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Urban Portrait Street Photography with Cowboy

I made my way into Seattle early one spring morning. My friend and I were intent on contacting some of the homeless men and women in the city as part of the urban portrait street photography project called the “Least of These“.

Urban Portrait with Cowboy in Seattle, Washington - Copyright Steve Paxton Urban Portrait Street Photography with Cowboy

I peered down an alley and spotted a homeless man behind a dumpster. I slowly made my way down the alley and caught up with him just as he stepped out. I introduced myself and we chatted for a few moments. The man invited me to follow him around the corner to meet his friend. He seemed fairly good natured so reluctantly I decided to follow. Around the corner he introduced me to Cowboy.

Cowboy is a pretty interesting looking guy. My urban portrait radar immediately went up. I wanted pictures of this guy. I quickly learned that Cowboy was a fast talker.

Cowboy was comfortably sitting next to a building with a large can of beer inside his unzipped jacket. There was an empty bottle of vodka laying on the ground next to him. Cowboy had a pretty nice shiner on his right eye so I asked him what happened. Cowboy said, “A native guy jumped my ass…” and left it at that. Cowboy candidly admitted that he regularly drinks and uses drugs. Cowboy told me that his wife died five years earlier. This apparently led to drug and alcohol use and eventually life on the street.

Urban Portrait with Cowboy in Seattle, Washington - Copyright Steve Paxton Urban Portrait Street Photography with Cowboy

While I was speaking to Cowboy he asked if I had a telephone he could use. He explained that he had met some (regular) people several days earlier under the viaduct. They had given him money along with their telephone number with instructions to call if he ever needed anything. I agreed and asked for the number.

Cowboy dug a scrap of paper out of his pocket and slowly read the number out loud. After dialing the number, I handed the telephone to Cowboy. Instantly Cowboy’s demeanor changed. He went from easy going to sad and depressed. It was almost like watching an actor take the stage.


Cowboy sheepishly told the person on the other end of the phone that he had been assaulted and taken to the hospital. He further explained that his “stuff” and blankets had been stolen. As the conversation went on, Cowboy talked softer and softer. At one point he said, “I don’t know my way around here very well…can you come get me?” Cowboy was nearly crying as he spoke. It was actually fascinating to watch.

Behind-the-Scenes of Making Street Photography : Urban Portrait with Cowboy in Seattle, Washington - Copyright Steve Paxton

While this was going on, an unidentified homeless person (who didn’t want to have his photograph taken) came up to us and bluntly said, “Cowboy is full of shit.” The man appeared disgusted as he watched Cowboy talk on the phone. He gently explained that, “eighty percent of what people tell you on the street isn’t true.” The man spoke to us as if we were naive and had no idea what was going on. Pacing and shaking his head, he was visibly bothered watching Cowboy work.

After a few more minutes, Cowboy hung up the phone and switched right back into his easy going self. I snapped several more photographs and we parted ways.

Technical Details
Capture Date: May 23, 2008
Camera: Canon EOS 5D
Exposure: f/5.6 at 1/50 second at ISO 400
Location: Seattle, Washington

Terms of Use
The text and photographs on this page belong to Steve Paxton and are subject to United States and International copyright laws. The text and digital images files may not be reproduced, copied, stored, manipulated or used (whole or in part) as part of a derivative work without written permission. Steve Paxton can be contacted here.

Note: Be sure to check out the guide on street photography and the behind-the-scenes video. You can become a fan of “The Least of These” on Facebook and check out this interview on the series over at Artsy Shark.

About the Photographer: Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for over 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.

Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Portraits.

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