Fellows Friday TED Fellows

Living on the outside: Photographer Kitra Cahana documents nomadic cultures from within

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After a childhood spent traveling the world with her rabbinical family, photographer Kitra Cahana found she couldn’t stop. With her camera as her vehicle, she began work as a documentary photographer, shooting for publications like The New York Times and National Geographic. When Cahana is not on assignment, she comes home to a life on the road — living among communities of nomads that wander the United States, documenting their reality. Cahana’s TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road,” offers a look into this world. But we wanted to hear more—about her own experiences, about what motivates people to take to the road, and about the history and evolution of American itinerant culture.

We called Cahana up to chat. Below, an edited transcript of the conversation. And to view more gorgeous images of Cahana’s “Nomad” series, check out this gallery on Ideas.TED.com »

So first off, where is home for you?

That’s always been a complicated question. I was born in the United States—my parents are both American, but they didn’t want to raise their children in the States, mainly for sociopolitical reasons. So we left shortly after I was born and moved frequently when I was a child. I grew up in different places across Canada and Sweden where my father held rabbinic positions. That’s what took us from place to place.

It was part of my parents’ ethos to prioritize experiences over materialism. From our infancy, they took us on adventures. When we moved to Sweden, we spent months making our way from North America to Europe via Asia. We were raised with this deep knowledge that the world was open and that the world was ours. It’s a beautiful thing to instill in a child — a sense of curiosity about the way other people live, to explore other value systems, to give a sense of otherness and sameness all at once. The idea was to be able to feel a sense of home anywhere, while simultaneously having a really strong core — a family core. In our family, that meant a spiritual and religious core as well.

Which came first, being a nomad, or photography? Or did both happen at the same time?

When I spoke in the talk about wanting to run away as a child, I think that emotion came from wanting to escape stagnation, never wanting to be still. Always wanting to see the next thing around the corner. When we moved to Canada when I was 12, I went from being in a Swedish Montessori school to the rigidity of Orthodox Jewish day schools. I did well, but I hated it. I didn’t want an outside voice to dictate my day to day. Every piece of me was just yearning to explode outwards and move again, to feel unencumbered by any authority but my own.

That’s why I gravitated towards photography, because it allowed me to always be on the move, to investigate other people’s ways of life and to pose deep questions of political and social import. It gave me a purpose to continue the adventuring I had been exposed to as a child, but it went far deeper than just having an adventure. It put me at the crux of really critical and telling moments in the lives of others.

I left home as soon as I finished high school at 16; my photojournalism career started shortly after. I’ve been more or less nomadic since, in many different incarnations of the nomadic life. I’ve lived in a more sedentary fashion in certain places — especially while doing my undergrad in philosophy and my masters in visual anthropology — more transient in others. The lengths of my stays are usually dictated by the projects I’m working on, by the worlds I’m moving in and out of. So it’s always completely different. No world is like the next. Altogether, it’s been about nine years of being in motion. It’s just slowly become my way of life.

Young nomads congregate at the "Dirty Kids Corner" at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. July 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana

Young nomads congregate at the “Dirty Kids Corner” at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. July 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana

How did you end up finding the traveling community in the United States?

Between doing my degrees and internships and then working as a full-time freelance photographer, I had been living in between all these disparate worlds. At a certain point, I just started yearning for a community of my own, one that I could identify with. I’ve always felt I lived on the fringes—maybe because, as a family, we were so often outsiders, or maybe because of the nature of the photographer/ethnographer as the outsider. So I wanted to find a subject that I could relate to very directly. I wanted to find young people I shared a value system with, who were kind of countercultural but had a creative side as well. I came back to the States and found this nomadic subculture. It felt right to me, like I was already in dialogue with that world. Every person on the road is there for their own unique reasons. There’s room for all sorts. I felt at home there. So I just started traveling with different groups — predominantly with young nomadic hoboes and traveling outsiders of all kinds.

Is there a name for the nomadic culture you document?

There are many. I mean, a lot of people refer themselves as “traveling kids,” or “dirty kids.” But there’s no official name. Nothing is official, of course. But there are all kinds of sub-groups within the young traveling scene. It’s a great web of crust punks and old-timey kids and hippies and nature loners and all kinds of hybrids, both imaginable and unimaginable. People are in constant flux, moving on and off the road. There is no one central locale or group that dictates who or what this community is. The network of travelers is very decentralized, but at the same time it’s very connected. Many different types of people choose to be nomadic rather than sedentary. Many don’t choose to be nomadic initially but then choose to continue a life on the road.

It really doesn’t mean that everyone who’s on the road has chosen that lifestyle. Many people are there by circumstance — running away from home, running away from really horrible situations, LGBT youth who were not accepted, people who have aged out from the foster care system with nowhere to go. But then there’s a rewriting of the narrative, a sense that somehow choosing the nomadic path is the freer path. Not being tied down to jobs we hate or a system we don’t ethically believe in is part of the ethos in much of the community.

