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Photos out of the USA: America - Crazy and Charming

Hillbillies, serpent handlers, nudes: photographer Hunter Barnes shows the hidden America. He portrays people on the edge of society – raw and proud.

A strange picture: There is a man in flap trousers and he is laughing. His laugh looks strange and altered, the denture is nearly jumping from the man’s upper lip. In his right hand he holds a revolver and points it at the photographer.

A fascinating picture: Hunter Barnes named it „Sammy“. It was taken 15 years ago in a small place called Sammyville, Oregon, named after Sam Horrell, the man in the picture, the town’s mayor, sheriff and executioner all rolled into one.

Whoever sees the picture will never forget it. Which story lies beneath it?

Photographer Barnes didn’t answer the question in his new book “Roadbook”.
In this collection he shows pictures of his journeys through the USA. There are only short texts as an introduction to each chapter. The pictures show a hidden America, people living on the margins and maybe now even disappeared ... as many pictures are older than ten years.

Barnes gained unprecedented access to people living alternative lives. He took pictures of gang members in Saint Louis, lowrider car lovers in New Mexico, serpent preachers in West Virginia, native Americans on their reservations, rockers, prisoners, hillbillies.

Most of these people have to deal with clichés. “People have the wrong impression of these groups” says Barnes. “They didn’t ever take the time to get to know or understand them better.”

Hunter did ... and this is what makes his pictures so magical. You can feel their undisguised humanity and pride in who they are.

For example there is the black man with a tattoo on his chest declaring “One Boss Nigger“. There is the woman pressing her naked back against the steamy shower cabin. There is the prisoner, posing with his pumped-up body and the pierced nipples.

Who these people really are, what their story is, belongs to the imagination of the spectator. “And this is a beautiful thing”, remarks Barnes.

In the case of Sam Horrell, the man with the revolver, it is possible to find out more. U.S. media archives are full of old articles full and amazing stories.

Sammyville, probably founded in the 1950s, was Harrell’s own realm – in every sense of the word.
A small area of land full of campers, junk cars and weapons. A haven for misfits and those who don’t want to be found. “Trespassers will be shot” said a warning sign according to the Los Angeles Times at the city limit.

In Elkin the closest town to Sammyville, people were warned ‘those who travels to Sammyville will never come back’. This fueled the legend of the outlaw camp and the borders between reality and myth became increasingly blurred. “I’ve no idea how the rumor started”, Horrell once said.

The chilling effect of that was certainly welcomed by the inhabitants of Sammyville. But their self- proclaimed sheriff, governor, mayor, caretaker, postman, banker and executioner – who never actually executed anybody - was a likeable companion called “Darling” by half of his people, and esteemed by the local police as reliable contact.

Horrell and his wife Annabelle collected rent from the inhabitants, sometimes the newspapers speak of a population of 39, sometimes of around 20 of them. They reportedly hid money in tins and buried them in the ground.

Another interesting anecdote recalls a visit to the movies by the young Sam Horrell. When the bad guy tries to shoot the god guy ... Horrell drew his weapon, took aim and and shot at the bad guy through the screen! According to local media the man with the revolvers (reportedly he owned around 130 weapons) retired from all his “posts” in 2011 and last year, aged 84, this “one-of-a-kind character” as the La Grande Observer, (Union and Wallowa counties' news leader) called him, passed.

"Sammy was a man, who lived by his own terms, as they seemed right for him” says Barnes. “He helped the people living in his country.”

Rednecks, serpent preachers, gang members – you will never meet all the protagonists that Barnes reports on at a party together, writes Michael Schuman of the renowned agency Magnum in his epilogue to the book. But Barnes found a common level with all of them.

Or as the photographer says in his own words: “They all became part of my life."

Der Spiegel

21 Oct, 2015

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