Photographing America’s Lowriders, Coolers, Bikers and Bloods

Hunter Barnes spent a year travelling the USA capturing communities on the fringe of society.

Considered one of the foremost documentary photographers working in recent times, Hunter Barnes has spent his adult life capturing cultures often outcast by the mainstream: America’s most dangerous, misunderstood or simply unknown communities. First featured in HUNGER issue #15 to talk about his Fear and Fantasy in Las Vegas, Barnes returns, this time to discuss his new exhibition; Outside of Life: Lowriders, Coolers, Bikers and Bloods.

The exhibition is a collection of images Barnes captured over 2003, the year he travelled across America, documenting biker gangs in New York, the lowrider car club community in New Mexico, California’s maximum-security prison and Bloods in East St.Louis, where Barnes was accepted into the lives of members of arguably the most dangerous gang in the world.

Leroy, Espanola, Chimayo, New Mexico, 2003
Immortals, New York, 2003

“They treated me great” Barnes told HUNGER on his two weeks in St.Louis, “not a lot of guys go out and stay in a Blood neighbourhood doing what I was doing, and they were really open. I met their families.” Throughout Barnes’s work this is what he strives to show: “people are people” he continued, and this comprehension is what makes his work so powerful, photographing the individual, not the reputation. To do this, each place, project and person Barnes visits and documents, he spends a considerable amount of time with prior to photographing to get to know his subjects and they, more importantly, get comfortable around him. This period of introduction is fundamental to his practise, “getting to know everyone was imperative before any true images could be made” said Barnes about his first photography series Redneck Roundup, a documentation of the dying communities of the Old West. In the case of capturing the Bloods, this technique was taken very literally, the weather was so bad during the weeks with the community Barnes was not able to take the photos he needed until the last day, he laughed “two weeks of hanging out and one day of pictures.”

Polo, East St. Louis, Missouri, 2003
Booty Man, East St. Louis, Missouri, 2003

Before Redneck Roundup, Barnes had started to pursue a career in commercial photography until he met someone who told him about where she came from. “It was in the middle of nowhere, out in the mountains”, he explained, “and I just decided to go there. I was about 21.” Barnes ended up staying in the Old West for months, living in a parked airstream and using an old barn as his darkroom. Redneck Roundup was not only the project that got him into documentary photography, but “the one that really got me on the road”. Since, many other projects followed: four years spent with the Nez Perce tribe; months with a serpent handling congregation in the Appalachian Mountains; weeks following the spirit of old Vegas and a year to create Outside of Life: Lowriders, Coolers, Bikers and Bloods.

#2, California State Prison, 2003
Fred, Espanola, Chimayo, New Mexico, 2003

With each photo, Barnes memorialises his subject timelessly. Strictly using black and white film for this series, he is committed to recording the journey, the people, and the place, before they are changed or gone forever. Definitely a fitting motif for America in its current climate, where many minority cultures are under threat by Trump’s administration and numerous of them Barnes photographed over the past 20 years. For the futures of the people Barnes documented in Outside of Life: Lowriders, Coolers, Bikers and Bloods, he believes they will flourish due to the strength of, simply, “community and family.”

Outside of Life: Lowriders, Coolers, Bikers and Bloods runs from September 27 to November 29 at David Hill Gallery, 345 Ladbroke Grove, London, W10 6HA.

LowRider 002
wordsPhoebe Gardner
photographyHunter Barnes