Cowboys of the Rhône Valley

An Untamed Ride Through France's Region of Bullfights and Broncos

The weathered faces, wide-brimmed hats and spurs of the gardians of the Camargue star in photographer Michael Hemy’s luminous series. Lying between the two arms of the Rhône, the salt flats of southern France have long been home to these European cowboys who, with their long tridents, herd black cattle through the marshes atop the iconic pale gray horses native to the region. The bulls are used for fighting in the arenas of the Course Camarguaise, and, much like in the American West, the local culture has given rise to a tradition of competitive riding. “You can definitely feel the Catalan influence here,” Hemy says, noting a lineage beyond the ancient Iberian roots of this breed of horse. “It feels almost Romany.” That character is reflected in the customs of the wetlands' primary town, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which hosts an annual Gitan Pilgrimage where Catalan- and French-speaking gypsies gather each May for a festival that dates back to the 16th century. When Hemy, who has shot for Vogue Homme and Louis Vuitton, traveled to the region to join his studio mate, Kathryn Ferguson, on a shoot for her latest film project, he found his camera seduced by these horsemen in the early morning sun. “I was keen to capture that soft, hazy, Terrence Malick light,” he explains.

What did you find compelling about the Camargue?
Michael Hemy: I liked the fact that it is such a wilderness, and although it seems untamed and arid like the Argentinian outback it’s also very lush. 

What was it like to step into the cowboy community for a day?
MH: They are like a family and are all very close to their animals. There is a sense of the old world, a mythical closeness to nature. I felt a very strong sense of tradition and that they were very proud of that: the embroidery on their shirts that echoes their Catalan heritage, and the fact that they wear the motif of Saintes-Maries––the symbol of the region that features a cross made of tridents, an anchor and a heart––on their saddles. 

Why horses, and will you photograph them again?
MH: My intention is to capture cowboys in the backcountry as intimate portraits, and these horses symbolize a point of co-existence between men and their wilderness. Utah is next on my list.

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