Carol, January 1, 2012 in Tuscaloosa, AL.
Theron Humphrey: “Last night all of the gear I’ve been using to make this project happen was stolen out of my truck. It’s hard sitting here looking over the images of Carol, thinking about the time we spent together, and not being able to hear her voice. Ultimately I know the time I have spent with folks is more valuable than the record, but that is no comfort tonight.”
Photo: Theron Humphrey
On New Year’s Day in Jackson, Mississippi, traveling photographer Theron Humphrey returned to his parked Toyota pickup truck to find the cab window smashed. His camera gear, totaling over $6,000, was gone. A disheartening way to ring in the new year.
While it’s never a good time to have one’s MacBook Pro, Canon 5D, Zeiss lens and iPad stolen, Humphrey was in the middle of a project that required him to post a photo every day to his website, where thousands of readers check in every month to follow his journey.
“The saddest part is they took both of my external drives,” says Humphrey. “They had every single photograph that I’ve taken in the past five months.”
It was the mid-point of a 365-day, Kickstarter-fueled photo odyssey across America, called This Wild Idea. The project has Humphrey meeting one new person every day and telling his or her story through photos and a blog post.
Backers posted $15,000 in funding in exchange for hand-written postcards from the road, prints of the photos taken and, in some cases, having Humphrey tattoo their names on his leg. Even though the project now seemed crippled, Humphrey had a responsibility to his funders to keep going.
“Theron was in shock; he was scrambling,” says This Wild Idea’s web developer and Humphrey’s longtime friend, Chris Barnes. “It was a hit to his morale for sure, but I didn’t think for a second that he would hang it up.”
Since he began his journey in Cross City, Florida in August, friends, participants and funders have followed Humphrey’s every move. They have listened to his interviews and viewed his photographs of everyday Americans. When he hit a rough patch, they noticed.
Barnes set up a donation page and Humphrey received $4,000 in 72 hours. Friends loaned their dormant equipment to get Humphrey’s story-telling muscles working again.
To avoid a repeat loss of raw files, Barnes secured some cloud storage for the project files.
“It’s been a good reminder that my material possessions can’t define me. And even the work I created with my hands can’t define me because it’s gone,” says Humphrey.
This Wild Idea was inspired in part by the photos Humphrey took of his grandfather before he passed away from cancer last year. He wanted to take similarly thoughtful photos of people he didn’t know yet.
He was also feeling “burnt out” on his commercial photography gigs, his cubicle and too much dust-retouching. In addition to escaping, he says he hit the open road to find out “what it means to love one’s neighbor.” He departed in August with his coonhound Maddie.
While a photo road trip around the U.S. is nothing new (see? we told you it was an epidemic), Humphrey and Barnes put a new spin on it by taking it online and making it interactive.
“We wanted use social media in a new way, to break away from folks only being voyeurs to a photo project,” says Humphrey. “Anyone can ‘Change My Route’ and become part of the project. That’s powerful, to have an influence like that. We wanted to push the limits of Google Maps and GPS data. Now folks can see where I drove and where I am in the country.”
Chris Barnes (left) designed the This Wild Idea website and carries out remote admin, while Theron Humphrey (right) travels America capturing the stories of everyday Americans. Photo: Pete Brook (left), Theron Humphrey (right).
Barnes setup their site as an open source mash-up of PHP/MySQL, jQuery, HTML 5 and Google maps. He designed it to accommodate the large amount of posts Humphrey would be doing, for which a blog format “just wouldn’t work.” His maintenance of the site makes it easier for Humphrey to change his route and manage all the requests that come in.
“I didn’t want him hung-up doing admin stuff,” says Barnes.
While the discipline, code and planning risk dampening the romance of just hitting the open road, Barnes and Humphrey’s friendship and chemistry keep the excitement alive. One of them roams and reports from the field, the other pulls the strings from HQ (Barnes’ home office.)
“Theron is building an artifact of what America looks like in 2012,” says Barnes. “This project will age well. 30 years from now you can look back and get a really good look how America looked, not just the sensational parts. It’s important for our children to have this project.”
Humphrey points to one example in particular that has stuck with him.
“Jim Dame told his story about the State of Rhode Island taking his families land under imminent domain,” he says. “They’d been farming the land for generations. The State decided not to turn the land into a park, and ultimately rented the land back to Jim. Now Jim’s family doesn’t own the land, or buildings or the house his father was born and died in. The barn needs a lot of work, and the State really neglects that place, but who puts a new roof on a house they don’t own?”
And so the project continues. As much as he enjoys the work, Humphrey says he’s already looking forward to the finish line.
“I love it. But it’s also exhausting and it can sometimes be lonely. I’m looking forward to having roots again, having a spot to grow some crops.”
At the time this story was published, Humphrey was in Arkansas and working on his 171st dispatch.