Los Vanajeros — Joel, Madison, Aiden, and Parker — are traveling from Montana to Ecuador – you guessed it, by van (and not just any van: a 1985 VW Vanagon Westfalia). They’re stopping along the way to make portraits of the people they meet and each time they take a photograph, they give a copy away.
The foursome, all professional photographers and videographers, say: “Millions of tourists travel the world every day taking photos. As we travel in our van from the USA to South America, we would like to upend this dynamic by giving the pictures back to the people we photograph, as we create lasting images and stories to share with our followers.”
Describe your journey and how the idea of it came about.
The journey was the culmination of a few years of bouncing ideas around and finally jumping in full-on. The four of us–Joel, Madison, Aidan and myself, Parker–all went to school for film-making or photography. After graduation, we parted ways and all ended up working at some kind of film or photo-focused job. We realized how lucky we were to be working in our industries but eventually we all wanted to do something bigger; none of us were quite ready for the set 9-5.
Realizing we were all on the same page, we started to plan our adventure – an adventure that would still allow us to put our varying skill sets to good use. Having spent some time in South America in the past, Aidan pitched the idea of driving there as a group and photographing the people we met along the way. But, instead of just photographing people and leaving them empty handed, we wanted to flip that dynamic and give something back. So we decided to give our journey some purpose and put photos in the hands of the people who were kind enough to give us their time.
For the last six months between Montana and Ecuador–some 12,000 miles–thats exactly what we’ve been doing.
Why was giving photos back to the people yo met of such great importance to you?
All of us have photographed people we’ve met on the road in the past and it never settled well. The whole interaction seems pretty one sided. You walk away with an image that could potentially go in your portfolio or further your career, while the other person doesn’t really get anything to show for the experience.
Giving photos back to people is our way of showing our appreciation. It isn’t much, and we know that. But, for someone who may never have had a professional quality image of themselves or their family–that image could mean something very significant.
If nothing else, we hope giving prints back will show people that we appreciate them standing in front of our cameras.
What has your photography taught you about the places you have traveled through or the people you have met?
Photography, and more specifically, having a camera, has been our way to gain access. One of the quickest lessons you learn traveling with a camera in hand is how to use it respectfully. Learning how to approach strangers and ask to take their portrait in their native language is really important, and once people trust you they are more open to giving a little bit of themselves to the experience.
That being said, photography has always been our reason to knock on doors we normally wouldn’t, or hang out in certain places until the light is just right. Which–in turn–has given us memories that we definitely wouldn’t have otherwise.
What has the experience of driving all those miles felt like? Have there been times when you thought you just couldn’t go any further?
There are times we’ve wanted to slow down or take a break. Actually, there were a few run-ins or mishaps that completely stopped us for a period of time. But its all part of the experience. And although the van is a huge part of our adventure, getting out of the van and checking out our surroundings is a pretty integral part as well. Riding in the van for a few lengthy days has always been balanced out with staying in one place for a while and stretching out. We know we have to keep moving south, but what good is the journey if you don’t get out of the van every once in a while.
Can you describe one or two of those run-ins or mishaps?
The first crippling situation was hearing that the ferry company that we were planning on using to get from Central America to South America had gone back on its word and was no longer shipping vehicles. We spent a few days in Panama City with our patience and problem solving stretched pretty thin. Our other options were either expensive or risky. We forged ahead with the paperwork anyways, hoping that the ferry company would begin accepting cars again, and in that process got mugged while parked in an unsafe part of the city. It was pretty demoralizing, and turned into one of those laugh-to-keep-from-crying situations. It was truly awful. Eventually the wishy-washy ferry company changed its mind again and we made a narrow window of the handful of voyages that the boat accepted cars.
And the experience of being in the van together for hours on end – how has that been? What kinds of things do you all do together to pass the time?
There’s a set of dominos and a deck of cards that have gotten a good workout over the last six months, and everyone in the crew has read a handful of books. But for the most part, our project keeps us really busy. Theres always a few photos to work up, a webisode to work on, or some bit of writing to polish. We’ve started to look at driving time as working time, so whenever we get to our next place we have the time to explore.
Tell us about the landscapes and communities you’ve driven through. What sticks out in your mind as being unique or different or unexpected?
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala was an absolute favorite of the group. Culturally, historically, and photographically it was just an all around amazing place. We were also given some amazing photographic opportunities while we were there. We went into Guatemala not really knowing what to expect, so it was a pleasant surprise. Actually, the majority of the places we end up staying or visiting are complete surprises to us. We’ll hear about a spot from someone along the way and head in that direction. Sometimes it’s a bust, meaning it’s too expensive for four artists living in a van. But sometimes those places are really hard to leave, like Atitlan or Las Penitas in Nicaragua.
Describe a takeaway or a lesson learned thus far on your journey. How do you expect that takeaway or lesson to impact the way you live or the way you travel moving forward?
I think all of us can agree that any time spent out of your comfort zone is a learning experience. Experiencing both the freedoms of traveling and seeing how the others live has affected all four of us in ways that will resonate through the rest of our lives. The generosity and kindness that we have been shown from absolute strangers is humbling. People who live in the thick of poverty have stopped their day to bring us into their homes and give us a meal, just to welcome us into their country. It’s these types of experiences will continue to effect the way we live and the way we travel.
After this whole journey Aidan and Madison will continue traveling South America in the van while Joel and I are returning to the States. However, regardless of where we all end up, the experiences we’ve had and the memories we’ve created together will continue to inspire us to keep moving and to continue exploring.
What do you all intend to do with all those photo you’ve taken once your journey is complete?
We’re really excited about compiling the best images into a hardcover book. It gives us the chance to construct a narrative of the trip that is lacking in the stories we share on social media and even our website. We’re in the beginning stages of layout for the book now, and it will be released this year.
This piece was originally published on January 28, 2015.