and injured, but they still manage to smile."
All photographs by Michael Danischewski
For more stories from the parts of Australia that don't often get a hearing, check out our editorial series: Australiana
Earlier this year, Melbourne-based photographer and videographer Michael Danischewski found himself documenting something completely out of the ordinary—Australia’s bull riding circuit. Held over two days, the rodeo was held in Bunyip, a town of only 2500 people 81 kilometres south-east of Melbourne.
Michael’s work offers a snapshot of this unknown world and the community that surrounds it. We caught up with Michael to try and understand the reasons behind this work, and what it was like to document this unexplored side of rural Australia.
VICE: So it doesn’t seem like you’ve covered rural Australian before. What made you decide to branch out?
Michael Danischewski: This was a way for me to explore what was bubbling under the surface outside of metropolitan cities. Like many Australians, when you try to look at your own backyard, it’s tough to see what’s interesting there. You’ll go overseas and you’ll have new eyes on this landscape that’ll resonate with you or strike as something different. [But] country Australia is a beautiful thing. There’s so much in the landscape and It's a whole different thing going on that you wouldn’t otherwise be aware of.
It’s one thing to want to immerse yourself in rural Australia, but it’s another to do it at a rodeo. How did you even come across this?
It literally came from my way home from a surfing trip. There were these posters saying “Bunyip Rodeo” on power lines every 50 kilometres. I thought to myself What the hell is that all about? It was coming up in the next month, so I decided to check it out. No one I spoke to had any idea it exists. The rodeo is such an American thing, so for an Australian take in a small country town—I didn’t know what I was walking into.
And what were you walking into?
As soon as I got there, I could see it was just out in this old paddock. There’s obviously not much around, so they made this little arena out of fencing with hay bales around for people to sit on. People come over from other towns, so there was something like 800 people there. They park their car in the next paddock over, walk in and enjoy the day like [it’s] a country fair.
Was it quite a serious, professional atmosphere?
It’s a professional circuit. Like the V8s, it goes from circuit to circuit, and every couple of weeks, there’s a new event. Interestingly, it’s more everyone banding together rather than something professional. Everyone’s chipping in just to make it happen. You could tell all the signs and everything were donated by local businesses and every couple hours, they’re mentioning all the sponsors who’re just the local butchers, pubs and the paint shop.
How did you go about actually photographing this rodeo?
I could literally stand up on the shoots as these guys were getting ready to ride. No one said anything. A few people were just wanting to see if I wanted to get photos with them. You don’t get that kind of connectivity in the city. If you show interest, people are really keen to share their experiences.
What about the riders themselves?
Firstly, they’re all in amazing outfits. The detail that goes into their chaps, it’s amazing. That juxtaposition of very tough men in very colourful outfits is quite a sight. I wouldn't talk to people beforehand as to not break their psyche, but as soon as they came back through the gate I’d say hey. They’d smile at first and put their thumbs up, but I’d wait a second for them to relax then take the photo. The fact that they could just switch between these hours of preparing themselves to okay now I’m good was amazing.
The photos and portraits are intimate and personable. What made you decide to shoot it in such a way?
I’m curious about the people that do it. I’m curious about people number one. I’m interested in what people do and how they interact with their landscape. That’s generally why I photograph. For me, I’m interested in the people as much as the sport. It takes an intriguing person to do this, whether it’s riding or running the rodeo itself.
That unseen community is definitely evident, but there’s also an element of danger in these photos.
Yeah things can go wrong. I saw this one guy fall off in a way that a bull clipped him on the head. It shows just how dangerous this sport is. I mean, it’s a tonne and a half bull jumping through the air. He got wrapped up and treated, and just hung out for the rest of the day. There was another rider in a bath, which was actually just the back of his ute, and the guy next to him had a neck brace. That’s the perfect summary of this experience to me. They’re completely sunburned and injured, but they still manage to smile.
Tell me, why was this so significant to document?
It’s out of the ordinary. I’ve always been fascinated by outsiders, whether it be musicians or artists and I just see this as the same. It could be anything, but when you mix this rural community and Australian identity with an American cultural sport that no one really knows about. Anyone who is passionate about something to the point that they want to put on an event, and to do it for such an obscure sport—I’m intrigued.
Do you reckon you’ll go back?
To stumble into this first time go has me more intrigued by what happens behind the scenes. How these guys train, what else is going on the town. It’s definitely something I’ll be going for quite some time.
Interview by Sam Nichols. Follow him on Twitter
To see more of Michael Danischewski's work check out his website here