Mary Richardson's latest book, Truckers, falls somewhere on the line between a coffee table volume of photography and narrative journalism. While the pages are often dominated by black and white portraits of long haul drivers in their typical environs, sipping coffee at a truck stop or wrenching over an engine, Richardson's prose illuminates the frames, using quick vignettes to glimpse at the shapes of her subject's lives.
That sort of hybrid, while not too common, follows in the tradition of collaborations like James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Deborah Luster and CD Wright's One Big Self, both books that Richardson acknowledges as influences. "They both presented other people's truths with such a lack of self-awareness, and were able to turn stripped down bare facts into beautiful lyrical prose and poems. I'd hoped to do something like that," Richardson says.
Richardson, who has lived in Atlanta since 2005, is the former editor of Trucker's Connection, a trade magazine formerly based in Atlanta.
When did you start working on Truckers?
I started working on Truckers as soon as I got the job with the magazine in 2005, in the sense that I knew I would turn it into a project one day; it was always in the back of my mind. It started to take shape after I casually mentioned the idea to my editor at Mark Batty in December 2006 during a meeting. They had just published New Orleans Bicycles, a book I co-authored/co-photographed. In July of the next year, my editor sent me an email and asked me to pitch an idea for a book on truckers and to give him a rough budget. So I did. We signed the contract in February 2008 and started working.
I felt compelled to create a project about truck drivers because I had gained some awareness of the trucking industry and I felt compelled to pass it on. I wanted to replace our detached relationship to the stereotypical image of truckers from movies with the reality, and highlight the integrated role they play in our lives as consumers.
I'd just started working for the magazine around the time of the spike in fuel prices in 2006 and Al Gores Inconvenient Truth, and was having these apocalyptic nightmares about fuel prices getting so high that trucks would stop, causing grocery store shelves to fall empty, with people running around and buying up everything, having food wars.
People rarely think about how their consumption of products and food, which are shipped across the country on a truck, affect their environment, cost of living, and quality of life because of all the huge roads that are built to acomodate these vehicles, the noise they make, the fuel they burn (12% of all fuel purchased in US). I thought if people had more of a complex awareness of this system, maybe it could change, and maybe we wouldn't feed the system by buying so much and so irresponsibly.
When I actually started working on the project, I tried to leave these kind of direct statements out of it. There's enough preaching out there. I wanted to hint at the larger picture that the truckers are a part of, which includes their industry and us, while focusing on truckers as individuals who are victimized and have to play out these roles in the hands of the consumers who create the demand and the government and private networks that direct its operation.
Did you mostly find drivers at truck stops, gas stations, that sort of thing? Did you find yourself in any unexpected situations while traveling for the book?
We visited truck stops and warehouses in different parts of the country, near here in the Southeast, in the West in Nevada and California, and the northeast in NY, NJ and Connecticut. The thing about truck drivers is that you really don't have to go to them; they're constantly moving, so if you stand in one place long enough, you'd get almost a diverse a "sample" of the different types of truck drivers as you would if you drove the entire interstate system.
We spent about 8 months collectively interviewing and photographing truckers and other people related to the transportation industry, mostly at truck stops, trucker bars, warehouses, and rest areas.
The oddest situation, which I wouldn't call unexpected, was when we stopped at a trucker brothel in Wells, Nevada called Donna's. Everyone there was friendly and talkative. The owner gave us a tour of every room in the place and volunteered all kinds of details about their financing and operations. We hung out at the bar and met a few truckers, who were also happy to talk to us. We later tried to stop in at similar places and were immediately told to leave.
Are truckers generally happy to talk about their work? What sort of insight did working for that magazine give you for doing the interviews for this book?
It was interesting, and also very strange, to find myself talking intimately, face-to-face with truck drivers. Working for the magazine, this didn't happen very much. It was mostly just emails and phone calls. I was prepared in the sense that I was familiar with the job, the industry, and terms they use, like lumpers, CDL, over-the-road, but I don't think I could have been prepared for them as individuals. Their world is so insular, so self-contained, and their interactions with anyone outside of it so rare, that many were suspicious of us or they just couldnt understand why we were interested. But once we got past that, a lot of them were just happy to have someone to talk to. They spend a lot of time alone.
Do you see any signs of the trucking industry changing?
I think the industry will become more intermodal and the use of both truck and train will become more balanced. Some companies are designing trailers that fit both and can be easily moved between the two. Also, some companies, not trucking companies, but companies that have their own transportation fleets, like Wal-Mart and FedEx, are already doing their own research on diesel-electric hybrid semi-trucks and testing alternative fuels. Not that they care about sustainability. They probably just want to save money on shipping and get tax breaks. I hope that in 50 years, our awareness for buying less and buying locally can eliminate the need for all the trucks carrying the inessential, the excessive, the cheap and disposable, the objects of our fetishisms rather than our true needs. But it's predicted to grow, so who knows.
Truckers by Mary Richardson, with photographs by Phil Andrews, Jenny Williamson, and Meshakai Wolf. Mark Batty Publisher. $32.95. 128 pp
Mary Richardson reads from Truckers at the Decatur Library Auditorium on Wed., May 26 at 7:15 pm.
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