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Exclusive Interview with Michael Joseph

Posted on March 27, 2024 - By Sandrine Hermand-Grisel
Exclusive Interview with Michael Joseph
Exclusive Interview with Michael Joseph

Lost and Found: A Portrait of American Wanderlust

I discovered Michael Joseph's work in 2016, thanks to Ann Jastrab. I was immediately captivated by the power of his beautiful black and white photographs from his series 'Lost and Found.' His haunting portraits of young Travelers have stayed with me ever since.

I was excited and curious to discover what the book published by Kehrer Verlag would look like, and I was not disappointed when I received it on my birthday! The cloth hardcover featuring his picture of Alister and Sherie preludes the attention to detail and the high quality of the publication.

Each duotone print enhances every portrait. You are drawn to the tenderness and determination that emanates from these young Travelers. Some appear lost or even adrift, while others seem untroubled and assert their choices. The way they look straight at the camera seems to convey a sentiment akin to the quote found in the first pages of the book: I have nothing and everything at the same time.

They all clearly have complex stories to tell, lives filled with challenges that have propelled them to embark on their personal journeys fueled by wanderlust.

Michael explains: ''Lost and Found is a portrait series that examines the individual souls of lost youth who abandon home to travel around the country by hitchhiking and freight train hopping. Within their personal journey driven by wanderlust, escapism or a search for transient jobs, they find a new family in their traveling friends. They are photographed on public streets using natural light, in the space in which they are found.''

His deep understanding of the emotional and cultural landscape of his subjects makes this collection profoundly moving and impactful. I was curious to know more and asked Michael a few questions.

All About Photo: Tell us about your first introduction to photography. What drew you into this world?

Michael Joseph: Ironically, I took courses in and loved working in all types of mediums including drawing, computer graphics, design, silkscreen and figure sculpture. After working a day job and being stuck inside most of the day, I decided to take courses over many years at the New England School of Photography. I instantly fell in love with the camera and working on the street brought me out of that box. Essentially, it was the last medium that I learned. The basics of composition, design, proportion, and a knowledge of art history were there from all the preceding years.

When did you decide to become a street portrait and documentary photographer?

I spent years shooting classic street photography. I loved going out on the street with my camera in hand and never left it at home. Living in a city, there is always an opportunity to catch something riding the subway, walking through a park or attending a public parade/event. I started making street portraits and while I was making those portraits, my street photography eye started focusing more on people and their emotions, rather than catching ironic or humorous juxtapositions. I always loved portraiture, but studio portraiture was not as visceral. I wanted to be outside and catch people as they are moving from place to place in public. I took the concepts of studio portraiture and worked with natural light on the street to construct my portraits. I fell into discovering this traveling subculture. Making portraits in public came naturally by the time I started shooting Travelers. I started recording stories and histories. Over time, realized that I was creating a document, and I loved this aspect. I suppose those labels came with time and occurred over a natural course of events. Time pointed me in the direction of what I came to love and identify with.

Michael Joseph

zAngel & Rocky © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Jessie James © Michael Joseph

You describe in the foreword of the book how this ten-year journey began when you spotted a hitchhiker with a sign that read 'Arizona or South' from your taxi window in Las Vegas in 2011. But what prompted your desire to meet other Travelers, capture their portraits and start a series?

That first portrait I made in Las Vegas was a result of photographing strangers in public. I was developing my skill in making these portraits by working with people I was randomly meeting in the moment. It wasn’t until I met more of these Travelers around the country that I even learned what this subculture was. Street photography makes you hyperaware of your surroundings. You are constantly looking, searching, and paying attention. I went to a portfolio review and although what I presented in the portfolio was a mix of portraits of strangers, there was a segment of Travelers. I had a conversation about breaking off this subset as a separate project. From there I decided to focus mostly on Travelers. I never got the name or contact information for the first Traveler I photographed in Las Vegas. Wherever I went, I asked around, showing his portrait on my phone to other Travelers I met over the next few years. A serendipitous moment led me back to him in Chicago three years later, where we reunited and then three months later in New York City. He introduced me to the traveling community.

Did you travel to specific locations to meet them? Did you plan your trips ahead?

For the first couple of years, I would run into Travelers in various cities I was traveling to. I’d find them in New York City, Portland, Maine, here in my hometown of Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans and even Miami. After getting to know many Travelers I wanted to reunite with them and so would travel to meet them during specific times to work on the project and to continue to shoot street photography. In many instances, they would pass through my home city of Boston, and I wouldn’t have to travel at all. Many times, I would travel to a photo opening or a portfolio review and then make side trips to meet up with Travelers. I can recall being in Fort Collins, CO and driving up to Cheyenne, WY to make some portraits. I’d also travel down through Boulder and Denver.

