American Photo Mag
Hunter Barnes has spent the bulk of his adult life on the road—traveling across the states to document America’s shrinking fringe groups. He’s hung out with bikers, Bloods, and serpent handlers and this month Reel Art Press releases, Roadbook, which collects 15 years of his travels in a single place.
Shot exclusively on black and white film, Barnes takes an intimate look at these outsider cultures that have often been misrepresented or simply turned into caricatures by the mainstream. A selection of the work is currently on view at Milk Gallery in New York City.
We caught up with Barnes at the gallery to learn more about life as a roving documentary photographer.
When did you start shooting the work that is featured in Roadbook?
Roadbook is a collection of pictures from the past fifteen years of my life on the road. It's all kinds of unseen places in America. This exhibition has a lot of the ones that were never published before … the first chapter of Roadbook, Side Trips. At one point I didn’t know this film existed. I had two gallon zip lock bags with a couple hundred rolls. I was 21 when I did my first show and my first book. I didn't have any money to put it all together. I wasn’t even doing contact sheets—I was literally just judging the negatives on the light table.
What made you decide to finally process all these old rolls?
A few years ago this friend of mine, Nicole Trunfio, was like you need to process them. She said, “I’ll do it for some prints—I’ll process all of the film and contact it for you.” It started from there. It was Tri-X 120 and 3200 just sitting in gallon zip lock bags in a closet. Some of them were ten, eleven, twelve years old. I learned a big lesson—you don’t always know what you’ve got. There was some stuff that I didn’t even know about, that I had forgotten about. I look back on them and I just can’t remember the moments.
A lot of the work in Roadbook focuses on subcultures on the fringes —what is it about these communities of people that you find intriguing?
They are interesting to me because when I look at them they are real. These are real people. This is real life. Some of those low rider cats, that is s what they make movies about, but these are the real characters. There is that and showing people in an honest light for who they are. A lot of them have been misrepresented—it’s just trying to show an accurate light on the people who let me into their world.
I imagine when dealing with groups who have been misrepresented gaining access might be difficult. How do you earn the trust of the people you photograph?
We usually just hang out. I've always just gone there and spent some time. It's not really fair for me to do anything until they know who I am and know my intentions are actually honest. I'll take them my prints and I'll show them one of my books and explain it. A lot of these pictures are a result of me hanging out for two or three weeks, then shooting for one or two days. If you have that level of trust with someone it all opens up really naturally. If feels better. Doing whatever they do. Whatever life is. Honestly that is the coolest part for me, getting to meet people and hanging out—seeing another side of the world.
How do you find your subjects?
A lot of times somebody tells me about something, they might even know somebody. Other times it’s just places that I am intrigued by. I don’t usually take a camera at first. I just start hanging out, seeing what they have to say and if they are down for it. You’ve got to hang out—at least hang out for an hour or so, just get to know somebody.
What kind of research are you doing before you arrive?
On a couple of the later projects I don’t want to research. I’ll do a little bit, but I try not to do too much because I don’t want to develop any preconceived notions. It might not have been an accurate representation of who they are. Or you get there and realize that the YouTube video you watched was filmed fifteen years ago. When I went to the Serpent Handling Church I was expecting like forty or fifty people—there was seven of eight.
All of this work was shot on film—why has that a good fit for you?
I think there is something really great when you are talking to somebody and loading your camera. They are looking at it. There’s the sound. It just has soul. It’s got an old soul.
After 15 years of traveling and photographing these unique American subcultures what do you think you’ve learned from it all?
It has not been easy, but it’s so fucking worth it. I feel like everyone says all these people are so different and what I’ve learned is, no, not really. People aren’t all that different. We’ve got the same kind of desires in life and the same kind of feelings. We all strive for the same things.