Celebrating Diversity: The Inspiring Story of Ivan McClellan and Black Cowboy Culture

Step into a world where cowboy culture meets an unseen community, a world that will leave you captivated and yearning for more. Ivan McClellan, a self-taught photographer, learned about the existence of black cowboys and black cowboy rodeos and embarked on a journey that defied his expectations. From the dusty rodeos of Oklahoma to the heart and soul of a culture unknown to many, Ivan's immersion into this world will leave you wanting to learn more. But little did he know, this was just the beginning of a chapter filled with untold stories and new life experiences.

Cowboy culture and black cowboys

The cowboy culture and black cowboys play a significant role in American history. Often overlooked, black cowboys, just like their white counterparts, contributed greatly to the formation and expansion of the American West. As Ivan McClellan's photography project, Project 8 Seconds, visually showcases, their stories deserve to be told and celebrated, and their influence on the unique blend of cultures in America needs to be acknowledged.

My special guest is Ivan McClellan

Meet Ivan McClellan, a street photographer turned cultural chronicler. Growing up in Kansas, Ivan's connection to cowboy culture was not intuitive, his deep dive into the world of black cowboys opened his eyes to a new reality. His Project Eight Seconds brilliantly combines narratives of black culture with cowboy ethos, presenting a revolutionary blend that captures the eye and engages the mind. Not just content with portraying real black cowboys, Ivan strives to help create more equitable opportunities for these dedicated athletes. 

I was moved by the fusion of black culture and cowboy culture in a way I never thought possible. - Ivan McClellan 

In this episode, you will be able to:

  •  Dive into cowboy culture and uncover the often-overlooked significance of black cowboys in America's history. 
  •  Track the shifting perceptions towards black cowboys. 
  •  Experience the power and impact of Ivan McClellan's Project eightsecs.com, providing a new lens to western culture. 
  •  Explore Ivan McClellan's personal journey, his transformation, and passion ignited by cowboy culture and expressed through his unique photography. 

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Hello. My name is Emy Digrappa. Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question why we learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Humanities. This is What's Your Why.         


Today we are talking to Ivan McClellan. This conversation is about the fact that cowboys are a staple of American history and they are a much loved icon of western history. And we're asking Ivan his thoughts about who are the cowboys of the American west. Because as I've learned about Ivan, he is a photographer and he is about all things cowboy culture. And his photography is called project 8 seconds, which captures the essence of the black cowboy and works not only to disrupt perceptions but to celebrate this newly found part of his identity.         


So welcome Ivan. Thanks so much for having me on here. I sure do appreciate know before we I kind of want you to describe your photography a bit of history about how you got into photography and what was your passion in doing photography and then talk about your 8 seconds project. Can you do that? Yeah, absolutely.         


I was just sort of going around town with my camera, meeting people and taking their photos for a long time. I live in Portland, Oregon, and that's really how I cut my teeth and learned how to use my camera was just being out in the street, being out in public, encountering people that I thought were interesting and making a portrait of them in any condition in any environment. And it was like three or four years into doing that that I ran into. I didn't really do anything with those photos and they started to get pretty good and I started to get known for doing this street photography thing, but there wasn't any money in it and I wasn't getting much recognition or museums or anything like that. It was right around that time that I met a filmmaker named Charles Perry and we got to talking at a bar and he was working on a documentary.         


I said about what? He said, black cowboys. That just sounded like the craziest thing that I'd ever heard. I'd known a thing about cowboys growing up in Kansas. We would go to the American royal rodeo every year.         


My choir sang the national anthem there. I would know westerns Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies. We loved Tombstone. We love to watch reruns of Bonanza and Gunsmoke on TV. We like the you know, like I grew up in this culture, surrounded by this culture, I thought.         


But I had never really encountered a black cowboy that was real. I'd seen black cowboys on movies like plays and saddles or there was a black cowboy on Peewee's playhouse called cowboy Curtis. But like real black cowboys, I was blown away by this concept. And so he invited me to come with him to a black rodeo in Oklahoma and I was off to the. Races from there and going to a black rodeo, is it just all black people attending and competing?         


Yeah, everybody there is black. All of the officials are black. The announcer is black. 95% of the audience is black. It's just like it came as an extension of black folks wanting to compete in white rodeos in the not being able to.         


They could come and compete in slack, but they couldn't compete in the main competitions. And so they started to have their own competitions and develop these black rodeos so they could kind of show off their skills and make a little bit of money. And a lot of these rodeos have been around for 50, 60 years now. They just are traditional gathering places for black community where people get together to have their family reunions every year. And so they really have know, barbecue and turkey legs and people dance and wear their family t shirts and it's just like a real community vibe.         


