Life inside California’s RV parks: Midsummer Neighbours captures the multiplicity of Californians
Does inherent prejudice match up in reality? Photographer Yunfei Ren explores RV communities, an interesting intersection of city goers and rural inhabitants.
- Jyni Ong
- 22 January 2021
The RV lifestyle is often understood as a quintessentially American experience. Giant vans fully equipped with a kitchen, sofa, bathroom and king size bed (in some instances), these bus-sized motorhomes on wheels and their inhabitants proved to be a fascinating topic for photographer Yunfei Ren. Having grown up in China, subsequently living in France, Japan and The Netherlands, RV culture was something of a mystery until the photographer moved to his current whereabouts of San Francisco. A self-taught photographer, Yunfei is consistently drawn to explorations of identity and belonging.
In the past, his lens has focused on underrepresented groups including gay Asian American men, Black female models, skater girls and now, rural RV residents. Actively engaging the viewer through his Dutch master-inspired compositions, Yunfei likes to restage scenes embedded with semiotic clues and hints of contemporary culture. His latest series, Midsummer Neighbours, first became of interest to Yunfei for its lack of class distinctions. “Unlike a typical neighbourhood that’s more homogenous socioeconomically,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That, “a RV park is an amalgamation of the suburban middle class and the rural poor.”
On a road trip last summer, Yunfei and his husband journeyed through Northern California in a rental camper van. Each evening just before sunset, the couple pulled up in a different RV park, a unique microcosm of the American community. Yunfei felt a pull to capture this spirit, bringing out his camera every evening in search of subjects. Roaming the camp sites, he found a distinct mix of inhabitants. “It’s not uncommon to see a 40 feet behemoth owned by a suburban weekend warrior parked next to a modest RV from the 80s which is a permanent home for someone of lower income,” the photographer adds. Occupants would come and go every few weeks, forging a community of constantly changing people in one static space.
For Yunfei, the project was a chance to connect with Californians and its “seldom-discussed rural citizens.” He explains more on the distinction between two West Coast sub-groups: “California, in many ways, is two states – coastal elite cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles where liberalism reigns and huge expanses of wilderness and farmland which is more reminiscent of the American heartland.” The documentary series celebrates how RV lifestyle unites the two, a rarity in a country so divided, especially set against the backdrop of a tense election year to say the least.
When Yunfei approached Trump supporters with flags pitched near their RVs, the photographer “had to confront [his] nervousness.” He found that almost everyone was friendly and receptive to the work however and the experience became more interesting internally, as a way for Yunfei to compare his first impressions of Trump supporters with the dialogues that would alter ensue. “In the end,” he adds on evaluation, “I found their world view is formed around a sense of being left behind – by their country, its economy and most of its leaders.”
When it came to the aesthetics of shooting the pictures, the photographer took cues from French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David’s “private style” portrait paintings. This style in question conveys both realism and intimacy, a sensation felt acutely by the viewer who could be looking at someone from either side of the political spectrum. The majority of his portraits depict the subjects in their RV spot, at ease with their surroundings while consistently composed in the same way. A display of uniformity despite whatever their differences may be.
“On a documentary level,” Yunfei finally goes on to say, “the series touches on themes of parenthood, masculinity and growing up. But it’s not meant as a social survey or research. The images capture as much about the subjects as they reflect the viewers. On a conceptual level, I want to explore the friction between knowing that some of our preconceived notions are almost certainly true while some are not and there is an inability to verify them without truly meeting the subjects.”
GalleryYunfei Ren: Midsummer Neighbours (Copyright © Yunfei Ren, 2020)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.