Most people don’t know this but there are cowboys in Hawaii. Yes, there are also palm trees, mai tais, surfers and hula dancers and the weather down by the shore is pretty near perfect every day but the cowboys or “paniolos” as they are called locally, have been around longer than cowboys in the west and must certainly have preceded mai tais. The Hawaiian cowboy culture emerged back in the 1800s and to this day remains insular and completely unique to Hawaii with its own music, rituals, language etc.
Sadly, in recent years, high land taxes, increases in energy costs and a changing climate have all negatively impacted the viability of ranching in Hawaii. As a result, large areas of ranchland have been sold for development and many of the ranches struggle to survive. ATVs have begun to replace mounted horses for herding cattle in open ranges and many cowboys have been laid off. Today, the number of cowboys are small and they hold tightly to the community they live in. Nobody knows how long they’ll be around for.
Determined to document and preserve this culture before it disappears completely, I spent many months over a two year period photographing this community and recording interviews, music and ambient audio. I focused primarily on two large multi-generational paniolo families–the Ho’opais and the Keakealanis– to create a photo story and multi media project that would reflect the cultural richness and examine the paniolos’ future outlook.
I had such a wonderful experience working on this story. I photographed on horseback during a few cattle drives, shot aerials from a tiny 1955 piper cub about the size of a mini cooper, woke up at 4am on too many mornings, ate calf testicles (a paniolo delicacy) five minutes after “removal” and got to experience the closeness of these multiple generational families. I was struck by this extraordinary privilege to document a piece of living history and the power photography has to create a visual record of a culture that may be on its way out.