Behind the scenes with photographer Benjamin Rasmussen
For a couple days this past May, the American imagination was obsessed with biker gangs. They seemed to have sprung right out of a nostalgic fantasy on AMC and into an actual gunfight outside a titty bar. (Brought to you by CNN.) But as the reality of what happened in Waco, Texas, unfolded over the following weeks, the story lost the aura of a Hollywood-ready blaze of glory, and began to look more like a messy, tragic, and pathetic fuckup. The bikers—many of them veterans, the vast majority of them law-abiding— began to seem less like romanticized road warriors, and more like disgruntled men on the edge of society being thrust into bloodshed in their misguided search for brotherhood.
As GQ correspondent Nathaniel Penn began reporting what would become The Untold Story of the Texas Biker Gang Shoot-Out for our October issue, photographer Benjamin Rasmussen set out to Texas to shoot the historically camera-shy members of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club. We asked Rasmussen to talk us through the photographs he took that day, and how the hell he got these guys to pose for the camera.
These photographs were taken in or outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Frankston, Texas, on Sunday, June 28th.
Benjamin Rasmussen: “When one biker would greet another they would almost always hug. A lot of the Bandidos are vets and they use a lot of brotherhood terminology. It’s very masculine and intimate, but we could almost never photograph them hugging, because for the most part we couldn’t photograph somebody until we had spent time with them.
“Everyone was very aware of how they were being portrayed. All of the wire and news photos that had come out were both literally and figuratively shot from behind the police tape in Waco.
“I was trying to get a sense of what that community was like from the inside.”
“These are patches being sold to raise money for the families of Bandidos arrested in Waco.
“A lot of the guys, they’re big, they’re tough, they’re intimidating, and that’s a pretty big part of their identity. But they don’t need to intimidate one another. It didn’t feel like there was a lot of fronting going on. People were pretty chill. They were pretty humble. By the end they were incredibly welcoming towards us. By the end we got invited to ride with the Bandidos.”
“This is Elder, he’s in The Desperados, a support club for the Bandidos. Elder is the Region 9 President of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents. We couldn’t photograph anyone until Elder made a ruling that said we could. So we didn’t photograph for the first 2 hours we were there.”
“This is one of my favorite things. The VFW Men’s Auxiliary provided the food. It was a choice between quesadillas and, I think, sausages. It was like a church picnic.”
“The guy on the left was shot in Waco.”
“One of the things these guys are really involved in is motorcycle safety awareness. This is Eddy ‘Pit Bull’ Stenzel who is the safety awareness coordinator for this Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents. He’s selling patches and tee shirts and stickers to raise money because to fund motorcycle safety signs in town. That’s one of their primary aspects of community involvement.”
“This is one of the prospects, or prospective members, selling bracelets to raise money for the families of Bandidos arrested in Waco.”
“We spent like a hundred-some bucks and bought like two coolers full of beer.”
“We set up a seamless right outside and told them we wanted to photograph people afterwards, and we’ll have free beer if you guys want to hang out. We were just crossing our fingers that we’d get like a handful of folks.
“What I do in situations like this—when you have a large group of people that you’re trying to convince to be photographed—is take polaroids as well, because then you have something to show and people want to be included in that. Once that ball was rolling, none of these guys would leave before they were photographed.
“There is definitely a power imbalance a lot of times as a photographer because you’re choosing how someone’s represented. The polaroid at least pulls that veil back a little bit, because they see how they’re being represented, and it builds some trust.”
“Because it was GQ we could have a sense of humor with it because people’s initial association was with fashion. I must’ve told literally 40 bikers that we were planning on photographing them in swimsuits.”
“That’s Woody, on the left, who is a chaplain. He’s the president of this motorcycle club called Soldiers for Jesus. On the right is Hook from the Loco Diablos. They pushed their way in, and wanted to be photographed together.”
“That’s Billy Horton of the Southern Reapers. I don’t know a bunch about them. They’re obviously very Confederate. You can see the side patch and also the Confederate flag pins.”
“That’s Jack, who’s the president of the Tyler (Texas) chapter of the Bandidos, and Jonathan, his son. Jack emailed me last week. He’s a really interesting dude. He flies in the face of the idea that all Bandidos are criminals. He has a job that he travels internationally for, and is very successful in that. He had a very close relationship with one of the other members who’s a cop.
“There’s an aspect of toughness, and that outlaw mentality. But at the same time, you definitely don’t get the sense that this is a massive group of criminals. How do you marry the fact that you have law enforcement that’s involved in a support club, and have people with good jobs and are pillars of the community? It’s very confusing. It’s really hard to marry the split identity which they put forward, which is sort of one part bandit one part good community citizen, with the image the feds put forth of this giant network of criminals.”
“Los Miradores are one of the support clubs. The way you can tell a support club is that the Bandidos colors are orange and yellow, orange being the border and yellow the main color. The support clubs are mirrored. Only a bandido can wear the yellow center with orange detailing.”
“He kind of looks like a hipster who would be riding a fixed gear if he was 30 years younger. He’s from this motorcycle club called Southern Kinship. On the back is a confederate flag which says ‘Our Brothers Before Others.’”
“The signs and symbols are massively important. One of the big issues within the biker community is that the feds are trying to prosecute one outlaw biker group, the Mongols, by outlawing the use of their patches and their name, by classifying them as ‘gang affiliated.’
“They were telling me, that if you were arrested in Waco, and you had a 1%er sign, your bail was 10 or 20 thousand dollars more than if you didn’t.”
“That day it was upwards of a 100 degrees. It was brutal. The Bandidos waited around in the heat for us to wrap up shooting everyone else, because we told them we wanted to shoot them riding.”
“We had rented an SUV. So we jumped in, opened up the back, and I basically wrapped the seatbelts around both of my arms and rode with them for a little while.”
“We started off cruising slow in town. Then we got on the highway and we were going 70 or 80 mph. They ride in such tight formation, it’s not chaos. There’s a very specific order to why people are where they are.
“In his book War, Sebastian Junger talks about the importance of brotherhood among servicemen in war zones. When people come back home and try to deal with all that trauma, there’s really this lack of brotherhood. For a lot of these clubs, that seems to be a really big part of it. It doesn’t feel strange that they’re holding this gathering at a VFW. Whether or not all these guys served, you got the sense that the club provided a very similar feeling. Once I made that connection, everything made a lot more sense.”