Using the lost art of hitchhiking, 30-year-old Viktor Hübner set out on what can only be called a pilgrimage to discover the reality experienced by Americans in the Trump era. When the German photographer arrived in the States in the summer of 2017, he was struck by how the people he met, regardless of their political standpoint, refer to the current movement as “controversial” and “historical”.
Finding out that more than half of Americans that were surveyed, across all generations, in an American Psychological Association report regarded the moment as the lowest point in US history and consuming the barrage of media motivated Viktor to “gain perspective on the current reality experienced by Americans.” What resulted was months of hitchhiking through different routes across the country, weaving through 41 states, getting 248 rides and travelling 26,000 km through American towns, cities, interstates and backroads for a photographic and oral history project titled The Americans I Met.
The recent RISD photography MFA graduate tells us a bit about himself: “You should consider me the kind of person who often ends up in interesting or weird situations with strangers wherever I go. This is especially the case when I actively start observing them and it didn’t take long until this attitude slowly began to influence my work.” Part of his motivation for pursuing photography from the standpoint of a witness comes from his belief in the importance of history. His childhood dream of becoming an archaeologist, dusting away layers of history, eventually became an artistic practice where he records “small layers of contemporary history" through writing and photography.
“I searched for anecdotes. I observed living conditions and socio-economic class realities,” Viktor says. Keeping his options open, with only a vague idea of what he might experience, he travelled with his medium format camera and his audio recorder to seek out stories which might be representative of America in neighbourhoods, gas stations, supermarkets, bars, strip clubs, churches and diners.
Viktor shares with us some quotes that played a significant role in how he sees his project. One of them, from a young woman in Georgetown, South Carolina, says: “As soon as you pass these bridges, you will find a totally different breed of people. Stay away from them.” Another, from a ceramic artist in Idaho, reads: “Listen, we’re growing marijuana. So if we keep an American flag in our house, people will think we’re good neighbours. True patriots.” Beyond the personal anecdotes that were shared with him, there was a sense of distrust with society and others in those he met. “I felt a constant sense of political anxiety and a pervasive fear of others and the unknown,” he says. “Not a day passed without an endless string of warnings about ‘the crazy people out there’ or other perceived dangers.”
Despite the constant state of mild paranoia that he encountered, Viktor found people that would trust him and open their homes to him. “The fact that many people took me into their homes, almost every single night, astonished me,” he says. Whether it was because he tried to appear as non-threatening as possible – often introducing himself as a foreign student trying to learn more about America or introducing himself as a preacher’s kid to gain further trust – or if they would have shown this kindness to just about anyone else is unclear, but that is the reality that he experienced. Viktor met one of these people, an adult basic education teacher in a prison in Pennsylvania, during a lunch break at a gas station, and eventually became good friends with him. “He just opened the front door for me and went straight back to work, returning five hours later. In the meantime, I had full access to every single part of his fairly big house,” Viktor says.
“I have to note that I do not see the characters in the project as a representation of Americans as a whole. Their experiences do not encompass what life is like for all people in the United States,” he admits. For Viktor, at the end of this two-year journey, along with the people he photographed and interviewed, the series reflects the encounters he made on his hitchhiking journey. Viktor concludes: “[It is] simply a record of the Americans I met.”