From Wales to Wyoming to the war — whether she’s embedded in Iraq or riding in the West, for photojournalist Claire Thomas, it’s always been about horses.
From Wales to Wyoming to the war — whether she’s embedded in Iraq or riding in the West, for photojournalist Claire Thomas, it’s always been about horses. Growing up in a small village in South Wales, Thomas was obsessed with horses from the age of 4. “I must’ve seen Horse and Pony magazine,” she says. “My parents gave in and let me have riding lessons, and I got my own pony at 11. I would go out riding around the country lanes by myself and take part in local show jumping competitions.”
Thomas credits her time in the saddle — in particular, the six summers she spent as a wrangler at the Lazy L&B Ranch in Wyoming, starting in 2006 — for everything she’s become. An award-winning photojournalist, whose work has graced National Geographic, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, and The Guardian, among others. A fine art photographer. A war photographer. A photographer of animals — horses, especially.
“I attribute my photo career to Wyoming, because it was there that I started to take it seriously,” she says from her apartment in New York, where she lives part time when she’s not in the U.K. “Before that, I had a digital point-and-shoot, and I printed off some of the snaps I’d taken and showed them to my boss [at the ranch], Heath, who was my idol. His words of praise were hard to come by, and he said, ‘I think you should get a real camera.’ That was the encouragement I needed.”
She spent a few years learning the basics from books, and she kept shooting everything she saw around her in the West: the rich culture, the interesting people, the majestic landscape, the horses. “Whether I was on a bucking horse or baling hay, I didn’t go anywhere without my camera,” Thomas says. “I remember thinking that photography was what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to make a living out of it. So I kept going back to the ranch, and I was able to naturally develop my photography skills.” It was already in her, she says, to capture something authentic and have an approach of storytelling with her photography. “I wanted to capture the natural images of what I was seeing without manipulating or staging any scenes,” she says. “I also love taking pictures of beautiful things.”
Working 12-hour days alongside a handful of other wranglers, she was able to chronicle what she saw not as an observer but as a participant. “As a photographer, it’s always about access,” she says. “You have to be in the right place, and because I was living and breathing the ranch life, that gave me a fairly unique perspective of what it was like day to day and to tell that story through photography.”
Since those first summers in Wyoming, Thomas, now 38, has traveled extensively, sharpening her photography and storytelling skills. Since working extensively in the American West — where one of her subjects was cowboy artist John Finley in Dubois, Wyoming — she has trained her lens on everything from women living with HIV/AIDS in Ghana to Kazakh eagle hunters in Western Mongolia’s Altai Mountains to frontline medics treating casualties in Mosul, Iraq.
She spent three years in northern Iraq covering the war. “When I was in Mosul, it was very tough,” Thomas says. “Besides the mental challenge of witnessing trauma, it was uncomfortable wearing all of the body armor and helmets in the heat. When I was at the ranch, I never thought I’d be able to lead a nine-hour ride, but I toughened up in many ways. I learned to read the landscape and not get caught up on following trails, to know when to head up to the mountain and when to go down the valley. So the physical demands of working the ranch helped prepare me for working in a war zone.”
Even in Iraq, there were horses. “I was living in Erbil, and they had this international horse show jumping club,” she says. “They asked me if I would take photographs of the events. It was such a juxtaposition to the war. I had my motorbike, and I would happily ride out to the club. I even took part in a show jumping competition. Horses are just so healing.” — Ellise Pierce
Visit Claire Thomas online at clairethomasphotography.com
From our May/June 2022 issue
Photography courtesy Claire Thomas