Have you ever wondered how living without social codes would be? And being free and able to travel wherever you want? You’re about to discover. Riding trains, hitchhiking and living on the ‘edges of society’. Photographer Michael Joseph showcases the transient life of the increasing community of nomads in the United States through his Lost and Found series, now on show at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York City until the 13th of April.
From spotting people in the streets to moving closer to the nomad life thanks to Knuckles, the first ‘lost kid’ he portrayed, Michael Joseph’s personal and professional journey is like none other. He’s friends with those who’re mistreated by the police and looked down upon by the rest of society, and thanks to his series Lost and Found, he explores how this group is misunderstood sometimes and frequently judged – moving from place to place, catching trains, and leaving their homes in a quest for freedom and to find themselves.

Besides the struggles that this community frequently has to deal with, usually related to mental health issues and drug (ab)use, they get to places they wouldn’t in any other way. And in the end, there is a sense of belonging, of community, of real human connection. Risking their lives, sharing their experiences, and moving constantly is their only way to feel alive; these nomads are lost but driven by wanderlust and don’t follow the common societal rules or structures. We discover their reality through Michael’s lens while we discuss rebelling against prescribed ways of living, finding one’s goal in life, and portraying strangers.
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Lost and Found is the title of your solo exhibition at the Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York City. A series of black and white photographs that shows nomads that move around the United States. It all started with Knuckles, the first kid you photographed unexpectedly and the reason you started this project. What took you to shoot Knuckles and what made you keep on doing that?
At the time, I was working on making intimate street portraits of strangers. As social media became more prevalent, I felt stuck in my own world and realized that I wasn’t meeting new and interesting people. I set out to photograph faces that struck me and I trusted my intuition when spotting someone on the street. When I was in Las Vegas in 2011, I was working on that project, but it was in the initial stages.
I was in a taxi and spotted Knuckles, a striking man with an anchor tattooed on his face. There was something special about his look that drew me to photograph him. I stopped the cab short of my destination and we made a portrait together. I continued to photograph people in this way – close portraits, detailed, raw and diverse. As the project continued, I met psychics, artists, journalists, prostitutes, church greeters… as long as the face told a story, I was interested. Eventually, as I noted more ‘travelers’ on the street, I separated the project and Lost and Found was born.
This community freely chooses the transient lifestyle: moving from place to place, jumping from train to train, and leaving mainstream society in a quest for freedom and to find themselves. As you put in the project’s essay, “They have avoided a prescribed way of life that society had laid down for them”. This sounds attractive and as if it was a really adventurous and fun life. But it must be a hard one too. What are the struggles this community has to deal with, according to what you’ve learnt?
It is a hard life, but as one traveler points out, “What’s sweet without sour?” The struggles of this community often revolve around mental health, drug use and abuse, physical risk of riding trains and/or hitchhiking. Another traveler stated that “We have to walk the extra mile (literally) to survive, to thrive, to feel alive. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s a real pain in the foot, and the back, and the hip. It’s the experience that keeps us going. I’ve seen more places, been in more situations, and met a wider variety of people than most people our age, most people in general actually. And it is randomly generated and sincerely intimate. You can’t buy that.”
The idea of rebelling and not follow the common societal rules and structures is often misunderstood by those who do follow them. How do you feel the rest of society perceives them generally, and how do these misconceptions affect the life of the nomads?
Travelers often state that they are looked down upon, discredited or discounted by the rest of society. Specifically, on city streets, passers-by might not look travelers in the eye due to their often dirty and rough exterior or facial tattoos. Because people don’t engage and learn about their views or distinct way of living, they are looked down upon. Often mistaken for ‘home bums’ or homeless people who are not moving around. They are not treated equally, even in public spaces. They are often mistreated by police by being asked to move from public spaces that any other person would have a right to be in. A long-time traveler stated, “People judge us without knowing us... without knowing what people are going through in their lives. They point fingers and treat you with no respect whatsoever. Most of us choose this life. It has become more difficult to travel because we get kicked out of everywhere we go just by the way we look. We get denied service in most places. It feels illegal to look like us. Despite that, along the way, I found self-worth, unity and family.”
You’ve been traveling and working with this community for almost eight years. Tell us how you’ve managed to keep up with them and their journeys, and what’s been the most exciting for you of the overall experience.
I have managed by circumstance to run into many travelers in different locations at different points in time. I tell anyone who might be passing through my hometown to contact me so we can catch up. Most travelers have devices that can easily pick up free wi-fi and therefore can text or even call via Facebook or other app-based messenger devices. Sometimes, they drop off the grid and I don’t hear from them. Some travelers I have formed more distinct and closer friendships with and those people I keep in touch with on a regular basis. Every now and then, I will get a phone call from a traveler who I haven’t spoken to in over a year and it’s a pleasant surprise to hear his or her voice.
I am always excited to hear when a traveler succeeds at what he or she is ultimately looking for. For Knuckles, it was to find something of his own and start a family. That is exactly what he ended up doing. For others, their lives will always be on the road. Just to know that they are happy and healthy and surviving is enough for me.
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One of the people you portray states that “We have secrets about traveling you wouldn’t believe…and we share with no one but ourselves.” I assume these are tips and advices for other travelers. We don’t want to disclose those secrets, so let’s focus on their personal stories and adventures. What’s the most incredible/remarkable/shocking story you’ve heard so far?