Is there a political element to living this lifestyle?

There’s a whole range of value systems that emerge from the traveling scene, but largely the community leans towards anti-capitalist/anarchist principles. Sometimes those ideologies surface after deep readings of political texts, but often they arise because the traveling life accommodates certain political worldviews better than others. For example, within traveling groups there’s a very firm belief that squatter’s rights should be ubiquitous, and that housing and shelter—especially abandoned spaces—should be used by those who require it. A lot of travelers espouse the belief that food be free — that it’s a human right and that it’s wrong that 40% of food ends up in trash cans. Dumpster diving then becomes not only a survival mechanism, but a moral, political decision as well.

Ultimately I don’t think it’s fair to try to nitpick for ideological consistency. The road exists as a space away from society. It’s a space that creates a mental wedge between the traveler and all they took for granted before taking to the road. It’s a space where re-evaluation is possible. In many ways the traveling lifestyle sets the intellectual landscape for an entire life of mental movements, of searching for freedoms or Temporary Autonomous Zones, in the words of Hakim Bey. To me that’s an invaluable space, especially for a young person. Of course traveling can also become a shackling agent. It can become routine and stagnant, and I think it does for many travelers as well. It’s really no one thing.

Some elements of the community are more political than others, but to me, there’s something inherently  political about taking to the road and being the nomad. Sometimes it’s a conscious political act, and sometimes it’s not. But the political nature of the nomad has less to do with nomadism in and of itself and more to do with the nation-state context within which the nomad lives. When you’re nomadic or homeless, you are basically an illegal body. It’s difficult to exist in any space without trespassing. Law enforcement has certain biases against that community. Within societies as we know them today, for the most part — and also throughout most of history — nomads have been ostracized and their bodies made illegal, sometimes in a more bureaucratic fashion, and sometimes just socially, with ostracism.

A group of travelers wait for their train to arrive in Savannah, Georgia. Photo: Kitra Cahana

A group of travelers wait for their train to arrive in Savannah, Georgia. Photo: Kitra Cahana

Yet in a way, it seems like such a romantic way to live.

Historically in America, there’s always been a dual relationship with the figure of the hobo or tramp. Both a fear and an awe. He’s a mythical kind of character in the American fantasy. The train rider, the wanderer — he appears throughout American literature and music. He’s mythologized as a hero of freedom, adventure and living life to the fullest. So too has the traveler, like most nomadic peoples, been demonized and criminalized. The travelers I followed seemed to benefit as much from the myth of glorification as they suffer from the demonization. On the one hand, there are times when someone hitchhiking will get picked up, and then the driver will give them $20 and say, “You’re living out my dream.” There’s projection that happens. And then at the same time, it’s common for people to spew hatred. “Get a job. You’re lazy. Stop being a bum.”

It’s easy to over-romanticize the lifestyle — the idea of freedom, the great American road trip. But there are many real magical moments, moments of synchronicity where the universe provides and things work out. And because these people move out of the system, their entire lives are open for play, or for filling with whatever they choose. Sometimes that can be addiction and going down destructive paths, but often it means working on art.

But it’s definitely not an ideologically perfect culture or lifestyle. Alcoholism is quite prevalent. I’ve seen people go in as 17-year-olds and by age 20, they’re waking up with the shakes from alcoholism. Living life exposed to the elements is never easy, especially with no money and no health insurance. But travelers have their mechanisms of survival — dumpster diving and sharing the money that they do make, panhandling, working seasonal jobs. Life on the road can be lonely. You are constantly on the move, not only by choice, but because people and law enforcement are always trying to get you to go away.

Moe and Sicka fall asleep in each other's arms. New Mexico. 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana

Moe and Sicka fall asleep in each other’s arms. New Mexico. 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana

In your talk, you address the increase of criminalization of homeless people. What does that look like from the perspective of a traveler?

There are laws that make it illegal to sit on the sidewalk, to camp or sleep anywhere in a downtown area, to hang around in a public place without an apparent purpose. These laws are not unique to the United States. Anti-vagrancy laws have existed for hundreds of years around the globe. We all know how Gypsies have been treated across Europe. Similarly, for hundreds of years in the United Kingdom, vagrants could be put in jail, sold as slaves or sometimes even killed for no other reason than wandering.

There’s this historic fear of being idle, as though work in and of itself is sacrosanct. But so many systems today are broken. It’s not surprising to me that so many youth would turn their backs on the traditional American dream and on traditional work structures—because it is failing so many Americans. At the same time, I don’t think travelers are against working hard. To the contrary. I spent time on a kitchen schoolbus called Fat Kids Kitchen that was  full of traveling kids who traversed the country cooking dumpstered meals for other homeless people. The kinds of work travelers engage in are often not recognized within the system.

