On the Road with Abby Sun

by Artist Development Fellow

Abby Sun ’13, a Winthrop House resident concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies, was awarded a Fellowship to create a series of landscape photographs and animated GIFs examining the visual, cultural and emotional boundaries of the 49th parallel. In January 2010, Sun was the photographer and curator for the "Feminist Portrait Project," which documented the complex ideologies and identities of students, staff and faculty who identify as "feminist." Last fall, she conceptualized and realized the "Faces of Gender Project" in conjunction with the Trans Task Force. She plans to be a photographer and new media artist with a practice rooted in sociopolitical contexts.

I'm four weeks into a road trip following the U.S.-Canadian border, and the most constant thing on my mind is making sure my car doesn't break down on these back country roads. My battery died twice (so I took it in to a shop to get it replaced), and I got my car (without four wheel drive) stuck in a rut halfway up a hill. All three times, I was the luckiest person ever, and help came along as soon as I started walking back into town. I can't call for help because cell phone coverage is spotty at best in these areas. One man who helped me jumpstart my car is from my hometown--all-American college-town Columbia, MO. A family that towed my car down that dirt path where it was stuck became my surrogate hosts in the town of Ione, WA, population 340.

Instead of staying in motels and inns, I'm camping along my route. I have to motivate myself to get up early every morning since I'm not following anyone's schedule but my own. I've met a lot of friendly Canadians in public campgrounds. (In fact, I met my first American family in a campground just last weekend.) Camping saves a lot of money, but it also means I'm getting to know all the people who, for one reason or another, have decided to go to some place extremely close to the border to spend their vacation or retirement.

Surprisingly, to me, there are a lot of things that are familiar. A couple days ago, I met a young man who lived in Allston for a year and knew all of the places I go to during the school year.

But I am also encountering plenty of lives that are completely unfamiliar. The border, borderlands and the people who call these places home are the reasons why I wanted to take this trip and take photographs along the way. I want to learn how it was that people know who they are--how we know we're American so close to the border, and what we believe in. The presence of federally-managed, public-use lands in the west has made room for a lot of migratory characters to make these places, even if temporarily, where they live off the land. Besides the ranchers (cattle and hay) and farmers (wheat, barley, Christmas trees and orchards), the mines and the mills, in some places the border hasn't changed from life 100 years ago. There are people who still dredge for gold in the rivers, the railway (currently BNSF, Burlington North Sante Fe) still rules the pace of life and the influx of new peoples (caused by the oil boom in Montana and the Dakotas) brings suspicion above all else.

It turns out life is a lot more migratory than I'd thought, and it's difficult to imagine what it's like to live like that for 25 years or more. As I'm taking photographs along the way, besides worrying about my car, I'm also thinking a lot about what it means to represent what I'm seeing and experiencing--whether I'm making a travelogue or an ethnography, whether I'm being a tourist or a traveler. I am trying to stop as often as I can to talk to as many people as possible. But even so, I haven't stayed in one location for longer than three days.

In addition, I am shooting in film, so I haven't seen anything I've shot. Any adjustments I make midway are completely in my mind. And how the photographs look is exceedingly important to me. It's amazing how many abandoned homesteads you can see from the highway, and there's even more on the back roads near the border. I have taken a couple photographs of these deteriorating buildings, but I feel conflicted about taking those photos. It's so easy to take a photo of a building without anyone in it. The prominence of photographs of abandoned buildings in cities such as Detroit have made these images common. Maybe we see a beauty in what-has-been that skirts close to nostalgia for what-never-was.

When I get back to Cambridge, I have a lot of work to do. I'll get to see, for the first time, what I photographed.

Images taken from Abby's blog: http://blog.abbysun.com/

[Caption: Taken with Instagram at Glasgow, MT, August 9, 2012]

[Caption: Abby Sun '13]

[Caption: Taken with Instagram at Box Elder, MT, August 3, 2012]