Capturing the Rugged Lives of Patagonia's Gauchos

I’ve admired Tomás Munita since first seeing his haunting images of the Atacama desert in 2010, when we honored the work with National Geographic’s All Roads Photography Award. But we never had the chance to meet in person until a year ago, when Tomás came by to show us his latest work. 

When Sarah Leen, our photo director, saw his new project about bagualeros—cowboys who round up feral livestock in the untamed lands of Chilean Patagonia—she liked it enough to pursue it for a feature in the magazine. We sent Tomás back to Patagonia for two more trips. The resulting story was published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic.

It’s always fun to work with photographers on their first story for National Geographic because they’re usually surprised by the resources and support we can provide and by how much of a voice we give them in contributing to their story.

In one sense, “Cowboys on the Edge” is a simple story grounded in a stunningly beautiful landscape and the intense camaraderie of the bagualeros. There’s something primal in this tradition of hunting dangerous wild animals, but also in how the cowboys care for their own animals—the horses and the dogs that are their companions. The men need to trust each other and their animals. I think both the tenderness and the brutality inherent in this way of life surface in the pictures.

In the video above you can see what it took for Tomás to make the photos—confronting savage bulls and positioning himself to frame the action, as well as practical matters of generating power in remote locations, and most crucial, trying to shoot without falling off his horse!

I was worried because I knew the bulls could be extremely dangerous, and that Tomás would have to get close to capture key moments. He is such a gentle soul. I had to remind myself that he has worked in conflict zones for the New York Times, and for the Associated Press, and that he knows how to take care of himself. Even so, this was a different kind of threat, when you have a bull charging at you full tilt. I just had to trust his judgment—that he would avoid taking foolish risks, and would have the wisdom to know how to handle the danger.  Luckily for us, he did.

See more images from the December 2014 feature story “Cowboys on the Edge.”

Related Story: For Patagonian Ranchers, a Family Gathering Means Barbecue and Rodeo

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