Knuckles! After about ten years, he was ready to settle down in Charlotte (North Carolina), where he is from. I was headed down there to give a photography lecture and workshop. One or two weeks prior, he contacted me and told me he obtained his passport and was going to travel the rest of the world, starting in Spain. He simply couldn’t settle down. He tried to train to become an electrician and was working, but that settled down lifestyle just wasn’t for him.
After years traveling through Europe and then all over the world, he settled in Malaysia working in a hostel. There, he met a woman who he eventually married and had a child with. He has since reunited with this family who had cast him aside. It’s a great story really of someone who literally had to travel the entire world to find what he was looking for and what was right for his life.
And one that you’ve lived yourself?
I was traveling from Denver to Fort Collins (Colorado) and a traveler that I met in New Orleans years back contacted me and said he would meet up with me. He traveled east in the state of Wyoming and I traveled north up to Cheyenne. We met in Cheyenne, where there is one of the biggest Union Pacific train yards. He showed me around the yard and then took me to a hop out spot (where travelers will catch trains). I won’t disclose the location.
We ran into other travelers in this location and I was able to make a portrait or two. Scrawled all over the walls of the underground hop out spot were monikers/tags of the names of so many other travelers I had met and photographed in years past. It was like a reunion of sorts. I had always heard about these walls, scrawled with graffiti with so many memories of travelers that had come and gone.
Another transient kid says, “Be happy with the littlest you have. I have nothing, but I have everything at the same time.” And another one says, “Less is more and frees us”. How has your vision of life and work, of this obsession of accumulating wealth (money, properties, cars, etc.) changed since you started this project? Are you living with the minimum possible as well?
Absolutely. I’m constantly reminded to think to myself, do I really need this? And the answer is, usually, no. It is true. It is the experiences we have with people we love that bring us joy, rather than all of the stuff we accumulate. It’s those memories that retain value over our lives rather than objects. With each portrait that you see, I have a wealth of memory about who the person is, his or her story, our time together and then how exciting it is to work on that portrait after.
We’ve noticed many of the travelers tend to have funny names or aliases: Sleazy, Shameless, Dizzy, Goose, Fightmaster, Trip, Blue Eyes, etc. How do they get them? Is it another way to escape their ‘old self’?
Just like one might acquire a nickname when growing up, many travelers acquire another name or handle often given to them by the person who first took them out on the road and showed them the ropes. It’s often endearing and solidifies a traveler as a member of the tribe. I don’t think it’s a way to escape their old self but rather often a unique identifier – a way to shift from common, repetitive names like Michael to a more unique one.
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In addition to this series, you show empathy and curiosity towards people’s lives in other series, like Close Strangers, which defies what we’ve been taught as kids (‘don’t talk to strangers’). You approach people you don’t know and portray them. What has this project offered to you personally? And how do you feel you contribute to those you pay attention to, approach, and portray?
As mentioned earlier, Close Strangers was the precursor to Lost and Found and really my first step into making intimate street portraiture. With Close Strangers and then ongoing, I learned how to use the camera as a tool of connection. Making a portrait became a shared experience and I am able to learn about people who are vastly different from myself both in how I live, but also how I think. Meeting these people have challenged my thoughts on how one should live a life. In some instances, I have photographed people who felt that having a portrait made gave them a sense of importance, belonging and were happy to be noticed. One woman, in particular, viewed herself as extremely ugly, but my eye saw something very different.
And you also direct your lens to cities and everyday life. When Paranoia Makes Sense, a series of street photography. Or Street Wanderings, which takes us through different cities capturing people’s lives in a genuine way. What gets your attention and makes you stop and shoot?
Both of those street photo series are ongoing, although I stopped for a period of time to concentrate heavily on Lost and Found. I’m always walking around with a rangefinder shooting whatever gets my attention. Like I always say, if you feel it in your gut, stop and take a picture, even if it’s not great. One image might be the precursor to another. When Paranoia Makes Sense was a shift for me to actually wait for the subject to notice me and my camera. Sometimes, I will shift the subject to myself – a mix of self-portraiture and street photography. I wanted to experiment with the concept of personal exposure in modern times – the fact that we truly are being monitored and recorded, often now in very obvious ways.
Street Wanderings is really just a collection of my take on street photography. I’m usually more interested in people, their expression, thoughts and actions in public. Street photography can often be ‘asked and answered’ in the way that it’s a joke, or pun, or coincidence. Often manufactured if you wait around for just the right person to walk by just the right word, advertisement or scene. People’s expression in the moment tends to lend itself to a longer engagement and speak to the culture of the time, in my opinion. Those photographs mean more to me than a street photograph with a punchline.
As a street portrait and documentary photographer, is there any other issue you would like to give visibility to? What’s the next thing for you?
I am in the process of working on a new project – about one year in. It is street portraiture, vibrant, colourful and vintage polaroid. The project limits me to only one to three captures per person and is vastly different from the digital world. It still focuses on the themes of freedom, identity and a specific culture. I won’t say exactly what it is as I am still in the formative stages.
The Lost and Found exhibition by Michael Joseph will be on view until April 13 at the Daniel Cooney Fine Art, 508 W 26th St, New York.
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