That is so cool. It reminds me of the powwow. We do a Native American powwow every year here in Jackson and powwow's all over the country and it really represents how Native American cultures come together and have community together. Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of people from Kansas City once I got into the work and was like, I didn't know this existed because the rodeo was 4 hours away from where I grew up, the Roy LeBlanc Invitational in Oklahoma.         


A lot of my friends from school were like, how did you not know this existed? We used to come down there every year for our family reunion. What were you know? And I was like, we didn't have family where we were kind of doing our own thing. We're really a small, tight family just trying to get by.         


We didn't have those big sets of cousins and that big extended family like a lot of other people did. So yeah, a lot of my friends from high school were like, of course there are black rodeos. What's wrong with you? Now I know. Now you know.         


What has opened your eyes about perceptions of the black culture in the rodeo culture? Like you were saying earlier, that in the blacks weren't allowed to enter into the rodeo in the white competition, so they own rodeo. And so how do you break down those barriers? Or have they been broken down? It's better.         


Black folks can compete in any rodeo around the country. And it's fair, I guess, comparatively. Although when you talk about stuff like sponsorship, there's still a lot of big deltas. There are very few black athletes that have sponsors. If you talk about training and the ability to get in reps and really get good at your craft, really get good at your discipline, there's still a huge delta between the resources that a lot of these black athletes have and what other athletes have, but it's definitely getting better.         


I really made it the mission of 8 Seconds to kind of close a lot of those gaps and start to get people connected with sponsorship. It's critically important to get down the road just to be able to pay for fuel and to feed your horses and to get to the point that you're able to compete full time as a job takes a lot of resources. So the 8 Seconds isn't just about telling these stories. It's about sort of creating equitable space and really creating a space for people to get to the top of their craft. But you have some people like Corey Solomon and Chad Mayfield and John Douche, who consistently are in the top ten calf ropers in the world, and they're black guys.         


So it's great to see what they're doing for the sport, and it's great to see white audiences really celebrate these athletes when they come into the arena. They get the biggest cheers, they get more cheers than anybody else, and there's just a lot of perception change, and you're going to see a lot more diversity in a lot of the Western sports and rodeo. It's a little bit different, I think, when a lot of these black athletes go into pro rodeo and they go to these big rodeos around the country, it's a completely different vibe. The people aren't playing around. They're there to compete.         


They're there to win some money. They're not particularly there to make friends. And it's not like that at a lot of the black rodeos. The purses are pretty small. Most people go home with 500 $600 if they win.         


And so people aren't really there to compete as hard. They're just there to show off what they can do in front of their friends. And they're there to be in community and to have a good time, by and large. So there's a mentality shift that happens when you go to the next level. There's an economic shift.         


It's just really different. Going back to the 8 Seconds project, how did that become this passion that you wanted to tour it, and how did you get it out there, known to a wider community to be invited to bring your show there? I didn't do anything with the cowboy photos. After that first rodeo that I went to, I was amazed by it. There were men riding around with no shirt on and a gold chain and braids, and I had never seen that image on a horse.         


There were women with long braids and acrylic nails, barrel racing, and a fully bedazzled outfit, and there was hip hop and there was gospel and R and B, and there were just all of these things that were familiar about black culture mixed with cowboy culture in a way that I never thought that they could blend. I was moved by it. I was thrilled by it. I went home and uploaded my photos and then did nothing with them. And then I went back and I kept going to other black rodeos just because I thought it was fun and just because I wanted to be in community.         


And it wasn't until I started this project in 2015 and it wasn't even a project. It didn't have a name. I didn't name it 8 Seconds until probably the end of 2018. And at the prodding of my wife who was like, yeah, you keep going to these black rodeos and spending all this money. What's the goal?         


What are you doing? And she was like, why don't you start an Instagram and start to put these photos up? And I started an Instagram. I called it. Eight Seconds.         


And people were as shocked as I was to kind of see these images and to see this culture. There were white folks that were like, I had no clue that this existed. This is amazing. There were black folks that were like, where is this? How do I find a black rodeo?         


Like, I had no idea either. And so I kept posting the photos because I was like, well, there are really interesting figures in this world. There are really fascinating men and women who do this day in and day out. And I think that they know, become household names, and I think people should really be rooting for these folks. So I kept posting.         


I started to not only go to rodeos but go to ranches and go to farms where people actually live and just sort of see their day to day lives. I rode from Houston to college station with a cowboy that I did not know, and he was going to sell a bull. And the bull was like, kicking the back of the trailer right behind my head and shaking the truck. And I was just like, all of a sudden immersed in this world that I was fascinated by. Brands started to pay attention and go like, we need diversity.         


