“My work is about the extraordinary realities of ordinary people’s everyday lives, revealing their individual characteristics and ways of being that one so often overlooks.”

I have taken numerous road trips across the United States while documenting the many facets of American culture.

Driving a 1966 Mustang along desert highways and under expansive skies is synonymous with the Hollywood movies I grew up with. On one of these trips in March 2006, I was diverted up to Cortez, Colorado, to photograph a story for The Times. There I discovered a young cowboy named Jeremiah Karsten who had taken 2 years to travel from Alaska to the Mexican border entirely on horseback. He was just 17 years old when he left. He seemed to epitomize the American Dream, and the older cowboys loved him for that.

In such a friendly cowboy town, I was offered supper at one of the cowboys’ abodes. I had no idea until that moment how much they cherished their lifestyle and was blown away by the interior of his home. A few homes later, I discovered there were Western artifacts everywhere.

The paradox of photographing a cowboy at home, and showing their obsession with the lifestyle was much more fascinating to me than photographing them on a horse. I found it extraordinary that they seemed to bring the outside, inside. But then, why not be surrounded by the things you love? You can clearly see this in their portraits, where a window acts as a constant reminder to the outside world.

All of them were shocked that I wanted to go inside their homes, and sometimes even their bedrooms where they spend the least amount of time. Several times I would arrive and they would already have saddled up their best horse expecting a stereotypical image of themselves.

It was much more interesting to see them in less familiar territory, sometimes revealing their softer side. They were always immaculate despite the harshness of their working environment. The contradictions are definitely more enlightening.

The need to hold on to their heritage and culture is clearly visible: stuffed animals, belt buckles, spurs, John Wayne memorabilia, guns, boots, and saddles—it’s all there. There’s a craving to collect and preserve their way of life as the ranches struggle to survive in the face of new technology, and the rising costs of feed and petrol. In the same way, I have felt a compulsion to collect these photographs as a document to the cowboy of the twenty-first century.

—Jane Hilton