Cowboys: East Germany, Rebels of the Vogtland

A project, spanning more than a decade, exploring the adopted identities of a people from the former East of Germany, who identify as cowboy.

Existing as a rebellious response to aspects of Communism – an imagining of freedom and individualism – it's been re-imagined and held onto as a response to the perceived ills of Capitalism. 

A film and several images are in the permanent collection of The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. 

Cowboys: East Germany examines the constructed identities and practices of the American Western Cowboy and “cowboy lifestyle” as taken up and lived by the people of the former East Germany.  From 1961 to 1989, The Wall, separates East Germany, the Deutsches Democratic Republic (DDR) from West Germany and on a global scale, physically demarcating the Cold War’s boundary separating the Communist East from the Capitalist West. Developing behind “The Wall,” the idea of Cowboy represents a type of freedom and individualism for East Germans, as imagined in the lifestyle of the cowboy. Emerging from the shadows of Communism, the adopted – and well-adapted – cowboy lifestyle re-imagines the cowboy ethos as agency to hold on to what is seen as good from Communism and eschew perceived ills of Capitalism. Values the East German cowboys wish to retain and “bring over” from their communist past – like helping one’s neighbor, a non-materialist rural life, family values, and attachment to the land and working with animals – are reinterpreted as “cowboy” values from an imagined American West. 

Das Vogtland

In this series, which is part of a broader collection of portraits, documentary images and a documentary film, I began with an older view camera, 4x5, similar to cameras that have been used to document the American frontier. Later, in 2016, with digital resolutions matching that of 4x5 film, a digital camera was used. Both formats reveal the rich details, with which the cowboys authenticate and construct their identities. Documented as found, whether at a rodeo, other event, or at their homes, they present themselves as they are for the camera. Isolated from the environment, against black, the photo invites inspection and consideration of dress as part of constructed identity. In addition to a visual tool, the black background, isolating the subject, stands as a metaphor suggesting many of the subject’s experiences behind The Wall, and isolation from the West.

Cowboys: East Germany, Rebels of the Vogtland

Atmospheric, observational and ethnographic, the story is told as much in images as in the skillful intertwining of varied interviews. Characters who have made a living under both that of Communism and now Capitalism reveal, in a visually rich film, why "the cowboy thing" is so symbolic for people of the former East.

These people have adopted and adapted the lifestyle of the American Western Cowboy. Developing behind The Wall, cowboy represents ideas of freedom and individualism. Emerging from the shadows of Communism in 1989, the cowboy takes on a new identifying role allowing this subculture to hold on to important values – or the "good things" – under Communism, and deal with some of the perceived ills of Capitalism. Re-imagining the ideal cowboy of the West, identity is reinterpreted to hold onto many of the good things from Communism – like helping one's neighbor, the simple pleasures of a non-materialist country life, such as family values, attachment to the land, and to animals.

Using Format