The American Festivals Project, partially funded by a National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant, was led by photographers Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen.
The project started as an idea when Ross was living in Japan. As an ex-patriot photographing Japan's rich culture, Ross was often drawn to unique Japanese festivals. Upon returning to the States in 2008, he wondered if one could also understand America's culture through its festivals. After some initial research, he discovered a wide assortment of tiny festivals that he had never heard of--and most likely, neither had most of America.
After receiving a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant to start the project, he joined up with friend and fellow photographer, Andrew Owen. Together, the two of them set out to document American festival culture!
In order to keep the expenses low, Ross outfitted a massive diesel truck with a truck camper (called the "Dodge Lodge") and converted it to run on vegetable oil. The two put in intense stretches of driving over the course of a year, logging 40,000 miles in only nine-months of actual time on the road. An 80-gallon, fully-filled tank could get them from New Orleans, LA to Pheonix, AZ. From restaurant to restaurant, diner to diner, grease hole to grease hole, the two sucked up America's finest veggie oil.
But life on the road was not always easy. There were constant mechanical issues; meals were often made and consumed on the road with no time to stop; driving was often done through the night in 15-20 hour stretches; and the festival were often unpredictable. In Camden, ME, the Dodge Lodge was the last to leave the Toboggan Festival at midnight because it was stuck on a frozen lake. Life on the road consisted of shooting, driving (while eating), sleeping--and doing it non-stop, back-to-back, for an entire year.
And while anyone would dream of a road trip across America to take in its scenic landscape, the sad truth is that most of the country (if you stick to the highways) will look like any other truck stop and fast-food extravaganza. The AFP saw their fair-share of the worst that America has to offer.
But have faith! The good news is that the AFP was searching for hidden and far-off corners of the good ol' U.S. of A! In their search they discovered America's unique natural and cultural beauty. It is not dead! It is alive in the people that believe in carrying on traditions, chasing their passion, cultivating community, or celebrating just for the sake of celebrating. From your average, honest town fair, to the world's largest rattlesnake roundup, America is a diverse and culturally-rich country.
So when the non-stop travel became exhausting or when it looked like there was no more money left to continue the project, the AFP was always rewarded by the joy's of discovering a new festival filled with friendly people celebrating a unique tradition important to their lifestyle, community, or landscape. Who are they fooling, really?! It was a dream life!
As the team traveled the country from 2009-2011, they discovered that what started as a project merely to document festivals, turned into a project documenting American sub-cultures. The X-Treme Dance and Cheer Competition in Wisconsin is not just an annual gathering in festival-like proportions. No, it is a sub-culture unto itself. The AFP learned that a festival is nothing without its people, and people have stories, histories, and characteristics. Every festival was more complex than what the surface revealed. The AFP could not document a festival without also learning about the history of the event, the history of the people represented, the geography of the location, the religious connections, the economic benefits or restraints from the event, etc... In a way, the American Festivals Project became more than just a photography project--it became a video project, a sociology project, an ethnography project.
By the end of the project, McDermott and Owen had seen more from the corners of America than they could have imagined. What began as a small idea in Japan, became a reality through photographs, video, and written journals. They couchsurfed with strangers, made new friends in almost every state, and portrayed a hidden and unique part of the America.
In 2011, the AFP was exhibited in Charlottesville, VA, Washington D.C., and was acquired for National Geographic's travel website. The AFP lives on through the photographs, videos, and stories.
Make your city unique. Embrace your subculture. And go find a festival this weekend!
This project was made possible through a grant from National Geographic.
© 2016 All photography and words by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen