The photographer’s portrait of a cowboy she met by chance in rural Holland depicts solitude as freedom, for both herself and her subject
In the late summer of 2015, Sabine Rovers travelled to Kamerik, a quaint village in rural Holland, to collect a classic American car. She was shooting an album cover for a country-americana band, who specifically requested to be photographed with a retro motor, among the flat meadows of the Dutch countryside. As the baby blue Cadillac rumbled up to the curb, Rovers was taken by surprise. The last person she expected to pull open the door was a cowboy, clad in boots, belt, and hat, with sparkling blue eyes and a silver moustache.
“I’d never seen a cowboy in Holland before,” says Rovers, “it seemed like such a weird setting, I had to find out more about him”. The photographer later discovered that Kees, aged 63, and his girlfriend — “the cowgirl queen of holland” — belonged to a subculture of Dutch cowboys, who get together for country, western, and line-dancing events. Intrigued by Kees’ free spirit and gentle manner, a year later, Rovers returned to visit him.
Kees lives in a small wooden house, cheerfully cluttered with giant cart wheels, barrels, and western memorabilia. Surrounded by a nature reserve, enveloped by the sounds of rustling leaves and whistling birds, his home is far from the hustle and bustle of the Hague, where Rovers is based. The photographer continued to visit him, at first without taking any images, and each time she did, Kees would be excited to show her something new: flowers in full bloom, tables upcycled out of window frames, bird nests inhabited by new offspring. The photographer and cowboy, with nearly 40 years between them, developed a friendship, and his home, surrounded by an oasis of greenery, became her sanctuary.
“From the outside, he looks like this tough cowboy, but once you see him smile and hear him talk, he’s just very soft, loving and kind,” says Rovers, “he has a big heart for everything in nature”. But as Rovers got to know him, she learned that his life was not always so sunny, and his reclusive lifestyle is as much a necessity as it is a choice. Before he moved to Kamerik, Kees suffered from depression, and a mental breakdown landed him in a psychiatric ward. His wife and children left him, his home and job followed. “He literally lost everything that was dear to him,” says Rovers. With nothing left to lose, Kees decided to move to Kamerik, where he bought the cabin, and started a new life: “Just him and his own little natural world.”
When it came to producing her final project for the BA photography course at Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, Rovers knew she wanted to create work about Kees, but she didn’t want to show this dark side of his past. “He doesn’t want to be confronted by the past, he wants to live his boyhood dream,” says Rovers. “I go and visit him because the city is too busy, and there’s so much stress. I realised that what we were doing was trying to create this dream world that we can flee to, when real life has become too much.”
Instead of focusing on the necessity for solitude, Rovers depicts it as a form of freedom, not just for Kees, but for herself. “It’s really special to be close to someone who I’m sure I would never have known or even spoken to otherwise,” Rovers reflects. “To have a friend who is very different to me, but also very close to me, just because we happened to come into each other’s life.”
Sabine Rovers plans to publish a second edition of her photobook, Cowboy Kees, available to pre-order through her website
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.