Most of the people I was traveling with were young, white individuals from across the socioeconomic spectrum. They were predominantly able-bodied, so their experience of being on the road is quite different from someone living on the streets who might be older and sickly or with severe mental health issues. There is no comparison, nor should anyone try to compare the two. But both should be afforded the dignity of being allowed to live the way they desire; be that on the road or in a sheltered home. And certainly the stakes would be much higher if these were roving bands of undocumented immigrants or other minority communities.

Is there a distinct cultural thread that runs through America’s various nomadic communities?

On the one hand, travelers are borrowing from the past, studying hobo music and styles from the turn of the century and the Great Depression, when about a quarter of a million teenagers were riding the rails. But they are also borrowing from other great eras where the American wanderer was more of a norm. They follow a long lineage of American nomads — from the hippie generation to the Beat generation to the great punk eras. It’s always shifting and redefining itself. In many ways, this is still a culture that replicates itself face-to-face, travelers teaching each other songs in person that then spill through the veins of the country. They meet up and teach each other their songs, and, like wildfire, the music and culture spread. But I’ve also seen the way YouTube influences this community. You’ll often find groups of traveling kids huddled around a computer looking up old blues music, trying it out on their ukuleles, saws, spoons, banjos and fiddles.

It’s all changing. Just recently I picked up a hitchhiker who had taken to the road for the first time only a few days before. He was carrying a banjo and had a felt hat that looked like it had come from a bygone decade. He fit the traveling kid profile but had never encountered traveling culture first-hand. He’d taken his cues from YouTube — especially videos that travelers had posted of their own music busking on the streets. That’s mind-boggling to me, the way the internet is changing this culture.

Salvatore Geloso (center) spontaneously breaks into song with friends in a basement bar in Ypsilanti, Michigan. 2008. Photo: Kitra Cahana

Salvatore Geloso (center) spontaneously breaks into song with friends in a basement bar in Ypsilanti, Michigan. 2008. Photo: Kitra Cahana

What is your relationship with these young people when you are with them? Do they accept you as their own, or do they treat you as a documentarian? Are you up front with them about what you’re doing?

Photography has always been a medium that facilitates my curiosities and adventures, so it’s not clear to what extent my being there is because I’m doing a self-assigned story versus just wanting to live a certain way with people I enjoy, to explore ideas that push me to grow further into the adult I want to become. I’m always up front that I’m a photojournalist. I show subjects my photos and tell them about other stories I’ve worked on for other publications.

But it’s never a clear line when you’ve established close relationships. I hope my subjects understand that when they’re in front of my lens, and when they give me consent, that I am also playing the role of the documenter. That’s who I am. I’m myself. A person who always wants to respect and honor the permission they’ve given me to document their lives; and at the same time I am a journalist and will always try to understand what I am looking at as deeply as I can. I studied anthropology, so I have this kind of dual pull. On the one hand, I abide by journalistic ethics, which really, at its most extreme, cherishes the walls that are between the documenter and the subject, and strives to make those boundaries opaque. Certainly emotional boundaries. But then on the other side, from an ethnography standpoint, if you’re not going native, are you not trying hard enough? If you’re not investing years of your life in a subject, how are you going to be a cultural translator for that culture, or for those people? Ethnography has more of an expectation that you will become as close to your subject as you can, to tell stories from the inside-out versus the outside-in. So I’m really pulled between those ideologies, and I think I cross boundaries both ways. It’s challenging.

But for the most part, I do feel very at home with other nomads and travelers. I feel at home in the unknown and have come to many self-actualizing moments on the road. Being amongst other travelers gives shape and form to the invisible societal structures that surround us. I have come to feel those biases on a very personal level. I have certainly witnessed the many roadblocks that prevent people on the streets from choosing to live the way they desire — whether it’s travelers who desire to sleep out in the open under the stars, or other homeless populations who desire to sleep in a sheltered home.

Do you make close friends as well? Do you still have bonds, even when you’re not living with them?

Very strong bonds. You know, something strange happens when you’re a photojournalist and you move from story to story. The people that I photograph are the people of my life. I don’t go back to a life at home where I see my “real” friends. So I became friends with almost all of my subjects. If you’re traveling together, you develop a deep trust. You scavenge for each other — scavenge for food, for safe sleeping spots, for good reading material. So much of your life  becomes absorbed in the quirks and characteristics of the people that you travel with. It’s like being married: you’re with each other 24 hours a day. So I always gravitate towards travelers I respect and enjoy.

For better or worse ethically, I get very intimate with the people that I’m covering. I feel like to do that kind of work — to spend that kind of time within family or communal settings — you really have to go in as a tabula rasa, an open slate. Nonjudgmental about others’ value systems, and just be malleable to their world. And I do. I just see it as a continuation of those adventures we had when I was young, when we would live with people and be accepting of how they see the world.