In photos: Documenting the lives of young American travellers

In photos: Documenting the lives of young American travellers

For over ten years, photographer Michael Joseph has captured the courage, kindness, and determination of a largely bypassed subculture.

“He looked worn and dirty, yet surprisingly well put together. His hair was a faded blond. His eyes, striking blue. His face, red and sunburned. An identifying anchor tattoo swirled around his cheek. I saw something there and jumped at the chance.”

It was in Las Vegas, during the sunny month of October 2011, that Michael Joseph would take his first portrait of a Traveller. Through the window of his taxi, he’d caught a glimpse of a hitchhiker hauling a sign that read ‘ARIZONA OR SOUTH’ and called on his driver to pull over. He introduced himself with a handshake and the young man agreed to be photographed.

“At the time, I didn’t think much of our interaction,” Joseph recalls. “I didn’t write down his name or ask his story; a mistake that would leave me searching for years to come. After photographing strangers on the streets of New Orleans, Austin, Cambridge, and New York City in the years that followed, I would run into individuals that knew who this man with the anchor tattoo was and I slowly discovered this culture of Travellers in the United States.”

Joseph’s rendering of the man he would come to know as Knuckles, marked the beginning of a journey traced over ten years, with camera in hand, moving blindly into a world that was not his own. Positioning himself at the fringes of society he trails the lost, nomadic youth of America that abandon home in pursuit of adventure, escapism and wanderlust. His dedicated series of portraits have finally found their resting place, a suitably weighty and momentous monograph titled lost & found (Kehrer Verlag).

Recognising that photographic truth depends on an understanding of history, culture and the universal aspects of human nature, Joseph listens and records the stories of the people he meets, engaging with the reality of their lives on the road. “I was initially captivated by their appearances, their faces and clothing a visual storybook of their lives,” Joseph tells Huck. “Yet later it was their stories, their motivations, pasts, and dreams that drew me. I was able to consider what they were finding in a life of freedom and evaluate my own within this context. I was engaged, learning, and viscerally needed to see what happened to these Travelers overtime.”

Unlike Irish Travellers and the Romani peoples of America – who number in their tens of thousands – the native-born transient subjects of lost & found have no particular ethnic origin and their population is therefore not known. Often referred to as ‘roadies’, ‘trainhoppers’ or pejoratively, ‘gutterpunks’, this coterie is perhaps the most contemporary of peripatetic non-conformists having evolved from the 1930s Dustbowl Hobos, ‘50s Kerouac Beatniks, and 90s West Village Punk Squatters.

“Not all, but many Travellers leave their blood family behind in search of a way out,” shares Joseph. ”They may have come from an abusive or intolerable home life or felt like an outcast and needed to find people like themselves.”

Often Travellers will move in a ‘crew’ where survival and freedom binds them together. Ways of the rail and road are learned over time, shared by ‘road dogs’ or mentors. “Travellers recombine to form a common network all over the United States,” Joseph says. “They constantly separate and find each other later down the road. If they’ve become fully estranged from their blood family, their road family may be all they have. When a fellow Traveller dies on the road, for example, they hold memorials for one another. Ashes are mixed in with ink used for tattooing tributes or collected in a vial and attached to a necklace, so the deceased are taken along for new journeys.”

In an especially tender image taken in New Orleans, a man named Brewer kneels on the ground embracing his dog Whiskey, face muffled in the skank or bandana tied around her neck that matches his. Printed on the facing page are words of his own about life as a Traveller and the importance of found family, the first line a poignant message that underpins the entire book: “Just because you are alone, doesn’t mean you have to be lonely.”

Many of the texts in lost & found read like poetry, others are incredibly insightful. With critical nuance, Joseph rebukes misconceptions that Travellers are uneducated or unaware of the world around them. “Travellers are both smart and creative. They’re practical problem solvers and adventurers but also empathic artists,” he says.

Before the internet, those choosing to leave home had no option but to be ‘off-grid’, relying on rail maps and navigation instructions found in an unofficial, self-made book called a ‘crew change’ to guide them on and off the major rail systems that span the US. However, in recent years, Joseph shares that Travellers are increasingly relying on social media and phones for navigation and communication. Now, the modern-day Traveler must decide whether to make themselves reachable. “Will the art of hopping a train get lost a bit?” ponders Joseph. “Time will tell. But as one Traveler tells me, ‘As long as there are trains, there will be kids riding trains.’”

The highs of freedom, however, do not come without consequence. In addition to rampant substance abuse, Joseph says that one of the greatest challenges facing today’s young Travellers is simply to be treated fairly in public spaces by the authorities. “I’ve seen someone be handed a ticket for ‘imitating a sidewalk’ and Travellers rounded up for occupying public places where tourists or residents can sit freely,” says Joseph. “This sense of judgement based on appearances is rife, but it really is important to look beyond the dirt, face tattoos, scars, and mismatched, torn clothing to see the person inside.”

As well as the recognisable sartorial characteristics of the Travelling community, Joseph mobiles close ups to highlight cuts, bruises, stains and missing limbs that lead the viewer to contemplate the hardships they can’t see in the immediate shot. Subjects are snapped with all the due formalities of traditional portraiture, commanding importance, dignity and respect. “Essentially these are conventionally formal portraits of people living unconventional lives and herein lies the tension,” the photographer says. “I wanted even the most damaged individual to be considered and seen.”

In many of the images, Joseph uses direct eye-contact to penetrate and engage, not giving the observer the ability to look away. “Although the people I photograph have incredibly fun times with each other, they have intense thoughts, damaged pasts, and tears ready, laying just beneath the surface.”

A shared sense of love, loss and community isn’t the only thing drawing this motley collection of characters together. The intense beauty of lost & found relies heavily on the compositional consistency Joseph has executed across the duodecennial project. “My aim was never to include environments. I left out city streets, train yards, squatting houses and underpasses,” Joseph explains. “I didn’t want to pin down any one Traveler to a location because their location could be anywhere at any time.”

lost & found certainly packs a tender punch. Held within its pages is raw emotion and an unwavering kindness, the stories of people who welcomed Joseph into their world and have much to teach to us about the human condition. “Their souls are open, and their gift is their time. They will give you their time because time is all they have,” writes Joseph in the books foreword. “These Traveler’s stories are laced with personal authenticity and pure humanity. And as Knuckles says, we may need to lose relationships, sometimes in a painful way, to walk our own path, whatever path that may be.”

lost & found is published by Kehrer Verlag

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