“What draws me to the Travelers is their ability to see beyond cultural norms,” the photographer Michael Joseph tells me. Lost and Found, his ongoing testament to people who live on the go, exploring the United States, will mark its ten-year anniversary this October. “It started with meeting a random stranger, then learning about the subculture, to becoming mentally engrossed in the subculture and then full-on documentation through portraiture,” he remembers.
He’s returned to the traveling commmunity again and again over the years, crossing paths with familiar faces and encountering new ones along the way. “Travelers see beyond the life that society has expected the majority to live,” Joseph says. “They see a way to explore, move, live freely, live with less and be present in life in ways that most do not. By their example, the Travelers taught me to try to live with less, set myself free from society’s expectations, be more open to new people and experiences, and explore the United States more, specifically places where I would never think to visit.”
In 2017, Michael Joseph was selected as one of the winners of the Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Awards. As we open the awards back up for entries, and as Joseph rounds the corner on the project’s decennial, with a book on the way, we caught up with him via email.
The project is now ten years old! How has it evolved over time?
“The first portrait I made for this project was simply of a stranger on a street and I didn’t know it would evolve into such a large-scale endeavor. Over time, the project became multi-layered. I first photographed a few travelers, then met many more and was able to see the inside of the subculture.
“I met their lovers, parents, and friends. I watched them grow and evolve on the road, get off the road and settle, or die. I attended memorial services and had to mourn the loss of subjects/friends I made over the years.
“In this way, the project became personal and real. I went from being along for the ride, to part of it, and then experiencing loss alongside the community. I didn’t focus so much on being a documentarian in the beginning, but realized as many Travelers passed, that it was necessary to document stories, clothing, audio, etc., as I would not be able to go back and record this information later on in some instances.”
What was your experience like after winning the Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Awards in 2017?
“The Emerging Photography Awards help me to gain exposure for the project on a large scale. Making personal work is great, but I felt like this was work that needed to be shared with a wider audience. As a photographer, one of my goals is to make the unseen seen and this exposure set the project on course to really be seen.
“These awards were a building block and one piece of the puzzle to help propel it forward, not only offering validation to the project, but the people in it. My first solo show in New York City was especially meaningful as it helped elevate the project. A print acquisition by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts was also extremely meaningful as it helped solidify this subculture as a documented American subculture. Coverage in major media channels such as VICE helped propel and expose the project even further.”
As the project gained momentum, did you reconnect with any of the people in your photos? What was it like for them to have their stories shared far and wide?
“The nature of Travelers is to meet one another, enjoy their time together whether it be in a specific location or traveling on the rail and road, and then separate. It is likely they will find one another down the road, maybe after a short time or a long time apart. This is how their subculture is so vast and interconnected. I was able to reconnect with many of those I made portraits [of]. I keep in touch with many of them regularly through various social media channels as well. In many instances, I have made additional portraits years apart, so the physical changes are evident.
“It is easy to imagine that a mostly invisible subculture would not want to be seen, but through formal portraiture, where the environment is not evident, I ask the viewer to consider the subject as a person, rather than someone to stare at with disgust or walk by, ignored on the street. It is my hope that the portraits elevate Travelers as to command respect for them as human beings. Their stories help to add more dimension to the portraits and to help each subject to be understood. Many Travelers have thanked me personally or in writing, noting that they are proud to be photographed and portrayed with respect.”
How have you grown as a photographer since winning the awards?
“Although I was traveling and making trips to shoot for this project in a way that was unprovoked, I feel like these awards, with all the visibility, helped push me forward to make more work. As time progressed, I now felt a responsibility to continue, even in harder times, to make work and broaden the project.
“The awards helped build an audience, and I was no longer shooting for myself. I was shooting with responsibility to the Traveling community. I grew by taking my work very seriously and my trips became work (in a good way) in that I was really pushing hard to make great work with serious intention.
“One of my proudest moments actually had nothing to do with the photography itself. I was asked by one of the mothers of the deceased Travelers to help organize a memorial procession in New Orleans. It was one of those moments where I realized I was part of something bigger than just myself.”
All images © Michael Joseph