Your portraits serve as mirrors into their souls. How did you succeed in capturing the essence of each person you photographed?

Like with street photography, there is always that moment one tries to capture. I was and still am invested in their stories and had an innate curiosity about the subculture. In many instances, I would chat for quite a while before any images were taken. In others, I saw the emotional state that someone was in and didn’t want to take them too far from where their head was at. I made those portraits quickly and then chatted later. My portraits are made with some precision, and I feel that the sitters could feel this attention to detail. With every portrait, there is a moment where the sitter becomes more relaxed and I could see the inner person coming through in gesture, body position and other non-verbal cues. If a sitter got too into his head, I would have him close his eyes to take him out of the public element and ask him to recall a memory that we chatted about. In many cases, the forehead would soften as would the eyes. I suspect each subject is different. It’s finding a way to catch those expressions before the subject becomes self-conscious or self-aware. Sometimes the first test portrait turns out the be the best one. Sometimes, it’s when the subject is tired of being photographed and gives up on self-awareness in the last moments.

Michael Joseph

Lost Boy © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Smiles & Ophelia © Michael Joseph

Did you invest a significant amount of time with each individual?

Each portrait varied from the next with regards to how much time I could or would spend with each individual. For some it was hours hanging out with a group and making portraits. For others, I was a quick five to ten portraits made while a Traveler was walking down the street, on his or her way to a destination.

Has their response to your camera always been positive?

In the beginning, with no context of the project, it was a bit more difficult. I would show Travelers example photographs on my phone. I had a digital portfolio set up and ready to go. As years progressed, my name started finding its way around the community and my photographs were shared on social media. It became much easier. Travelers wanted to participate in the project and be documented. Initially I was very nervous when media started covering the project. I wasn’t sure if the attention brought to the community would help or hinder the process. I became very careful and respectful of what I shared with media and put out there. There are many stories and audio recordings that will remain never told or heard.

What was your biggest challenge while working on that project?

One of the biggest challenges, was also one of the biggest rewards. I tried not to overthink too much and took what photo reviewers were suggesting with some caution. If I followed all the suggestions, the project may have ended up in color or I would have stopped altogether. It is always challenging to push past the fear of what is unfamiliar. I let the project carry itself. If it was a windy day, I worked with the wind. If it was a rainy day, I worked on just spending time and getting to know the community. If I was invited back to a squat house, I say yes and go. If I was asked to attend or help set up a memorial, I did it. Eventually one step led to the other.

You have met many Travelers, do you ever meet them again? Do you remain in contact with the people you photographed?

Over the course of over 10 years, I’ve met many many Travelers. There are over 90 images in the book, so one can imagine how many portraits I made to come to a strong edit of the work. Over the course of these 10 years, I photographed many Travelers more than once. Many passed away before I could photograph them again. There is one Traveler in the book who appears twice yet looks totally different. (see if you can find it) Yes, I remain in contact with many of the Travelers I photographed. One of the best surprises is when a Traveler is passing through Boston, and I receive an instant message. Those unexpected reunions are often the best.

Michael Joseph

Eramis © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Alster & Sherie © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Mike © Michael Joseph

You showed some families the portraits you took of their child, but what was the response of the Travelers to these portraits?

Many of the Trevelers used the digital versions of the portraits I sent to them as their profile images on social media and for some, that image remained there for years. Some expressed how proud they were to be documented in a dignified way. Some loved how they looked. Some could care less. Some expressed that they hoped to show it to a child of theirs someday.

How did the Travelers' perspectives influence your day-to-day life/your vision of the future?

Travelers opened me up to a way of thinking and forced me to question the way I was living my life. Some of these are: How much do we really need to be happy? How much to we need to live and survive? What is better, a short life filled with vast experiences or a long one that is sedentary and unexamined? I have a sense of exploration and curiosity that the Travelers have. For me, it is about people. I’m interested in their wishes, motivations, backgrounds, struggles and truths. In this way, I suspect that we share the trait of wanderlust. The opening of the book states “I have everything and nothing and everything at the same time.” They taught me that we really don’t need much to find happiness. They also have these intense, raw relationships forged by helping each other find their way and survive. These intense relationships and acceptance into a tight community exemplify how our life happiness is directly related to those relationships we make and those live, in-person experiences we share with others. The traveling experience makes their lives full.

What is your favourite photo of the book and why?

I don’t really have a favorite photograph for many reasons. Most of the time I can remember the time I spent shooting with a subject. This can alter my feelings about the image. Some portraits have great lighting which I love. Others are more visually engaging, which I love too. Every image that I put in the book is intentional and I’d say they are all my favorite for one reason or another.

Was it challenging to select only a few images from among so many beautiful portraits in order to create the book?

