The Americans I Met - PhMuseum

The Americans I Met

Viktor Hübner

2017 - Ongoing

United States

I first arrived in the United States during the summer of 2017. While adjusting to the new environment, I noticed how many Americans conversationally referred to the current political environment. I heard people, regardless of their political standpoint, address the current moment as “controversial” or even “historical”. Soon after I arrived, on November 1, 2017, the American Psychological Association released their annual Stress in America survey. It was, in my opinion, an extraordinary report. More than half of Americans surveyed, across all generations, considered the current time to be the lowest point in U.S. history. A subsequent survey in 2018 showed that this outlook had even deepened. Daily media coverage also made me curious about the way Americans experienced the state of their country in the Trump era. A TIME article from October 26, 2018, for instance, proclaimed: “No Wonder America Is Divided. We Can't Even Agree on What Our Values Mean.”

Intrigued by these observations, and motivated by my own desire to gain perspective on the current reality experienced by Americans, I began a two-year study. I spent six months hitchhiking three different routes across the United States. First, I traveled from Providence, Rhode Island along the east coast to Miami from where I circled back again. Then, from Rhode Island through the midwest to San Francisco, and back along a different route through the northern United States. And finally, in the south, from Birmingham Alabama, westward to Los Angeles. I spent the most time in rural America, towns and cities, interstates and backroads, across 41 states. All told, I covered more than 16,000 miles (26,000 km) on 248 rides.

My journeys, photographs, and conversations represent an exploration of what it means to be American at this moment, and of the issues that affect Americans, both personally and politically. I searched for anecdotes. I observed living conditions and socio-economic class realities. With only my camera, audio recorder, and a few provisions in a backpack, I took to the road with a simple objective: to see what I might find. I had vague ideas about what I might experience, shaped by things I had learned or been told by people, but for the most part, my intention was to simply go to places and see what I found there. I wanted to embrace chance and the unknown.

I found that hitchhiking is perhaps the most intimate way to experience a foreign culture; it forces you to interact with perfect strangers and entirely depend on their generosity every day. It places both the host and the hitchhiker in a vulnerable position that encourages an intimate interchange of thoughts and ideas. It forces an almost childlike trust. Once the fear of the stranger has been overcome, people may share their deepest thoughts, feelings, concerns, maybe even secrets; they know that the chance they will meet again is extremely slight, maybe non-existent.

Hitchhiking limited me to the equipment I could carry in my backpack, and I further limited myself with a few simple rules:

(1) Be open to conversation with everyone you meet.

(2) Do not use public transportation, so as to maximize opportunities for encounters (unless in a city).

(3) Bring only enough money for food and photograph film.

(4) Never book any hotels/motels. If necessary, sleep outdoors in a tent (to save money and to further encourage yourself to finding a host).

(5) Do not make online arrangements for transportation or accommodation.

My encounters with strangers happened while hitchhiking, or simply while walking through neighborhoods, waiting at gas stations, or visiting historical sites; I met people at supermarkets, bars, churches, restaurants, and diners. Even strip clubs. I didn’t travel with a fixed route in mind; instead, I chose key points that I wanted to visit, and left myself the option to veer off track if an interesting opportunity arose. I generally sought out people who would host me in their home for at least one night, although I stayed longer with some, up to seven days. At all times, whether I was alone or with someone else, I carefully observed my environment. I was interested not only in meeting Americans and talking with them, but also in bearing witness to everything I encountered. In my portraits and written accounts, I have tried to convey these peoples’ environment, possessions, how they live and the stories they told me. In total I spent one or more nights in 74 different private homes, six nights in sponsored hotel rooms, and 18 nights outside in my tent or another shelter.

This project is still a work-in-progress. So far I have collected more than 80 hours of interview material, several handwritten notebooks and shot over 350 Medium Format films. At this time, a large portion of my content has been processed, but it has yet to be completed. According to American media outlets, the upcoming 2020 United States presidential election in early November will be the event of the year. The tensions and the controversy between different party lines and the American people have been simmering since 2016. To capture this, I will return to roads of the U.S. and hitchhike 12 more weeks starting in the late summer of 2020 through November. I intend to expand my geographical range by hitchhiking across different states previously unvisited, starting in the North Eastern region of the United States. First, I will start in Maine. I will continue traveling southwest, trekking through New England until West Virginia. Along the way, I will visit rural regions as well as historic towns including Saratoga Springs and Montpelier. Then, I will continue west, zigzagging through Oklahoma and Nebraska, following my own Manifest Destiny to the west coast. With this opportunity, I will experience the election from the point of view of the Americans I encounter; I will serve as a witness of the tensions leading to and also the aftermath of the election, a final pinnacle to this longterm project. The material gathered on this last journey will enrich my research, and lead to the production of an artist book.

I have to note that I do not see the characters in the project as a representation of Americans as a whole. Their experiences do not encompass what life is like for all people in the United States. The people I photographed and interviewed for this project reflect the encounters I made on my hitchhiking journey; they are simply a record of the Americans I met.

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  • Nathan in Plant City, FL / 2018

  • Jill in Florence, SC / 2018

  • Jesse, Ester & Samuel in Fiedler, PA / 2018

  • Ronald in Long Beach, CA / 2019

  • The Mint Bar in Sheridan, WY / 2018

  • Kevin in Carmet, CA / 2018

  • Jay in New Orleans, LA / 2019

  • Sammie Lee in Winston County, MS / 2019

  • Patrick, Marc, Steve & Cornelius in Myrtle Beach, SC / 2018

  • Fight at PK’s on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, ID / 2018

  • Training in Miami Beach, FL / 2018

  • James River in Richmond, VA / 2018

  • Mango’s in Miami Beach, FL / 2018

  • Samantha, Alex & Quintin in Craig, CO / 2018

  • Keep Families Together at St. Francis FUMC in St. Joseph, MO / 2018

  • Paris on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, ID / 2018

  • Lady Liberty in Salmon, ID / 2018

  • US Hitchhiking Map


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