What do you get when you combine a 1969 Airstream Trailer, an old college roommate, festivals across the United States, a Dodge Ram 2500 that’s converted to run on vegetable oil, and photography?
Salem native Ross McDermott and his friend Matt Burris began traveling cross country earlier this month trying to find festivals and other community gatherings that say something about our culture.
So far, the two have been to “the world’s larges corn maze” in Springdale, Illinois, “the most popular fair in the world” in Hillsdale, Michigan, the World Mud Bowl Championships, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Day festival in rural Colbert County, Alabama, the “Glam on the Grand” Red Hat Society event in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a machine gun shootout in Kentucky coming up soon.
After graduating from Salem High in 2000, McDermott went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and earned a degree in industrial design. McDermott became really interested in photography during his senior year, and he began to turn away from the “very materialistic” attitudes that tend to be necessary for a career in his major. After college, he signed up for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching program upon graduation, and spent a year in the East.
“Observing festival life in Japan-it’s just the way that I sort of learned about the culture, [its] religious practices,” he said. “Upon returning from Japan, I was just thinking about a photo project I could do in the U.S…” McDermott has completed several freelance projects-his portfolio includes shots from Burma, Africa, India, and from all over the U.S. For his and Burris’s latest venture, they’ve got a subsidiary grant from the National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant.
“Just through research, [I] realized that America has a lot of bizarre really small festivals all over the country. It really intrigued me,” he said. McDermott has been documenting their trip, week by week, on their blog at www.americanfestivalsproject.com with photos and great commentary.
From their post on the World Mud Bowl Championships in North Conway, NH:
“This event consists of three days of knee-deep touch football. Very serious touch football, I should add. It feels like the whole town comes out for this fun spectacle. Even the local postman … participates every year by performing synchronized mud swimming and then parading through the town trying to give people hugs … no matter what the theme each year, it usually involves men dressing up as women …”
So if all they have is a supplemental grant and two freelance photographers’ talent and income, how are McDermott and Burris funding their yearlong expedition?
They’re encouraging folks who’d like to support their trip to preorder prints: an 8×10′ is going for $100, 11×17′s for $200. The idea is to follow the progress of the trip and look at the prints online-at the end of the journey, they’ll send you a gallery of prints to choose from via email.