GUNNISON, Colo. – It’s 1,100 miles from Crossett, Arkansas, to this mountain community, but Robby Freeman doesn’t mind one bit of that 17-hour drive.
He looks forward to his annual trip to Gunnison, where he is the official photographer for the Cattlemen’s Days PRCA Rodeo, set for Thursday-Saturday at Fred Field Western Center in Gunnison. It’s a major stop on his schedule, and it’s one that allows him to utilize his expertise for some incredible images.
“That is one of my favorite rodeos, just because I get away from the South, where it’s so hot and humid, and I can go there and enjoy the weather and see a different brand of rodeo fans,” said Freeman, a PRCA photographer for nearly 20 years. “The people there are very into the event. It’s not just the rodeo, but it’s about them having a good time.”
Whether it’s the action in the arena or the people in the stands enjoying themselves, Freeman captures the images, and it’s why he was named the 2021 PRCA Photographer of the Year. It all started with a little camera he was provided decades ago when he was an employee at his hometown newspaper.
“I was working part-time at the Ashley News-Observer, and the rodeo came to town,” he said. “They sent me over with a point-and-shoot camera, and it just got in my blood. The week after the rodeo, I went to a pawn shop and bought a Pentax K1000 for $60, then I just started looking at and studying rodeo pictures. I found some rodeos to shoot, and it just went from there.
“For me, it was the adrenaline rush I got. I was standing in a little gate, and I would step through that gate and into the arena and try to shoot pictures with that point-and-shoot camera. It was the rush that I was getting trying to capture something but not knowing what I was doing.”
He knows what he’s doing now, and he’s proven that time after time. His images are crisp and clean, and it’s one of the reasons he’s been asked to shoot the National Finals Rodeo and other large events in the PRCA. Over time, he’s continued to invest in his craft, from buying better camera bases to better lenses and everything else he needs to do his job.
“When I first started, it was all film,” said Freeman, the oldest of three sons born to Robert and Cindy Freeman. “It was a totally different way of shooting rodeo, because you had to use high-speed film, and you had to carry a light-meter with you everywhere you went so you could set up your camera to get the right lighting.
“I had to find a lighting system that would work when I shot a night rodeo, and that was an on-camera flash, which is what seemed to be the system everyone was using in rodeo at the time. Along came strobe lighting, then digital came along. When that happened, it changed the whole gamut of photography across the board.
“When I started, you didn’t have the advantage of taking a photo and seeing how it looked. Now, you can test your lights in the arena, take photos and make your decision to adjust your strobes in different situations. It changed the way everything is done.”
His experiences, though, are what make him one of the elite photographers in rodeo. He realized long ago that his Pentax wasn’t going to hold up to the rigors of the workload he was going to handle. He will shoot hundreds of images during a single rodeo performance, thousands over the course of a weekend in Gunnison.
It’s why he’s so well respected by contestants, other personnel and his fellow photographers.
“Whether you’re a chef or a carpenter or doing whatever profession you’re in, you’ve got to have the right tools to do your job,” said Freeman, who also owns Gold Buckle BBQ in Crossett with his wife, Lori. “If you don’t have the right tools, you’re not going to have the workmanship that you should.”
He has the right equipment, the right mindset and the willingness to go the extra mile to do his job to the best of his ability. It’s why the Cattlemen’s Days committee continues to bring him back to Gunnison and why the members of the PRCA voted him the association’s top photographer.
“Winning that was a very humbling experience, because it was voted on by the membership,” said Freeman, who not only celebrated the honor with his wife and their children, Brooks and Robbi Jo, but also shared his award buckle with his parents. “Knowing the class of people that’s won it ahead of me, to be put into that category and know that you’re known by the membership of the association, it’s an award that nobody can ever take away.
“It’s a lot of hours, a lot of time being away from the family. At times, it can be grueling, not just for contestants but for contract personnel as well. To win an award that is at the top of your game is a rewarding finish to everything you’ve worked toward.”
When he arrived home from Las Vegas last December, he walked into his parents’ home not far from his own. He went to his mother and showed her the glass-covered case that held his Montana Silversmiths award buckle.
“When I handed her that case with the buckle in it, she just looked at it and smiled, and I could tell, even with her disease, that she was excited for me to win that award,” he said of his mother, who died last week after a battle with dementia. “You’ve got to have support from your family. If you don’t have that, everything crumbles around you. My wife and my kids, my mom and my dad … they were always supportive.
“It’s a rewarding feeling to have that backing from your family.”
Robby Freeman has that and the support of the rodeos that hire him to capture the images, which can last a lifetime.