Werner Segarra Documents Sonoran Vaqueros and Their Disappearing Culture
Saddle up for a journey reflecting on 30 years of life as a vaquero in Sonora with the latest exhibition from Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West. Photographer Werner Segarra documents the evolving —and disappearing—way of life for these Mexican cowboys and the breathtaking land they call home through more than 50 images in “Vaqueros de la Cruz del Diablo,” on display until February. “I feel the freedom of life when spending time with these individuals,” Segarra says. “These are people who have lived life to the fullest. That’s why I have photographed them and will continue to do so.” The Phoenix-based artist shares more about what drives his interest in Sonoran vaqueros, his influences and what’s next.
Why have vaqueros and Sonora been an ongoing fascination for you?
As a young child, my German grandmother introduced me to the German author Karl May’s comics, set in the Old West with Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. From then on, I was fascinated with cowboy culture. I dreamed of becoming a cowboy, which always stuck with me. As a teenager, I attended a boarding school, Verde Valley School, in Sedona. For the 1982 annual field trip, I was chosen to go to Huásabas, Sonora, Mexico, a cow town, small and hardscrabble, tucked away in the high Sierra Madres. Back then, it was not easy to get to. That inaccessibility is characteristic of Huásabas and every other corner of the Sierra Madre Occidental with extraordinary culture and people. I did not realize until I arrived there that I was being thrown into the middle of vaquero land, and the rest is history.
This exhibition spans those decades.
Now, 40 years later, photographing and sharing life with them, I am fascinated by their work ethic, culture and art forms—such as the saddles, spurs and their relationships with animals. These people know how to survive off the land without technology. I feel the freedom of life when spending time with them. These are people who have lived life to the fullest. That’s why I have and will continue photographing them. Each photograph has so much soul, culture and life wisdom in it—something most people will never experience.
What evolution have you seen with your subjects?
In 1982, when I arrived there, there were no phones, no paved roads and communication was done by telegram. The early 2000s may have been the first connection with the internet, but today there is full access in most towns. That change is inevitable, but I have seen the youth change in culture. Now they have access to the whole world, as we all do, so many old cultural ways are disappearing. The world is becoming one, and unique local cultures are becoming extinct and harder to find. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s just a part of cultural evolution. I am glad to photograph the authentic and older ways of the vaquero, their families and their beauty, which are disappearing. I try to go there as much as possible to keep documenting the families who have not been as impacted by technology. I photograph and document their lifestyle before it completely disappears or changes to a more technological presence, but it is getting more challenging.
What evolution have you seen yourself as an artist in that time, and how does photographing architecture compare to or impact your art?
In the early years of my photography career in Puerto Rico, I was more interested in fashion and commercial work. During that time, I discovered the photographer Sebastião Salgado, a Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist. Studying his work, I became inspired and realized I wanted to do something more personal with my craft. I wanted to leave behind something more worthy in life, beyond the commercial work, which I love but reflects someone else’s product and vision.
The three artists that have influenced me the most were: Ansel Adams and his landscapes and his f.64 technique; Sebastião Salgado and his way of documenting people and the beauty of his black and white contrast; and, lastly, fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier, whose every image always tells a story. All three of those photographers influenced and inspired me as I considered how to approach my ambitions of leaving behind something meaningful.
In 2002, I moved to Arizona to pursue the Vaqueros de la Cruz del Diablo project. At the time, I was just beginning to form ideas about how to shoot it and what context I would put into it. I chose Phoenix because it was a large city where I could also make a living with a commercial career and be near enough to Sonora, Mexico. Moving to Phoenix also forced me to change my commercial photography business in substantial ways that ultimately benefited and fit well with the Vaqueros de la Cruz project. In Phoenix, I quickly realized there was a much greater opportunity in architectural and editorial photography in comparison to the fashion photography I had started out doing in Puerto Rico, so I shifted my style and started shooting for top local interior designers, architects and builders. That shift to shooting architecturally was important in helping me develop a different style of photography and perspective, which I have brought into my vaquero work of portrait and architecture to this day.
What’s your process like?
For the Vaqueros de la Cruz del Diablo project it’s pretty basic—a camera and tripod. I use just 100 percent natural light. With my subject, it can get very challenging, but I love the challenge.
I do not crop the images; they are 100 percent of the image. I do not retouch them in any way or form; it is 100 percent a true image. I do not combine different exposures; it is only one exposure.
What drew you to photography?
My stepfather, Victor Hanson, taught me photography at a very young age while living in Saudi Arabia. It was his hobby, and he had various Hasselblads I got to play with and learn on. He would take me out shooting in Saudi Arabia and then process film and print. I learned a lot about Ansel Adams through him. My becoming a photographer is thanks to him. My artistic eye begins through my mother Gabby Hesseken’s eyes, constantly having us kids doing all types of art projects. I was lucky to grow up and travel the world with my parents.
What are you working on next?
I have an unfinished project that I hope to continue in Puerto Rico called Mi Herencia, about my vision of the Puerto Rican coffee culture of the ’30s to ’50s. It is a very different project, where I use Puerto Rican models, real coffee farmers and flash photography. It is a collaboration with [fashion designer] David Antonio Santiago.
My Vaqueros de la Cruz del Diablo work will never be finished, since I keep photographing it to date, and I keep finding those special people and local cultures that inspire me to keep photographing them.