Big brands like wrangler and Boot barn and Stetson, like heritage brands in the western world. And I started to work with them to tell those stories. And getting on those bigger platforms made our platform expand. Then the press started to pay attention and start to put that story out there. So we started to get stories in the Washington post and big publications around the world, really.         


So it's gone a lot further than I ever thought it would, but I'm really happy to be the steward of these stories and of these images. So is this a business for you where you can sell your photographs, where you can make a living yourself? It's becoming that for sure. I mean, I still work a day job, but it's getting more and more annoying to go to work because I'm like, I just want to be out cowboy. And we did our first rodeo this know, just thinking about creating an equitable space and creating a big payday for these athletes.         


And also bringing this story, bringing this culture to Portland where there's nothing like this in Portland. I mean, there's a very small black community there. There's no cowboy culture at all. And the ability to kind of bring 40 black cowboys there and have them compete for a purse of $60,000, which is unheard of in the black rodeo world. Most of the time rodeos pay between $5,000 in prize money and we did $60,000 in added cash.         


We had the biggest sponsors in the world from my brand relationships. We did a big, big rodeo and people went crazy when those calculations came out. This was in Portland, Oregon, like right in the middle of town at the Expo Center there. It was an indoor rodeo. We brought in our own dirt.         


We brought in our own fencing. We had studio level lighting, which is important for me as a photographer. We had a professional DJ, professional audio. We did a big, big thing and the community went up for it. And the cowboys were like, we've never seen a crowd so excited to see us perform.         


So now we're in talks with other people about partnership with the rodeo. And I'm selling fine art prints, know, doing museum openings around the country. We made the front page of the New York Times with our been it's been colossal. And I kind of go to work after doing these things and my coworkers are like, how long are you going to stay? Like you're, you've kind of outgrown us.         


And I'm like, my wallet hasn't I need this money so I keep going back. What is your day job? I work for Adobe. I work on photo editing software. So it's related to what I do.         


I'm a designer. But yeah, I appreciate the work but it's becoming difficult with the amount of travel that I have to do and just the 24 hours that I have each day. Sort of dividing that up equally between all of these interests is tricky. So what was the name of the rodeo that you produced in Portland? It was the Eight Seconds.         


Juneteenth rodeo. We did it on June 17 this year. Juneteenth has become a national holiday and nobody outside of Texas really knows how to celebrate it. So we were like, well, let's throw a rodeo in Portland and that'll be how we celebrate it in Portland. That'll be the event where we gather and people were thrilled to put on their boots and their hats and to come and celebrate and be in community.         


That is so cool. Is that going to be a yearly? It was, it was difficult this year just because I was like, hey, I'm throwing a black rodeo in Portland, Oregon. And sponsors were kind of like, okay, why? And why you?         


I've never thrown a birthday party, let alone a 2500-person event. It was sort of tricky to get people to ride along with us, but we did it. I think it'll be easier to get people to commit money to the rodeo next year. I think it'll be easier to sell tickets, but I want to do it again. But it was working a full time job and having a nine month old baby and not really having a big team and all of this was pretty tough.         


It was a rough haul. I had gray in my beard, and then I started to see it in my hair, and I was like my eyebrows started to turn gray. I was like, oh, no. I'm like aging every time I look in the mirror. What do you think now?         


And what have you learned, good and bad, about the cowboy culture in and of itself? The cowboy culture in the you know. There’s all of this good cowboy stuff that people live by. People are gritty. People have integrity.         


A cowboy says they're going to do something, they're going to do it. They're not going to do it on time, but they will do it. A cowboy says they're going to show up at eight, they're going to show up at ten, but they're going to show up. That's the way that it's gone consistently in this work. I've really learned to love these folks, and it's gone beyond just capturing photos.         


I've really developed very strong relationships with a lot of these people. One of my best friends in the Western world was Ouncie Mitchell. Ouncie Mis a bull rider, very good bull rider, and we met on a project for Stetson. He got paid $1,000 to ride a couple of bulls, and he did it, and he was thrilled to get the money. We got some beautiful shots, and then I saw him at a rodeo in Vegas a few months later, and we just got to talking, and we talked for, like, 90 minutes, and we realized, you know what? I actually like you beyond just the payday and beyond just the work that we do together.         


We met a few other times. We did another campaign for another brand, and I would go down to Houston and we would go and eat crawfish, or we would go bowling, or I'd always rent a sports car. When I went down there, we would just go riding around in the know. I think he viewed me as like an uncle because he would always ask me stuff about relationship advice and just, like, life know? Last time I saw him was in Portland.         


