raw portraits of the transient kids who travel america’s trains
Since 2011, Michael Joseph has made black-and-white portraits of train-hopping, hitch-hiking travelers. As a new exhibition of the images opens in New York City, the photographer discusses friendships and freedom on the road.
Alister & Sherie, New Orleans, LA 2016
Ten years ago, Into the Wild — the filmic adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1997 book of the same name — debuted in theaters. Its story belongs to Christopher McCandless, the Emory University star student who in 1990, donated his $25,000 grad school fund to OxFam, destroyed all of his credit cards, and ventured out into America. His travels by car, train, kayak, and foot brought him to the Colorado River, a harvesting venture in South Dakota, a hippie commune in Northern California, and eventually, the forests of Alaska. Along his travels, McCandless linked with others, diverged by choice or circumstance, and in some cases, reconnected with familiar faces along the way.
McCandless is hardly the first person to reject conventional society in pursuit of an untethered, self-determined existence. He also wasn't the last. Since 2011, Michael Joseph has photographed train riders and hitchhikers who have adopted transient lifestyles. Like McCandless, they often form friendships, branch in different directions, and discover each other again somewhere down the line. Such recombination has created a loosely knit tribe of travelers, as Joseph refers to them, stretched across the nation. Joseph's black-and-white portraits of these travelers — a series he's titled "Lost and Found" — are now on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York City.
"Reminiscent of the children of the 1930s Dust Bowl era blended with roots in the squatter punk subculture, these kids leave home to find a better life, and sometimes work," Joseph writes in an essay accompanying the series. "Some have no choice to run away from an intolerable family situation," while others willingly leave supportive environments in search of themselves or their tribe. Some, like McCandless, hail from suburbs. Joseph says one of his subjects was her high school's valedictorian, who still has plans to attend college and perhaps become a teacher.
Unlike many photographs made about this community, Joseph's work is not documentary. He shoots his subjects against nondescript walls where he first meets them — depicting his always-moving subjects in moments of stillness. By eliminating geographical context, "attention is focused on the person, rather than place, because their environment could be any place at any time." All together, the series does capture a community; but Joseph explains his work is more about the individuals he encounters, rather than the whole they belong to. And just as the travelers ebb and flow in and out of each other's lives, so too does Joseph find himself photographing the same subjects in different cities, and at different points in their lives.
Take for example the first traveler Joseph ever photographed: "Knuckles," a boy with an anchor tattooed across his face. He got out of a cab in Las Vegas to make the portrait, but " I didn't think much of getting his story," Joseph tells i-D. "We just shook hands and I moved on." As the series progressed, Joseph met other travelers who rode rails with Knuckles, or at least recognized his distinctive tattoo. Though Joseph had been looking to reconnect with him, their next meeting wouldn't come for three years, in Chicago this time. "I was forced to get off of the subway train to board a bus as they were doing trackwork — and there he was. We reconnected and shared stories. He was happy to finally see the portrait that I made. Three months later I ran into him in Union Square in NYC and we spent the weekend together. About one year ago, I was giving a lecture in Charlotte, NC and was able to have dinner with his family after the lecture. It was mind-blowing to see how powerful the camera was as a tool of connection."
Though Joseph chooses not to visually document his subjects' environments, his images provide a wealth of information about traveling hallmarks. Writing about the stick-and-poke tattoos riders often give each other, Joseph explains: "Like graffiti on the walls of the city streets they inhabit and the trains they ride, the bodies and faces of the travelers become visual storybooks of their lives." Clothes are often self-made, patchworked, and rooted in a crust punk ethos. Some travelers are buskers, and Joseph has photographed them with the instruments they carry. Money made from individual busking, he says, becomes collective, as does food. "Less is more and frees us," he quotes one of his subjects.
This freedom comes at a cost. McCandless was caught and beaten by rail police hopping freight trains in Los Angeles, an experience many of Joseph's subjects are familiar with. Drug and alcohol addiction is also a reality of life on the road, and unsupervised detox can lead to death. So too can another kind of addiction — the rush of adrenaline from hopping trains. Travelers have died by accidentally hitching onto a car with no floor, or being pulled under by a pack. If injuries inflicted in travel become infected, they can — and often do — result in amputation.
And yet travelers find many rewards in an unsafe, uncertain way of living. According to Joseph, some have visited all 48 states accessible by train, and experienced parts of the country many of us will never be able to. Joseph says he tries not to glorify their lifestyle, nor degrade it. But he understands why they've chosen to pursue it. "They are happier because society doesn't dictate what they should do and what they should have. They have time to figure out who they are before the world tells them who they should be."
"Lost and Found" is on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art through June 17, 2017, as part of a joint exhibition of works by Michael Joseph and Rachael Dunville. More information here.
Text Emily Manning
Images Michael Joseph, courtesy of the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art