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

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test