He came to the St. Paul Rodeo in Portland, and we drove around, got some lunch, and we were just talking about how he was trying to pro rodeo and he was doing a good job. He had made it up into the top 25 bull riders in the country, and he was sleeping in his rental car just to have somewhere to stay. He had, like, travel buddies that he was riding around with, and they would split rooms when they could or split the rental car, and both of them would sleep in it. And then he would meet women and go to their house to get a shower and to get a know when he could do that.         


One of these women in Salt Lake ended up shooting and killing him because they got into a fight and he died last September. And that was really rough. And I really took a step back and was like, what am I doing? I started out just taking pictures and now I've gotten so close to this that I'm losing people. I really wanted to kind of quit the project, you know, the cowboy community in that moment, the black cowboy community in that moment were like there are a lot of stories coming out in the press about Ouncie that aren't really speaking to him, speaking about him or who he was or how important he was.         


And so I took it up to write a story about him and it went viral online and people were sharing it, his family members were sharing it. And I just realized it's my job to be the voice of this community, to not only be the voice and to spread these stories and these messages, but to make sure that athletes going forward have an easier time when they're trying to pro rodeo, that they're not out roughing it like that because it's too volatile. Yeah. That is so sad. How old was he?         


He's 26. Oh my gosh. Just broken your heart. Yeah, it was rough. And he was a really great kid.         


He was one of the most confident people you'd ever meet. And it was a genuine confidence that wasn't cockiness or arrogance or anything like that. He just really knew what he could do and really believed in himself, but was super kind, probably too kind. He would go to his house and there'd be like eight guys living there and it was like a one-bedroom house, and you would go there. There'd just be guys everywhere eating cheerios and working out, and he would just let anybody stay with him that needed somewhere to stay.         


He was just that kind of guy. So there's like a couple of things that I think about when I think about the cowboy culture. I think about the authentic cowboy who does work on a ranch and maybe doesn't rodeo, but he rides a horse every day, let's say. But then there's the rodeo cowboy, and that kind of is its own culture in a sense, and maybe that's all he does is compete. Yeah, there's some crossover.         


I think the magic happens when you do both, and then you got a real hand who can work a ranch, who can also kind of take those skills and show off in rodeo. A lot of the black cowboys don't live on ranches because they didn't inherit any land and they didn't inherit those skills. So a lot of these guys live in trailers on some land or live in the city and then go cowboy on the weekends. So it's a little bit different than what you're probably used to in Wyoming, where people have big expanses of land and then they sort of work those ranches. I've learned that cowboy is a state of mind, and it's a set of rules that you live by.         


And if you're cowboying out of Dallas, Texas, in a two bedroom apartment, or you're cowboying on thousands of acres of land in Wyoming, if you got the know, you got grit, you got determination, you stay till the job is done, you do what you say you're going to do. You're a cowboy. You're a cowboy in my eyes and in a lot of these folks eyes. So a lot of people want to wear a cowboy hat, and they want to wear boots, and they want to represent themselves in a certain way. But it's like, are you living by this code?         


Are you a stand up person with integrity I think are more important than your appearance? There are some divides in the horse world that I've really run across that I think are really fascinating, the rancher versus the rodeo person. The rancher might view the rodeo person to be more like a performer or more like an actor. There's a divide in the black cowboy world between trail riders and Rodeoers. And they're like, oh, trail riders don't take it seriously.         


And the trail riders are like, oh, rodeo people take it way too seriously. And then don't even get me started on ranchers versus farmers. So there are all of these divides and deltas and how people want to be perceived or who they think is authentic. But like I said, I think it really comes down to mindset and who you are. So what do you see as the future of the Eight Seconds project?         


By the way, I'm so glad you didn't quit after your friend died, but it seems everything I've read about you, you became a voice and your photographs became a symbol for the black community and the black cowboy. So what do you see going forward? And how do you want the black community, not just in the west, but all over the US. To embrace the black cowboy? I've never had a plan.         


I've always just kind of gone where I'm needed with the rodeo. Somebody said, hey, you want to do something for Juneteenth in Portland? I was like, what do you have in mind? They said, maybe you could bring out some cowboys. I said, maybe we could do a rodeo.         


And they were like, OK. And that was just kind of how it started. And then it was like a six month later. We got bucking bowls in the middle of the convention center. I've always just kind of gone where I'm needed and where I think I can be the most useful the plan is to continue to do that.         


