Grant Harris was the first cowboy I ever met. It was spring of 2001, and he ran a rodeo and livestock auction in Woodstown, N. J., about 25 minutes southeast of Philadelphia. Harris was missing half of his right thumb. He severed it while "dally roping" as a teenager. Dally roping, he explained, is when you lasso a bull from horseback and tie your end of the rope around the saddle horn. He forgot to keep his thumb pointed up and inadvertently wound it in with the rope. The bull gave a tug, and off popped the top of his thumb.

I asked him why he didn't have it sewed back on.

"I salt-cured it," Harris said. "I used to whip it out of my pocket and scare the girls."

I asked him if he still carried it.

"No. I loaned it to a buddy in high school," he said. "He never gave it back. That son-of-a-bitch stole my thumb."

Harris had a way of chucking off misfortune. He was tough in a way that I could never be. He was tough in a way that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's why I chose to document the rodeo. I want to tell an American, working class story with my photographs — full of action, heartbreak and all the subtle moments of victory and defeat in between. When the riders get nervous, they wear poker faces and spit tobacco juice, I plan to continue capturing these nonsensical moments by understanding the mythology of the American cowboy. What motivates a bartender, a sales clerk, or construction worker to drive a quarter of the way across the country to ride a bull? What drives him to jump off a galloping horse onto the neck of a steer and wrestle it to the ground, or to distract a bull to keep it from goring and trampling a cowboy? The rodeo is a window into a fringe of "man culture." It's not so much about hanging onto that bull for eight seconds, as much as it is being able to say that you didn’t back down from what scared you the most. How many of us can say that?

I'm shooting both Tri-X 400 and T-Max 3200 on my Nikon F4. I push my film when necessary, as I only use available light. So far, I've attended rodeos in Fernley, Fallon, and Winnemucca — all towns in Nevada. This is just the beginning, as I have made contacts with several bull riders and plan to go on the road with them in winter and spring. I hope to finish the project by the end of summer 2005.

Above all, I want to say that I make honest photographs. By honest, I mean that I capture true moments of interaction and am able to communicate the substance and complexity of people — the way Lange did. Her portraiture awes me, and my lack of experience, grasp of the medium, and limited finances are what keep me from making the caliber of images that she did. The Dorothea Lange Fellowship will enable me to pursue this project by funding my travel expenses and equipment costs through California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming — allowing me to go deeper into the story of the American rodeo riders.

—Tristan Spinski