Justine Kurland’s Beautiful Photos Taken On a Five-Year Road Trip With Her Young Son


I took Casper on his first road trip when he was three-months old and by the time he was one we managed to stay out most of each year for the next five years of his life. On the one hand it was the most beautiful way to be together: nestled under down comforters in the back of a van with all our worldly possessions packed in around us; among redwood trees where we would build forts in the hollows and make soup from their needles; finding star fish in the pacific ocean and collecting the many glass jars that might spill insect specimens were our car to hit a sudden bump; climbing rocks in the desert; climbing trees in the forest… It was also the most brutal way to try to be a mother, trapped together alone for months on end while struggling with him to let me make work.

His being penetrated every part of my consciousness and of my working process. It changed what I photographed and how I photographed. The work became less directed and more prayed for, each picture a kind of miracle, a ghost gleaned from somewhere out there in the American landscape and I was forever being pulled back by Casper. I remember yelling at him once in total frustration, “Jeff Wall doesn’t have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the middle of his photo shoots.” He at age four replied, “Oh yeah, what else does Jeff Wall not have to do?”

Casper grew up on the road. He believed it was normal. He believed other mamas were loading sheet film at McDonald’s. He believed other kids lived in vans and played with rocks as their parents composed scenes. Once he woke up sweetly from a nap in his car seat and said, “Where are we mama? Are we shopping for views?” People often thought we were homeless, sometimes offering food or money. Our migration took a southern route in the winter and a northern route in the summer. While my wanderlust was insatiable, Casper’s tendency was towards routine and predictability.

To accommodate this I created a bubble around our life in the van. I made a play tent for him, sawed off the legs of a card table to set up his toys the same at each new campsite where he spent hours trapped there playing with trains first and Legos later.

Often the moments I photographed him were not the loving moments of a mother gazing at her child but of a prisoner glaring at her guard. Casper feeling the intensity of everything I needed out of a photograph, shied from it, so I learned to bribe and extort photographs from him. His favorite pose was to place his hand in front of his face but he later learned more subtle forms of protest contorting his body inward as I bore down upon him with a scalding lens.

He also eventually rejected the nature boy role I cast for him; preferring the signage along the road (where he learned to read), cars (he drew and memorized car logos) and the strip malls that have homogenized the American roadside landscape (the Denny’s and Walmarts being a special treat from the forests where we camped).

At a primitive skills gathering Casper wanted to bring a glow stick to the campfire. I explained that no one would appreciate it because it was made of plastic and filled with chemicals and because they were trying to do things a natural way. He at age five said, “But they have cars and tents.”

Last year we got off the road and I put Casper into public school. We had reached a point where I was all he had and it could never be enough. The war between parenting and photography became too intense. So this past road trip was our last together.

Driving down some bit of highway I remember wondering (as I often do) if it was all worth it: torturing Casper, his dad and myself in order to make work. Thinking out loud I said, “I don’t know why I do it. I don’t know why I’m a photographer,” and Casper at age six responded, “Mama you are a photographer so you can go on road trips.” As if to say, I forgive you.—Justine Kurland

Justine Kurland is a fine art photographer based in New York. The short essay above is excerpted from the book, How We Do Both: Art and Motherhood.







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