In Albert Brooks’s satirical film Lost in America (1985), a junior advertising executive quits his job, sells his house, buys a Winnebago, and decides to live a life of freedom “like in Easy Rider.” After a series of comic setbacks, he comes up with a new plan: return to the ad agency with his tail between his legs and beg for his old job back.
Lost in America didn’t inspire Timothy Eastman’s first monograph All The Past We Leave Behind. Rather, the catalyzing force was Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland. In her book, Bruder writes about how, as the middle class takes hit after hit economically, more and more people are opting for a similar type of nomadic lifestyle. They have traded their houses for campers and RVs, traveling in search of seasonal work opportunities and temporary gigs, more often than not at Amazon warehouses. They call it “workamping.”
Workamping is, to put it mildly, not an easy way of life. The work can be physically demanding, the pay is generally very low, and there are safety and security issues to consider as well.
On the other hand, this way of life taps into the classic American mythos of freedom and individualism on the open road. As one person says in Eastman’s book, the appeal is that “you can see America, you can see the country and make a living at the same time.” And if you don’t like your situation, you can just pull up stakes and head somewhere else.
Shot between 2017 and 2019, Eastman’s series of medium format color images profiles an array of workampers. Portraits of individuals are accompanied by short, condensed interviews, with Eastman’s questions and prompts removed. (Interestingly, he has husbands and wives pose separately for the camera.) Sometimes the photo drives the text, sometimes it’s the other way around. In the end, their stories, in their own words, raw and honest, collectively give heft to this body of work.
Images appear on the right-hand side of each spread, bordered by white space. Text appears on the facing page. Detail shots add much-needed context and vary up the sequence. Although conventional—perhaps to a fault—this type of layout showcases the work nicely. Still, as well-executed as they are, the portraits and the layout can come across as a tad too static for a way of life characterized by movement. Nevertheless, Eastman’s photos give viewers a strong sense of how workampers live and provide genuine insight into this subculture.
When Eastman does vary his approach, the result is usually striking. Several of the most insightful photos are simple detail shots of interior spaces. (One such image playfully features a cat perched atop a chest of drawers.) Even a relatively straightforward photo of a towel hanging on a rack shows how folks have converted their mobile homes into their actual homes. Some live in cramped quarters, some have rather luxurious-looking, carefully decorated accommodations.
Along the same lines, several observational, fly-on-the-wall pictures rank among the most captivating in the book. One standout photo depicts a relatively quiet scene of a couple relaxing in their mobile home. The husband watches an old episode of “According to Jim” on TV while the wife works on her laptop. An open window reveals that it’s still light outside. (Photographers will find it easy to recognize the inherent lighting challenges and appreciate how in control of his craft Eastman had to be in order to get this shot.)
Eastman’s book boasts a pretty great title (taken from Walt Whitman’s ode to the pioneers of the American West). The book similarly functions as a paean to these new pioneers while acknowledging the challenges of this way of life. Workamping may ultimately hinder one’s personal freedom in a number of ways, but a life on the road still holds a strong spiritual appeal. As Bruder writes in Nomadland, “there is hope on the road. It’s a by-product of forward momentum. A sense of opportunity, as wide as the country itself. A bone-deep conviction that something better will come.”
Whether that conviction will be borne out remains to be seen. But Eastman gives us reason to root for these strangers. And to believe with the same conviction that Peter Fonda’s character in Easy Rider does about yet another incarnation of pioneers during the 1960s, “They’re gonna make it. Dig. They’re gonna make it.”
All The Past We Leave Behind: America’s New Nomads by Timothy Eastman. Kehrer Verlag, 2022. 96 pages, 48 photographs. Hardcover.