Features

Chasing the American dream with Robin De Puy

Morgan, Peducah, Kentucky ID: A portrait of young woman with large eyes holds your gaze. The image is black and white and her long full bushy hair and freckles are distinct features.

This article contains image descriptions in the captions to help those with visual impairments.

During lockdown, we spoke to Dutch photographer Robin De Puy about her photography road trip across America. IF THIS IS TRUE, I’LL NEVER HAVE TO LEAVE HOME AGAIN, explores America, Robin’s relationship with it and the open road on the back of a Harley Davison.

Hey Robin! Firstly thank you for speaking with Darwin in what is a really strange time for us all. I stumbled across your work online one afternoon, and I’ve been hooked since. It might be a generic question, but I’m always curious what led you to being a photographer and telling stories?

I always tried to find a way to deal with the overwhelming curiosity – and other feelings – that I own. Ever since I was a little child I have to deal with an anxiety disorder, but I was also very curious, restless and longing for something I could not really understand. And I had an extreme, almost obsessive way of wanting to share all of those things. Photography became a way of dealing with it. You literally have to focus on the person in front of you in stead of the sh*t going on in your mind. For example: I was never able to travel, because of the anxiety), but when I start doing photography I could focus on my subjects and it made it possible for me to travel and see the world. The desire and longing for a good image was always bigger then the fear (and anybody with an anxiety disorder knows how big the fear can be). 

The first time I saw your work it was images from the series ‘If this is true, I’ll never have to leave home again’, your road trip in America from Las Vegas to Paonia. Can you tell me more how this series came about? 

Well, it was a trip van Las Vegas to Las Vegas. I rode a big circle of 8000 miles in 10 weeks. Paonia was one of my stops. I worked for a lot of magazines and newspapers and my work was going very well, maybe even too good. The thing is: I start doing photography because I wanted to show the people that I felt connected with… But when I was doing so many assignments the choice of who I photographed belonged totally to the ones who gave me the assignments…. and that was not what I wanted. So I figured that it might be good for me to seclude myself from everything ‘safe’ and start doing my own thing. And I am always quite drastic in my choices, so I ended up on a motorbike in the middle of nowhere in the USA. 😉

Derek, Jennings, Louisana ID: A young white man with prominent ears is staring at towards you. The image is black and white however his skin tone and hair is a fair colour.
Kelly, Las Vegas, Nevada ID: A full figured woman can be seen laying on a floral print sofa with her face nestled into a pillow. Her feet are dangling off the edge and touching another sofa which sits next to the one she is one.

The lure of America is strong in so many photographers and artists. Can you put a finger on why that is? 

The country, all the different states that all represent a different kind of America, the space. I love (most) American people. I love the way they take care of me, how open they are, able to share stories. But I also love the country itself: the roads, the mountains, the desert, all of it. 

You traveled from state to state on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Which I think is the coolest thing I’ve seen a photographer do in a long time. How did the vehicle of choice affect your thoughts and work? 

haha. I just love riding bikes and a HD would be the perfect choice for this ride through America. Me and my bike really became friends. 🙂 It was a strong and heavy motor that was able to help me through the hail and snow storms, but also through the extreme heats. We took care of each other, a good team! 

Car, Tuskegee, Alabama ID: A dusty concrete scene with a vintage American car surrounded by vegetation bedding and various wooden objects from a desk and bed turned on its side.
Fran, Mason, Texas ID: An elderly woman with glasses and a floral top is smiling with large beaming us down the camera at the viewer.

The portraiture in If This is True feels so classically American but with a totally new beat to them. The portraits of Morgan from Kentucky and Fran from Texas in particular made me think back of the America I know from movies, books and music. What was your approach to taking portraits whilst out on the road?

For me the personal recognition is really important. People that give me a safe feeling. The funny thing though is that the people that make me feel safe are not always the people that make others feel safe….The gut feeling that makes me want to know the other. I strongly believe that we see the photographer  in a photo in stead of the one being portrayed. In the perfect image you see both. What I did during my trip is talking to anyone that I felt connected with. Sometimes I didn’t take any portrait for days and sometimes I shot a couple a day. 

What was the America that you saw on your road trip? (and how did that impact your approach to taking pictures).

I saw a lot of poverty and a lot of (political) damage done to the Americans, but that wasn’t my main focus. Of course you will feel and see the state America is in, but it wasn’t my main subject. My book is more about recognition, about the love for the beautiful country and the love people gave me. In Colorado I had my first hail storm and people thought me how the recognise a storm in the distance, in New Mexico they thought me which spiders I had to avoid, in Louisiana I was taught about gangs. I learned so much…  

Randy ID: Two young boys standing in a desert scene. One boy is behind the other, holding his arms underneath the boys in front to give the impression the boy in the foreground has four arms.
Randy ID: A young boy is seen with his eyes closed, partially submerged in the water laying on his side along a muddy river bank.

I can’t talk to you about your work without mentioning Randy, a boy you met on the road. The relationship you both formed is a unique one. Can you tell me more about how you met and your ongoing friendship?

Randy is a boy (a young man now) who lives in Ely, Nevada. I ran into him when he was 14 years old. I love him. He is like my ‘distance-child’. This is what I wrote about him: http://www.robindepuy.nl/randy/story
Almost every day I video chat with Randy. I miss him and I am a little scared that it might take a long long time before I can see him again (because of Covid). In August he will turn 21, and hopefully we can celebrate in Vegas – that is his biggest wish (and mine too). 

The hands of mister Huckabee, Big Spring, Texas ID: An elderly mans hands are crossed one another, prominent wrinkles and liver spots can be seen.

Thats lovely to hear you’re still in contact and have a special relationship. What was it like collaborating with one another?

I love Randy, I love the town he is living in. I love traveling to him. He inspires me with the way he lives his life. It’s simple with less choices to make, but at the same time that’s the beauty. And it is miraculous how randy is able to be observed by me (and by the world). 

It’s been really great featuring your work here on Darwin Magazine. I’d like to wrap up with asking you what’s next?

I was very busy working on my first long film. I found the characters, I wrote the story, but then Covid spoiled the party… I build up this great connection with America and it’s people and it’s hard to know that I can’t be there physically. I am trying to find different kind of ways to stay connected with them and to keep sharing the stories.

Find more of Robin’s work here: http://www.robindepuy.nl/diary/2020