I think 8 seconds has the opportunity to really transform the lives of these cowboys. And I think if I stop doing this project at some point, I would really like the legacy of it to be that it really transformed the western world, that it really transformed the way that these folks are perceived. It really transformed the way that they're paid. It transformed the level that they're able to compete, all of those things. I would like to be the legacy of the project, but that's if it continues to be something that I'm able to do, it might be god's plan that know, just keep working at Adobe and that's okay, too.         


But as long as I'm able know, take these photos and tell these stories, I'll do it. I think it's so interesting and so amazing that it just became so organic in a way, just like how you met one person and that led you to another person and you went to a rodeo that you've never experienced before and how it became part of your own identity. And now you're very immersed in the black cowboy and the rodeo. And so I think that's really a beautiful story that you have to tell. And I think that it really is so inspiring for your community, for the black community, to know that you can follow a path and find a dream that you didn't even know existed.         


Yeah, completely. I think if you would have came to me in 2014 and said, Ivan, you're going to exclusively photograph cowboys for the next ten years, and not only are you going to photograph cowboys, you're going to slowly become one, and you're going to be a rodeo boss, and you're going to actually learn to like the smell of manure. This is your future. If a genie would have came to me in 2014 and said that, I would have laughed until I busted a rib, that's not where I thought things were headed. I didn't even think that I was going to be like a professional photographer.         


I never thought that I was even going to get paid for it. And I thought if I did get paid for it, it was going to be doing street photos or doing fashion or anything other than working in the western space. So it's really amazing what life has planned for you and what doors will open in front of you and if you choose to walk through them, what an adventure can lay ahead. So true. What does your family think about this?         


How have they been on this journey with you and not just your wife and your children, but your mom and your siblings? What do they think of this kind of road you've been down? My grandma grew up on a hog farm. They grew like fruit trees and slaughtered hogs. And when we grew up, she was kind of like, avoid all things country because they're not going to make you any money.         


So she was like, let's go to the city. Let's eat at nice restaurants. Let's go to the opera. Let's go to plays. Let's really pay attention to what's going on in the city and what's cultured there, because that's where you're going to make your fortune.         


And anytime it came down to, like, grandma, let's go to Benjamin ranch and ride horses, she was always, no, no, let's not, because that's a waste of time. And we really grew up thinking were they were a couple of generations removed from slavery, so I understand why they thought like that. They were just, like, growing vegetables, working with animals. All of that stuff is not fruitful. Well, lo and behold, I grow up and I'm going to rodeos and cowboying around the country.         


And my grandma and my mom at first were like, what are you? Like, what a weird hobby. And I borrowed my mom's car to go from that first go to Kansas City down to that first rodeo. I gave her her car back, and she was like, it smells terrible in here. What were you doing?         


I was like, I was at a rodeo. She's like, you need to wash my car. You need to get my car detailed and clean because it smells awful in here. And so they were very confused. But then I think it was right around when the book came out.         


We came out with a book in 2021, a photo book. That was when they were like, wow, this is actually something you kind of take, something that we thought didn't have any value and turned it into art and really turned it into something that we view to be respectable and high end. And then when I did the rodeo, my mom and my sister came, and they were just blown away, and they had never seen anything like that. And they're my biggest fans now. They're 100% on board.         


But I think in the beginning, they were pretty confused. Well, and like you said, you can't blame them. It's where they came from. And you opened up another world for them, too, to have a different perspective and a different perception about the west. Yeah, completely.         


My wife, she's along for the ride. I've always told her, my dreams aren't your dreams, so you don't have to work on this. But she ends up working harder than me on most of the projects that I go into the rodeo. She was the rodeo secretary, and she was, like, paying out at the end of the rodeo and dealing with cowboys, saying that they came in third when they came in fourth. And she navigated it flawlessly and just got everybody out of there, got everybody paid.         


She had the new baby strapped to her chest and was moving stuff around and helping vendors load in and load out. And she works incredibly hard at this. She grew up. In rural Oregon. And so I think for her as well, it's been a journey to go like, oh, now we're doing cowboy stuff.         


That's how I grew up. I thought we were going to live in the city, but it's not really looking like that anymore. Oh my gosh, she sounds awesome. She sounds like one tough lady. Holy.         


Yeah, she's got the good stuff. She's a real cowgirl through and through. That's cool. That's so cool. Well, it's been great talking to you today, Ivan.         


When I post your interview, I'll post all the links. Know if you could maybe share and let me know some of your favorite photos that I can post along with that, that'd be great too. Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate your time. Thanks for talking to me.         


Okay, bye. Bye.         


Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Humanities and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to syncwy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.