Design and Photo Director: Hannah McCaughey
Associate Art Director: Petra Zeiler
Photographer: Nate Bressler
Heidi: How did this story come about?
Nate: I’ve been fortunate to develop a working relationship with Outside that supports “no amount of time is too much” for an assignment, combined with my archaeology background, 37 years on a horse and months with native youth camps, we both knew being embedded would be vital to getting the story.
How long did you spend with riders/racers?
I ended up spending four months with the teams, splitting my time between Pine Ridge and a ranch where I run cattle just north of the reservation. Most nights were spent on floors, couches, the bed of my truck or the ground below the Sun dance tree of a new dear family where we spent long hours talking about problems and solutions of the wounded Lakota nation.
What direction did you get from the magazine?
I’ve been a contributor with Outside over 15 years so Hannah stressed the importance of portraits, knowing I should have plenty of reportage moments, from there, the rest was up to me.
Before meeting the writer and racers, I had many lengthy calls with them about what I did not intend to do w my camera, Pine Ridge is infamous for being the worst living conditions in the US and I didn’t want to add to all that press, I let them know that I was there to capture this story in a positive light and leave the depressing stuff to others.
Tell me about the suicides and last second wins, did that relate to any of your images? How did that impact you while you were there?
Summer race season is an incredible distraction from life on the reservation, where childhood is difficult for many growing up in the third world conditions. You can feel the weight lifted off these team members when they load their horses for another race weekend. Unfortunately, the Brew Crew had suffered more than their share of loss, the months I spent with them was never quiet with talk of their virtuoso rider who had taken his life the summer before, just days after winning the World Championship. With friends and family of my own suffering the same fate and an epidemic four times the national average on Pine Ridge, I knew what these young kids were up against. Between high drug/alcohol abuse, an 80% unemployment rate and 17 people per single wide trailer, their life of hard times was very apparent though my camera lens. As our relationship grew, so did the thoughts of a safe shelter for kids to ride during winter months and a classroom to finish the days studies. From these talks a nonprofit was started with the aim to educate native youth and support them through early spring also known as suicide season on many reservations. There’s a need and an obtainable solution to help the native youth that’s been the cause of many sleepless nights, turning my embedded assignment into a project beyond the story itself.
Was it easy to be accepted into the group of riders?
The groups of riders were very accepting by all teams w a weariness of only a select few, unsure of the nonnative w a camera, the jokes flowed freely along w the herbal medication and the commandery of a Kansas born outdoorsman and the Great Plains natives I was camping, cooking and riding horseback with. We all had some form of ranching backgrounds, an understanding of the importance of youth programs affiliated with horsemanship and the hardships of life on the reservation. The race community is small amongst the enormous backdrop of the America’s west so with enough race weekends under my belt their acceptance into the worlds first extreme sport felt as though we had known each other for years.
How difficult was it to shoot the race since the laps were so fast?
Shooting the races had its challenges with the obvious factors of light, angle and the ability to get clean shots came the moments of laying on the track in some blind corner, under the rail, my head out just enough to get the riders who will entering the corner at 40+ mph and unaware of the photographer at their feet. These horses are hot-blooded and warmed up to frenzy come race time, with their high hips and pulsing veins the thoroughbreds will deliver the pic as long as you move just as fast in this chaotic 2 minute race.
Did you also ride?
With surfing being so popular and my local breaks becoming too crowded and overly aggressive, I found myself seeking out horse adventures, still wanting to fill that craving for a connection with the outdoors and the elements out of my control, my last ten years on horseback has taken me on 500 mile endurance rides, cattle drives to brandings and hosting week-long group rides for adventurers looking to sleep under stars.
Between the nonprofit riding arena, the cows I own and ranch w others just outside the reservation and 1,000 miles on the pony express, this summer will keep me horseback daily.
How did you grow as a photographer from this assignment?
I’ve kept a full-time job since I was 15 and as an artist, your life of projects is never finished, with that said I realized through my bond with a this incredible nation and seeing ways to help, I’ve felt a sense of purpose that never came from the grind of being a struggling artist with a bachelor lifestyle. The desire to see things change has ignited a fire within, changing my life for many years to come, the thoughts of happy kids laughing together, leaving their worries behind for a couple of hours a day is my drive well beyond this photo world filled with so many unknowns.