I wanted to create an arc for the book told through individual stories. I wanted to pair beautiful writing with beautiful portraits and place them in just the right order. I had certain themes and information about Travelers that I wanted to include to create a full picture of the subculture. For instance, I had to have instruments included. I wanted dogs in some of the portraits (more challenging than one would think!) I wanted to include images with descriptive tattoos and self-made clothing. I wanted to have some portraits where the tattoos, patches or marker scribbled on clothes contained words that would give the overall project more meaning. If a piece of writing was particularly strong or important to tell the overall story, I had to make sure the portrait was just as strong. The hardest part was having to exclude some portraits because I knew the person so well or had so many memories of that person while shooting and beyond. I had to refrain from putting those portraits in the book if they were not the strongest visually or did not contribute to the overall storytelling.

Michael Joseph

Brillo The Clown © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Leo © Michael Joseph

Each portrait has nearly the same lighting, even though you worked with daylight. How did manage that?

I paid close attention to where the light was falling and rarely shot in direct sunlight. I used my surroundings and made do with what I could find. If a Traveler was tall, I’d find a crate to stand on. I’d find doorways, reflective walls or light absorbing dark areas to craft a more contrasted image. I suspect that because the photographs were being made through my eye, my style remained consistent.

What equipment did you use?

A lot of people think I’m shooting with a 8x10 large format camera. I love the look of shallow depth of field and details. I used an older DSLR (remember I started in 2011) and natural light. The backgrounds that you see are walls, corners, and doorways on the street. After all these years, the camera is falling apart, but I have a backup body and lens. I didn’t want to move to a more advanced body or change the lens to keep consistency with the work as the years progressed.

Do you spend a lot of time editing your work?

The most amount of time I spend editing my work is choosing which portrait/image is just the right one. I work quickly and shoot a lot in a short period of time. There might be just very subtle differences in expression, whether it is the position of the mouth or the look in the eyes. Making portraits outside means that the sun may be shifting around, or a cloud may come over and change the exposure. The wind may come and move hair in just the right way as well. Sometimes both of these can work for you. I don’t’ spend too much time in post-production as I try to keep the portraits as close to how they are photographed as possible. I may adjust tones or contrast as one normally would.

Why did you choose to work only in Black and white?

I always saw this portrait collection in black and white. While I do shoot the images in color and the images are rich in color, sometimes color can take away or distract from the emotion of the person. I wanted the images to feel classic, timeless and nod to the history of wanderlust in the United States.

What do you want people to remember about Travelers?

For one, I think that the readers/viewers will be very surprised at how intelligent, thoughtful, and beautiful the writing is, and insightful the stories are. The book reveals the feelings of a subset of youth that doesn’t fit in with a life that American society has prescribed for them. Namely, you do well in school, go to college, get a good job, have kids, and then work very hard to afford your children the same opportunities. These Travelers have wanderlust coursing through their veins and have escaped some aspect of life that leads them to the open road. In essence, the way they are wired doesn’t correspond with how society tells them they should live. As you will read, many of them feel that they are looked down upon and judged a face value from the public. When one reads their backgrounds, stories, and feelings in the book, I hope the readers/audience will realize that these are human beings, just living life in their own way. Perhaps, as one Traveler points out, it is a way back how we were meant to live… A life more connected to other human beings and the land.

Michael Joseph

Billy Highsail © Michael Joseph

What are your upcoming projects? Will you continue working 'Lost and Found'?

I am six years into working on a project titled “Wild West of the East.” This is another street portrait project shot with an older polaroid camera. The project examines Provincetown, MA and its people. The portraits are color and celebratory. It examines similar themes of found family, the search for identity and human authenticity. It explores the queer community in Provincetown and all its smaller subcultures.

Anything else you would like to share?

This book was made with so much intention. The black cover fabric was chosen to resemble canvas or jean fabric that many Travelers would wear. The book was made oversized so that the details of the portraits would come through and the direct gaze of the Traveler would be more confrontational. I wanted the viewer to look into their eyes. The font was chosen to resemble the typewriters of street poets (often a Traveler way of busking). The endpapers were made from a photograph that I took in Portland, ME where a Traveler laid out pages of an old railroad map that he had been carrying. They were wet and stained. I layered one over the other on the ground and made a detail shot. I had no intention that this would ever be used. There are three sections to the book and each section is divided by a detail image that bleeds off the page. Each one of the images contains a patch or tattoo that describes the section. I tried to include as much direct writing from the Travelers themselves so they could tell their own story and, in that way, describe to what their subculture is about. Each individual story hopefully contributes to the overall meaning of the book as do the portraits as they interact with each other. Essentially, I intend the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Michael Joseph

Sasha © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Shamus © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Nott Joe © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Flick © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Rango © Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph

Raskull © Michael Joseph

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