Life & Culture

Photographs Documenting Los Angeles’ Inner-City Cowboys

London-based photographer Rhys Frampton’s series, Compton Cowboys, is on display now

“It must have been about two years ago, they were on an advert for Guinness,” says Rhys Frampton of the moment he became aware of South Central LA collective, the Compton Cowboys. “It demonstrated how it was their way to connect and I thought it was beautiful,” continues the London-based photographer.

Formed by a group of childhood friends, the collective have been continuing a long-standing but until recently mostly erased tradition of black cowboys. It has developed into a close-knit community – since officially beginning the Compton Cowboys in 2017, the group has engaged young people, offering them experiences outside of their day-to-day lives, like feeding, cleaning and caring for the animals in the inner-city ranch, but also dressage and other equestrian events too. “It’s such an amazing initiative,” Frampton says, “because Compton is divided, each street has a gang. It’s not as ripe as in the 90s, but it’s still there when you’re walking around.”

Taking on a commercial assignment last autumn, Frampton was given the opportunity to fly out and meet the cowboys: now, as he prepares for “just shy of 100 prints” to go on show at the Mall Galleries in London, the photographer tells Another Man about his time with the group.

“I went to Texas and there was mass flooding. I was there for an hour, literally you couldn’t move. We left, got on a plane to Los Angeles, and that’s how it happened. There was a sort of thing that I would photograph these guys anyway. So I went off and ended up spending two days with them. I went into it with a fear of horses, strangely.

“I didn’t want them to sit on the horse and pose or pretend to be something they’re not. From the moment I got there I just wanted to sit and have a coffee with them. So I asked what they like to do for lunch, and they wanted to get a burger, so we walked down to the burger joint in Compton. I was literally walking in the middle of these guys on horses and it was a ‘pinch me’ moment, quite surreal. I grew up in the 90s with hip hop, so to be there, in Compton, I had a grin from ear to ear.

“There was a moment when we were photographing and there was a car that kept driving around us with a group of guys in it – they were getting a bit twitchy, which made us nervous. So if there was a low moment, it was the realisation that we were in Compton, and there’s still gang culture. But other than that it was beautiful. They were so welcoming – we’re friends to this day actually.

“When you’re shooting in an environment like that, there’s no break in flow, and the energy that comes through to the pictures and why the pictures stand out so much is because you’re fully submerged in the moment; I’m never disconnected from them. There’s one shot where this horse almost looks like it’s jumping out of the page – it must have been about 30 centimetres away from my head. You know, they’re the moments which stand out.”

Compton Cowboys by Rhys Frampton is on at Mall Galleries, London until October 6, 2019