I Spent Years Photographing The Faces Of The Infamous Nomads Train-hopping Around America
Michael Joseph spent years traveling, photographing other people traveling. Beneath the grime and face tattoos, nomads tell a story of an unrefined America.
Michael Joseph has spent years traveling around America, photographing other people who spend their lives traveling around America. The people he photographs will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a major city, and yet most who encounter them know little more than their propensity for face tattoos and owning dogs. Some call them gutter-punks. Joseph just calls them travelers. In his photo series Lost and Found, Joseph captures only the travelers, removed from time or place. No skylines, grand canyon or mountain tops can be found in this photo series, though most of his subjects have surely seen them all. Rather, Lost and Found offers an intimate glimpse into the personal world of these travelers. It’s a lifestyle that is easily romanticized by some, and dismissed by others. Whatever your personal view, Joseph’s photos force you to stare into the soul of the subculture itself, raw and unrefined.
I recently had a chance to speak with Joseph about his photo-series, methods, and reflections on the subjects of his work. Here’s what he had to say.
When speaking to these travelers, and getting to know their background stories, was there any common theme that seemed to inspire this lifestyle choice?
Yes… there are a few common themes. Freedom, Wanderlust, Family (their traveling friends become like family), Anarchy and the ability to live a life outside of society’s expectations, search to escape depression/anxiety, living simply art/music, and companionship from their dogs.
Some are looking to escape an intolerable family situation while others come from supportive families and are out seeking an alternative life and to experience the open road.
Who was the most interesting person you met during this photo project? Tell me about them.
The most interesting person I met, really was Knuckles. He was the first Traveler I met and introduced me to the subculture. The first time I met him was in Las Vegas in 2011. I spotted him from my window in a cab. He was standing on the side of the road trying to hitch a ride to Arizona or somewhere south. He had a special look that compelled me to stop the cab, get out and meet him. I made a portrait of him but never bothered to get his story or even contact information. At this time, I was working on a different project and formulating what the look of that project would be and how it would flow. When I finally saw the image I had made, I knew there was something special about him. I started running into people who knew him or traveled with him in different parts of the country. As I turns out, he was one of the most well-known travelers. Despite trying to find him on social media, I was not able to. While in Chicago, three years later, I was forced to get off of the “L” and transfer to a bus due to repair work on the track. While coming out of the station, there he was sitting on the ground with a friend. I was able to identify him by the anchor tattoo on his face. We reunited and finally reconnected. Three months later, while shooting in NYC, we reconnected in Union Square and spent a large part of the weekend together. He told me all about his travels, his family, and his dreams. We kept in touch through social media. He told me he was done with traveling and was going to settle down in Charlotte, NC where he was from and where his family still resides. About a year or more later, I was invited to give a talk and workshop in Charlotte. I planned to photograph Knuckles in his new home, settled down, but to my surprise, he saved up enough money to obtain a passport and travel the rest of the world! After giving the lecture, two women approached me – one was his mother. She invited me over to their house and I accepted. I was able to meet his family – all the people he described in the years we had been talking. It was mind-blowing to think that I was sitting down to dinner with the family of a stranger I met on the side of the road from years ago. Knuckles became an inspiring figure. He was living life by his terms and has such strong wanderlust that he wanted to explore as much of the world as he could. He ended up meeting a girl, getting engaged and they are currently working in Vietnam. His advice – “No matter how much of a screw up you once were, you can always change. This life has been a freakin’ great ride. And it ain’t over yet!”
In pursuing this project, you had to travel around the country yourself. Did you learn anything valuable from the people you spoke with, whether that be travel tips or new perspectives for which to view the country?
Yes… this project has been life-changing. I learned to think differently in many ways about people and learned a few lessons:
Respect every person because you don’t know his or her background or struggles. You can’t hate someone when you know his or her story. Some travelers have no choice but to be out on the road.
Appearances should not hold you back from getting to know someone – a lot of travelers have face tattoos and may seem visually scary or off-putting to people. If you can see past that, you will find some really genuine and interesting people behind their outer layers.
Learn to live an unplanned life – let one experience lead you to another. Life is a matter of small steps and hard work.
Learn to live with less. As one traveler stated, “I have nothing, but I have everything at the same time.” Most travelers only have what they need to get from one place to another.
Stop hiding behind screens. The only way to experience a place is to physically be there. Living through other people’s vacations photos online is no way to live. Get out there and see for yourself!
I feel like some people tend to romanticize this nomadic, free-spirited lifestyle. What do these romanticizations get right about this lifestyle, and what is mostly a myth?
This lifestyle can be easily romanticized. The lifestyle is much harder to sustain then it looks. It is physically risky and illegal to hop trains and can be personally dangerous to hitchhike. Hard drugs can lead to overdose and death. Some travelers have no choice but to be out on the road, so it is more about survival than the adventure for them.
There are, however, some amazing stories that travelers will tell about seeing parts of the country that no one else gets to see. About riding atop a train and seeing the stars through an amazingly clear sky. They talk about nature a lot – how it feels to be atop a mountain in the west, breathing in fresh air and the amazing views.
One traveler named Henry wrote, ” Perched atop an old train car, stoned under a freeway… gazing upon city sprawl; whiskey & cigs; stoned as time erodes…”
Finding “family” in traveling friends is a reality of this lifestyle. These travelers form friendships and bonds that run deep. This is because they rely on each other and they have the time to forge friendships that are valuable.
Your subjects all look very serious in your photos. Was this done on purpose, to represent something in particular? Or what was the reasoning behind your photo-style in this piece?
By bringing formality to the image, it forces the viewer to take the subject seriously. I wanted travelers to be seen as more than just outcasts. I make it a habit to photograph with direct gaze. This forces the viewer to visually engage. I feel like we are doing less of that as a society currently. I want viewers to look someone in the eye and engage with someone they normally wouldn’t based on fear or some preconceived notion. The portraits are more serious because expression can often be distracting. Sometimes I do have the subject look away, but usually that decision is based on hearing their personal story and making the gaze fit with that story. I also make the portraits in real-time and on the street using available light. I don’t give the travelers time to look in a mirror or really change how they appear before the photograph.