Railroads to freedom: The drifters living and dreaming on America's freight trains

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Running from poverty or chasing their dreams, these drifters find a kind of freedom on America's freight trains – and Mike Brodie has gone along for the ride, creating these haunting photographs.

Nothing cuts to the heart of America like the railroads. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with country, blues or even Bob Dylan will know how trains rattle through American folk music, evoking the great open spaces of the continent – and the individuals that get lost in them.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, tens of thousands of economic migrants were to be found bedding down each night in the boxcars of freight trains that swallowed up the immense distances between states. A great many of them didn't even have anywhere to go. Thanks to troubadours like Woody Guthrie, the legend of the hobo was born: the American wanderer spirit, a modernist descendant of the rail-building pioneer of generations before.

Nearly a century down the line, thousands are still riding the rails, mostly young men and women, some running away from poverty in a country that still struggles to provide for its poor, others just looking for an adventure and the romance of the railroad.

One of them, Arizona-born Mike Brodie, decided to take some pictures along the way. Leaving his home in Pensacola, Florida at 17, he spent the best part of ten years jumping freight trains, hitchhiking and finding work and sustenance where he could. Using an old Polaroid camera that had been sitting redundant on the back seat of a friend's car, he began taking pictures in 2004 – and found it hard to stop.

The photographs he took in the ensuing years are a rare document of an American subculture – and a curious portrait of the country's youth. Collected together into a new book, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, the pictures centre on the people Brodie met along the way.

"I never knew what these photos were going to turn into, what they were going to represent," he says. "It was intuitive – photographing things near to me, things attractive to me, things that seemed important at the time, but I always knew I wanted to photograph the train hoppers."

Though conscious of the cultural archetypes in whose tracks he was following, Brodie says the "lure" of the railroads was instinctive. So too was his affinity with the camera. "I learned it somehow – training myself and seeing other things quite randomly I wanted to copy," he says. "The first pictures I liked were the photos in the BMX and skateboarding magazines I read as a kid. I came across books; one was Stevef McCurry's portraits for National Geographic. Most of my first pictures sucked, though."

His natural eye for composition and instinct for the foibles of Polaroid photography quickly began to attract the attention of established photographers and galleries. But even when his pictures began appearing in exhibitions, Brodie kept on riding the rails. He changed from a Polaroid to a 35mm Nikon F3, but his subjects remained the same – the train hoppers.

Brodie himself insists that he wasn't running away from anything – and nor were many of his fellow travellers. "I can't speak for everyone but the majority just wanted a taste of that free lifestyle, that American adventure. They wanted to leave town, ride the trains, see the country and figure out what they wanted to do with their life. As for myself, I was naturally drawn to go and… check some things out."

One of the most striking images shows a slim young man doing a very good impression of Johnny Cash's iconic middle finger – while hanging off the back of a speeding train.

"He goes by the name of Soup," Brodie recalls. "From Montgomery, Alabama. A movie could be made out of his life. He left home and went on the street at a young age. He was running away from something. Everyone else was doing it by choice. He was different."

Brodie has become something of an unlikely favourite of America's photographic establishment, who were astonished by the technical accomplishment of this unknown, self-taught drifter. He won the Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers in 2007 and has been featured in exhibitions all over the USA.

Despite the adulation, Brodie, 27, now works as a truck mechanic in Oakland, California. He says he will take photographs again "once I've made a life for myself". He says he does think about riding the railroads again – and he still sleeps in a sleeping bag every night.

'A Period of Prosperity' by Mike Brodie is published by Twin Palms at $65. An exhibition of Brodie's work is at the Yossi Milo Gallery, New York, until 6 April

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests