Life & Culture

Captivating Portraits of People Living Off the Grid

Michael Joseph’s photographs capture a community of Travellers who roam the United States by hopping freight trains and hitchhiking

One day back in 2011, Michael Joseph was on his way to old Las Vegas when a young hitchhiker caught his eye. “There are some people you look at and you know there is a story there. I jumped out of the cab and left my friends behind,” Joseph says on the phone from his Boston home.

Over the next 20 minutes, a few photographs were taken. Joseph gave him money for his travels and went about his day. It wasn’t until he went home and looked at the photographs that everything fell into place. The subject of Travellers, young men and woman who live off the grid, roaming the United States by hopping freight trains and hitchhiking captivated Joseph.

Joseph began a journey that would take him across the United States, creating portraits of the people he encountered who have since become an extended family. Collected as Lost and Found, a selection of 27 black and white photographs from the series will open at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York on February 28, giving us a rare view of a community of Travellers who make the world their home. Here, Joseph shares his remarkable voyage into this distinctly American underground.

“I met a guy in Las Vegas. I didn’t know his name. We spent 20 minutes together by the side of a road. I took portraits, shook his hand, gave him money, and went home. I kept his portrait in a portfolio on my phone that I’d show people I met while travelling.

“I was in New Orleans shooting artists, psychics, and jazz players. One evening, when the sun was going down and I met a guy who said, ‘Take my portrait.’ He had a big backpack, and they stacked them on top of one another and allowed me to climb on top of it because he was much taller. Who does that?

“I showed him the portfolio and he said, ‘Oh I know that guy. His name is Knuckles. Look at his hands. He has ‘knuckles’ tattooed across his knuckles.’ He told me about the lifestyle these kids are living. I began to recognise them on the street: they’re anywhere from 14 to 40, and they form an intricate network outside society’s norms. They all know each other. They won’t stay in an area too long but they do get transient jobs like washing dishes, working at carnivals or on farms.

“The story with Knuckles continues in Chicago. I was on the subway headed back to the airport, and they made us get off because they were doing track work. I hauled my luggage down the stairs. When I got to the street and saw two Travellers. I didn’t have my good camera on me but I went up to them anyway. The guy turned around and there he was. I told him who I was.

“He said, ‘I remember you. I always wonder what happened to you and to that picture.’ I showed it to him, we exchanged information, he signed a release, we took a photo together, and I made a portrait of him using a Rangefinder.

“Three months later I was in Times Square doing regular street photography, and I saw three kids with their packs. They told me Knuckles was in Union Square. When I got there, Knuckles gave me a big hug. There were 15 kids gathered because it was summer time and they were passing through. I spent the weekend with him. From then on I remained connected with these kids. They’ve become extended family of my own.”

Michael Joseph: Lost and Found is on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York through April 13, 2019