CNN Photos

Chasing hope on the railways

For over a year, photographer McNair Evans has ridden Amtrak lines across the United States on 15-day passes to capture stories of where people are going, what they hope to find and what they left behind.

The American landscape blazes by outside the sterile windows, the train cars themselves less glamorous than the old days of rail travel, providing a consistent setting for the ever-shifting faces riding toward their future.

“It’s almost like a black box theater,” he said. “Because the environment of trains never change, it’s just a constant rotation of characters, and how they populate and modify the space.”

Unlike airplane passengers sharing casual stories, the long-distance Amtrak travelers are often at critical times in their lives, Evans said.

Given the tight quarters, endless days of travel and his “funny-looking” camera – a medium-format rangefinder with a big flash system – people are willing to open up, have their photos taken and share their stories.

A passenger traveling for an ex-boyfriend’s funeral. A young man leaving a work situation that ended poorly because of a relationship and returning to community college. An exotic dancer and her young son moving from rural Louisiana to Atlanta, hoping to start a better life with a new vocation.

The stories sucked him in almost instantly.

Evans also has a history with trains.

As a teenager, he spent summers working on the track crew for a short freight line in North Carolina, replacing old railroad ties. In college, he rode the train from North Carolina to Virginia every year. As students continued to board along the way, it became “the last taste of freedom before getting back to the books.”

Two years ago, Evans found himself on a train again, this time heading to a friend’s wedding.

The experience was overwhelming – the disrepair of the cars, the people on the train, the landscapes flashing by. As the train rolled along, he photographed men using an antiquated hoe to work in a tobacco field on the Virginia border, and the image stopped him cold.

“It made me recognize that the train is this vehicle of romance, in relationship to the past and things that aren’t attainable,” he said.

In college, Evans studied cultural anthropology, and he used photography as a means of learning and capturing the different aspects of a group of people. Now, his vision is very different.

“I’m a little less interested in defining a culture and more interested in finding the things that unite all of us – shared emotions. How do we feel and what does that look like?”

On the train, emotions are rampant. It’s all about the best way to capture them.

Evans is constantly challenged by the scenario of shooting in a moving box without producing repetitive frames, as well as skipping sleep to photograph for 17 or 18 hours a day.

But the stories are worth it. Personal struggles can be found in every car.

“Those people are out trying to enact some kind of change in their life. All of these trips are based on hope. They are moving and chasing and trying to fulfill an expectation.”

His photos reveal people moving to rekindle a relationship, see a loved one who is dying, or start a new life by finding a new job.

Of course, others are simply on vacation, but choosing to travel by rail suggests a different motivation to Evans.

“They are the people who are out there for connection, trying to connect with our country, with the romanticism of traveling by train,” Evans said.

Others travel by train because they don’t have other options. Vietnam veterans battling PTSD who can’t ride planes, or an Amish family looking for better health care.

Evans is still working on the project, which manages to combine his love of cultural anthropology and photography with the connections between individuals in society and universal shared experiences. It may end once he’s covered all of the Amtrak lines, or when he feels the project has reached an end point.

But he says as long as he encounters people striving for their own idea of the American dream, or passengers just waiting for someone to ask them why they’re traveling, he’ll keep shooting.

“The success of a project like this is when people open up, trust you and realize the significance of all of our stories when they’re told,” Evans said.

- Ashley Strickland, CNN

Headshot courtesy Jesse Trelstad

Related: 'Obsessed' with train riding