Michael Joseph’s Photos Of Punks Chasing The World
If the world has never been harder to escape from, it likely follows that the urge to escape from it has never been greater. You sit, don’t you, at your desk, immersed at all times in your phone – on the bus, at funerals, in doctors appointments, at catch-up drinks with old school friends who’ve been guilt-tripping you into meeting for years and years just so that you can sit there ceaselessly hard-refreshing Twitter a metre away from their gnarled, disconsolate faces.
And occasionally, you think: “Maybe it would be nice to not constantly be in two places at once, one foot in the corporeal realm, the other in the digital.” Maybe it would be nice to be not so totally addicted to the penny-sweet endorphin rush of hard refreshes. Maybe it would be nice to seek out another life entirely.
Michael Joseph is a photographer who is engaged in an on-going campaign to take portraits of people who’ve turned their backs on more sedentary versions of their lives in order to seek out the world, to chase it down rather than be chased by it, in a way that sounds today kind of clichéd. But the more and more you think about it, the more it makes a huge deal of sense. Maybe those fresher-year literature infatuations shouldn’t have been forgotten. Maybe Kerouac was… right?
We interviewed Joseph about his photos of the traveller community still criss-crossing the United States of America, hopping trains, listening to GBH, taking abuse, falling apart, falling in love.
Is there a sense of lineage within the traveller community, in terms of people being aware of their place in something that has been going on for decades?
Yes, most travellers identify with how the community has evolved. First there was the “hobo” from the Dust Bowl Era of the 1930s. Travellers will have specific tattoos of code symbols from those times, like a circle with two horizontal arrows going through it – that means “get out quick”, which was a warning to a traveller that he wasn’t welcome in a certain town. There are so many of these old hobo symbols and modern-day travellers learn them. Some take to the punk squatter era of the late 1980s and 90s as well… you see T-shirts from crust punk bands, squatters’ rights tattoos and clothing sewn together with dental floss.
How much do you think the travellers romanticise what they’re doing?
I think new travellers may romanticise the life a bit based on what they’ve seen or heard, but I hear that feeling goes away pretty quickly. The lifestyle is very freeing but it comes at a cost; it’s not for everyone. I think they’re realistic and have to be strong people to pursue the lifestyle.
Did you get the impression there is much room for romance to blossom in the travelling lifestyle?
Many travellers find love on the road. Some have even gotten engaged or have children together. As one traveller told me, it’s tough being in a relationship on the road because you are with this person 24/7, but on the other hand you depend on your partner so much that the bonds they form are extremely tight.
After years spent getting to know the people in this subculture, can you pinpoint anything in particular that you’ve learned?
I’ve learned not to take life too seriously. To live with a bit more risk and adventure. I’ve also learned that extending a hand and saying “hello” can really take you far. Travellers have time on their side; they will accept you if you accept them. They also have an appreciation for this country that most people don’t. Some have seen as many states as one could by train, car, bus, and foot.
Has anyone you’ve spoken to have extreme political views?
Some have very liberal views, others are more to the right. Some are anarchists.
Do you think adventure, wanderlust and the sensation of being “lost” is tougher to find in a world increasingly dominated by the internet and digital technology?
Yes, I do. I photographed and had a very long conversation with someone who remembers travelling when she had no social media or cell phone. She was truly able to abandon and leave behind everything she knew; her parents didn’t know whether she was dead or alive. She was literally off the map. She spoke of how it was more difficult then because she relied on learning the rail system and how to navigate it from others. I think the adventure and wanderlust are still there, though it’s harder to disconnect from everything. Many travellers keep in touch with their parents and rely heavily on social media to meet, get guidance on where to go and find out who is in what town. Some travellers feel it’s ruining the lifestyle a bit.
How closely aligned to punk music and squatter culture is the traveller lifestyle?
There are two types of music that travellers are drawn to. One is bluegrass and those guys form their own busking bands, playing instruments like the banjo, spoons and washboard. The other type would be punk and crustpunk – bands like Nausea, Dystopia, Iskra, Skar, Leftover Crack, Mischief Brew, Johnny Hobo, Rail Yard Ghosts and the Germs. Many listen to classic Johnny Cash. A lot of travellers will go from one festival to another to hang out, listen to music and see their friends. Some form their own bands, such as Days N Daze, and become popular with other travellers. As one pointed out, music has been important to every travelling generation – each had their version of rebellious music, and this follows through to today.
What purpose do you think the nicknames serve? Do you think there’s any element of identity loss, of people trying to throw off their old selves and lives?
To the second part of the question: no, not at all. The nicknames or handles are given from one traveller to another. They are essentially “street names”.
Were there any surprising recurring themes that kept coming up in conversation with the people you met?
I think the most common recurring themes are: wanderlust, freedom, family, identity, being home-free and anarchy.