By Published: March 19, 2024

Alumnus and professional photographer Chris Sessions explains how one of his first photo assignments 30 years ago in a CU Boulder class evolved into a cultural art exhibit

It’s fitting that in the mid-1990s one of Chris Sessions’ first photo assignments at the University of Colorado Boulder was covering a dog and pony show.

“The assignment was my first experience being close to horses and gave me a good understanding of their sensitivity and the care needed while interacting with them,” says Sessions (BA ’97), a professional photographer and videographer based in Boulder.

And now, 30 years later, Sessions’ photography related to horses is back at CU Boulder. His exhibit, “Charrería: Exploring the Human-Horse Connection in Mexican Rodeo,” is on display at the Center of the American West at CU Boulder through Oct. 17.

Chris Sessions

Chris Sessions (center) is a CU Boulder alumnus who has phtographed Mexican rodeo athletes for more than 10 years. (Photo: Chris Sessions via Instagram)

The show, already winning praise, is the culmination of 12 years of documentary work and features black-and-white and color photographs of charrería, the national sport of Mexico also known as Mexican rodeo, that dates back to the 16th century.

It turns out those ponies left an indelible impression on Sessions. As the years went by, he says, he’d often find himself pulling over to photograph horses on farms along Boulder’s eastern edge.

Then, one day in 2012, Sessions saw a notice for a Mexican rodeo at the Adams County Fair.

“I went and I was captivated,” he says. “Beyond the colorful culture and horsemanship, it was mostly the way the people carried themselves—conveying a deep sense of pride and elegance in their Mexican heritage and for the tradition that they’ve passed down the generations for hundreds of years.” 

A dance between horse and rider

Sessions soon met the Torres family, who have nationally ranked men’s and women’s charrería teams that regularly perform at the Colorado State Fair, the National Western Stock Show and in competitions around Colorado, the United States and Mexico. 

After sharing his work with the Torres family, they welcomed him to film and photograph the events and learn more about the sport. “This access provided ample opportunities for creativity and a deeper understanding into the cultural tradition, taking the documentary to a whole new level,” Sessions explains.

Sessions adds that his understanding of the human-horse connection comes from observing the charrería community.

“The nonverbal communication required between a well-trained horse and rider is a larger-than-life inspiration to experience and can only be described with subtlety and nuance, with words like extraordinary. It’s like a dance that brings the two beings together, moving in union, guided by an underlying magical force, and it’s this energetic intuition that I utilize while photographing the events.”

Mexican rodeo performer on horse with lasso

A participant in charrería, the national sport of Mexico also known as Mexican rodeo. (Photo: Chris Sessions)

Sessions also returned to CU Boulder this semester to visit students studying the American West and to talk about his work and his exhibit in Tamar McKee’s class. McKee is the manager of programs and operations at the Center of the American West, which brought the exhibit to life. Sessions, who spoke alongside Carolina Herrera, the escaramuza queen (similar to a rodeo queen), says speaking to the students felt like a full-circle moment. 

“It was exciting to share the work with the students and to see their interest in learning more about the tradition.”

McKee says her students wrote initial impressions of the exhibit before Sessions’ and Herrera’s visit and then read and watched more resources to further understand not just the sport, but how it exists in Mexican-American culture given how a large swath of the western United States was carved out of Mexico.

“The end goal is to use the information Chris and Carolina shared, alongside the research and impressions of the students, to co-create an interpretive guide to the exhibit,” McKee says. “This is an example of how the Center of the American West seeks multiple perspectives and knowledge bases to provide deeper and more inclusive insight into the complexity of the region.”

Sessions says the work in the charrería exhibit is part of a larger project called Charros De Colorado, an ongoing exploration into the sport of charrería with multiple elements, including the short film “La Familia Charra,” which was included in a Denver-based film festival. The film was projected onto the History Colorado building and on a turn-of-the-century grain elevator in Denver’s River North neighborhood.

Sessions says he expects the images and footage will end up in a Charros De Colorado book project and feature film in the next two years.

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