Behind the Lens with Andy Watson: PBR Ariat Invitational, presented by Cooper Tires

By: Justin Felisko

PUEBLO, Colo. – Veteran photographer Andy Watson remembers the days where he would be excited to flip through Sports Illustrated and run his fingers over the glossy magazine pages to see some of the best photos in all of sports.

In the eras before social media, seeing those frozen moments in sports history came only in the form of print media. Nowadays, Watson is using his fingers to scroll though social media apps to see top-notch imagery from the sports world and all parts of life.

“Pictures are special,” Watson said. “We have lost touch with that hard picture in ways. We have lost touch with that Sports Illustrated, and seeing pictures when you open it up and it is all the pictures because that is how you could only see them. Now they are at your fingertip, but on your computer. You can see thousands of them at any second, where it used to not be that way. There is still something special about that hard copy, though.”

However, Watson, who is amidst his 25th season as the PBR’s lead photographer, still sees tremendous upside when it comes to photography.

The internet and social media have brought millions and millions of eyeballs to photos that people may have never even seen before.

“My photos are definitely seen by more people, and it is instant,” Watson said. “With me shooting wireless, Jacey (Watson) can get everything posted for PBR behind the scenes, and the PBR can throw photos into a rider’s social media gallery. A lot of times it is possible the riders can have the picture of them riding a bull before they even walk back into the locker room.”

Watson selected some of his favorite photos from this past weekend’s PBR Ariat Invitational, presented by Cooper Tires, which you can see below.

It was in Billings in 1996 that Watson photographed his first PBR event, and the annual premier series stop in his home state is always a particular favorite for the self-taught photographer that grew up in the scenic area between Grand Teton National Park and Bozeman.

“This is my 25th year shooting in Billings,” Watson said. “One memory sparks another memory and all of the things that have happened. A photo can trigger a memory.”

It is those memories that lead to so many riders still wanting hard copies of their photos. Whether it is legendary three-time World Champion Adriano Moraes or 22-year-old and two-time World Champion Jess Lockwood, bull riders love to see their rides in a still frame.

“To be able to freeze that moment and look at it and see everything in it is really cool, and to them it means a lot,” Watson said. “Every ride is something special, whether it is good, bad, great form or their buddies are in the background.”

Watson takes tremendous pride in knowing Moraes, and many others, has books and books of his photos at home in Brazil that he can one day show his grandkids.

Some of his favorite moments at an event are seeing the look of joy on a rider’s face as they click through photos of themselves on Watson’s Mac computer.

“That is one of the things to me that makes me really proud of what I do,” Watson said. “Knowing a guy like Adriano Moraes. I shot him in ‘94 at the National Finals Rodeo and I shot him ever since. I shot his entire PBR career. I know 20-30 years down the road that, when he is an old man and he is ripping through his books they’re showing grandkids or great grandkids, that those photos will have my name on it. It is a pretty neat legacy to leave behind. When Ty Murray was riding he would come up and look at photos. Now when he does broadcasts sometimes he will come by and say, ‘Show me your best photo.’”

At the end of the day, Watson knows social media and the internet has changed how fans consume photography, but it does not diminish the value of a photo.

In many ways, the importance of photography has only enhanced in the past 10-15 years, and Watson loves the thrill of capturing every special moment on the PBR’s Unleash The Beast week in and week out.

“You have to always have your eyes open and be looking for the shot that tells those stories,” Watson concluded. “Those moments are special.”

Below are Watson’s favorite images from the PBR Ariat Invitational, presented by Cooper Tires.

“I can’t think of a more fitting photo than this for J.B. Mauney. Plain and simple, J.B. = cowboy!”

“This photo shows how bad Andrew Alvidrez wants it! His eyes never leave the bull’s head, and he is giving it 100%.”

“When a bull’s action is lacking (flat spinning and not photogenic), I will change it up and key in on the exciting parts. Daylon will turn loose and spur every chance he gets, making him a great subject to shoot.”

“This is one of the greatest teams in sports! Frank, Jesse, and Cody are always in the right place at the right time. Teamwork makes the dream work.”

“The color of a bull will always make a photo stand out, but it never hurts when he bucks like this and Cooper Davis is on board.”

“With the COVID masks on full display nowadays, I’ve been missing capturing emotions on the rider’s faces. And there is no shortage of emotion here for Lucas Divino after a 91.75-point ride.”

“Champion matchups always make for great images. None more important than this one for Jose Vitor Leme on current World Champion Bull Smooth Operator. This shows exactly how determined he is to take the gold buckle home with him this year.”

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