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From 2004 to 2006, on three separate trips, I had the special good fortune of traveling across America with Benny Andrews. Benny was researching his project, "The Migrant Series," and I was making a film about Benny. With three different sound recordists (Don Grissom, Bob Silverthorn, and Ned Traver), we traveled Rt. 66 and the roads taken by 1930's Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma to California, retraced the forced march routes of 1830's Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, and explored areas devastated by Katrina. On the highest level, we were trying to understand history and what migrants went through on their various treks. On the most basic level we were three guys in a car roaming around, following our noses, looking for whatever we could find, with Benny leading the way.
What we found was America, cliched, yes, but there it was. These were the days of "Red State, Blue State,""Us or Them," "with us or a 'gin us." What we found were people more connected and less divided than popular media would have us believe. We found individuals in places whose families had come from other places, such as a hat shop owner in Albuquerque whose family had emigrated from Ohio after they had immigrated from Germany, and a restaurateur in Salinas, California, whose Italian father had married his Japanese mother, and so he called himself "Wopanese." We stayed off the super highways, followed the back roads, and looked for local food.
Benny was supportive and encouraging of my work. If I saw something of interest, he was eager to stop or turn around, glad to go back to film or photograph. This of course prompted me to be more responsive to what I saw, which perhaps was Benny's intention, being the Jedi that he was. Maybe he just wanted to stretch his legs.
What struck me while traveling with Benny, was the material culture left by the roadside. In other countries, these stores and gas stations, motels and cars, would be re-used, renovated, or appropriated for other purposes. In this country, we often just walk away. There is enough space to abandon what is no longer needed. At each of these spots, there is a sense of the next enterprise, the better deal just down the road, but also there is disappointment. Many places reveal the shards of deals gone bad, dreams passed by. Perhaps these towns and way stations are just like places along the silk routes of Central Asia - once thriving with potential, now relics and rust. Perhaps they are the foundation of a greater culture to come.
I don't pretend that these are new observations, just my observations, ways of understanding where we've been. My family, like many, traveled the two lane roads in the 1950s. In the back seat of the un-air-conditioned Nash with my sister, I watched for cowboys and Indians, begged my parents to stop at the dinosaur tracks, and looked forward to the next burger 'n shake pit stop.
There are remnants of that America still available to us, although they are receding fast. A fascinating part of my trips with Benny was how those remnants are being picked-up by people moving back to some of the small towns. Many of them are new immigrants from Bangladesh or Cambodia, some are yuppies escaping fast-paced cities, and others are baby boomers just coming home again. So, I'm not sure if these photos are about despair or hope, what's left or what's coming. What they are about is discovery - what I found, what I saw - and I hope they say something about who we are.
Other photographic trips grew out of those with Benny, and while I made photographs along roads (Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia) other than the specific migrant routes of Benny's interest, for me they are all of the same series, perhaps they are part of his legacy.
S. J. Staniski