Which one gets the thumbs up?

A quick glimpse is all we get to decide whether to give a lift to a hitcher. With these images of hard-shoulder hopefuls, photographer Simon Prentice asks us to examine our prejudices. Words by Michael Booth

Rutger Hauer has a great deal to answer for. Apart from inspiring an entire generation of wooden and faintly menacing big-screen Europeans, he must be at least partly to blame for the decline in the ignoble art of hitchhiking. After all, anyone who has seen his 1986 movie The Hitcher is going to think twice about standing by the roadside with their thumbs aloft. Others may blame the increased ownership of private cars or even cite the promulgation of certain urban myths; you know, the ones that typically climax with the hapless hitcher's head being held aloft on a pike. But whatever it is that's putting people off, there is no denying that fewer and fewer of us are hitching lifts.

Any judgement of the hitcher's decline must, however, remain anecdotal. I contacted motoring organisations and Government departments, but, amazingly, none of them had ever even been asked for this kind of information, let alone compiled any. All I could find was the Guinness Book of Records' claim that a German, Stephan Schlei, has hitched 501,750 miles since 1972.

However, photographer Simon Prentice has lived near the start of the M32 in Bristol for five years and during that time has watched the number of hitchers waiting there decline from around eight at any one time to a mere four or five a day. He set out to photograph them for posterity. "I chose the festival season because I thought there'd be more younger people about. Actually, half of them were car delivery men trying to save on their return train fares. They hold up their delivery plates and other delivery drivers pick them up." According to Simon, these drivers get picked up quickest, with single and especially two females together being the next most popular. Older single men can often stand around for hours: "One guy with quite a scary face had to stay overnight waiting to be picked up," says Simon, who also picked up some good tips from the hitchers he met: "Apparently if you're a girl you stand a better chance if you're carrying flowers because people think you are a harmless hippy. And one bloke swore by eating a banana while he hitched because he said it made him look like a softer, new man."

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