A thumbs-up for trusting other people
The Hitcher, an exhibition of photographs of hitchhikers and drivers taken by Chris Coekin, reminds us why we shouldn't give in to today's fear of strangers.
I have many fond memories, and a collection of great stories, from my days hitchhiking around Ireland and England in the 1980s. Since learning to drive in 2001, I have wanted to contribute to the continuation of this egalitarian mode of travel by giving lifts to backpackers, itinerant workers and various other motley people who use the thumb, that universally recognised advertisement of travel need. The hitchhiker, however, appears to be virtually extinct. There is none for me to pick up.
Over the past six years I have spotted one of this rare species. He was young and seemed more than a little out of touch with reality. As we chatted, the one gift the hitchhiker usually has to offer their temporary companion, he told me that he had travelled almost 100 miles to meet a girl that he had been ‘talking to’ on the internet and had arranged to meet; she didn’t turn up.
When I thought about the demise of the hitcher, I assumed that this form of travel had been killed off by the ‘culture of fear’. When we are constantly warned by officials and media reports about the alleged threat posed by strangers, our neighbours and even our family members, who would give a lift to a total stranger standing at the side of the road? Anyone who did so would surely be as mad as the person trying to hitch a lift. So when I heard about an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London entitled The Hitcher, I first thought that it was some kind of a take on that American horror subgenre in which either the hitchhiker, or the person who gives them a lift, is a psycho.
Thankfully, it is not. The exhibition is a collection of photos by Chris Coekin, who worked in the building trade until he turned professional photographer. Coekin has an interest in things which people used to do, but don’t do very much any more. (His earlier exhibition of photographs from working men’s clubs was on show at the Belfast Exposed gallery earlier this year.) His latest collection is the product of six years of hitchhiking, where he took photos as he travelled.
There are photos of people and places from some of the roadside stops where Coekin attempted, seemingly successfully, to catch a lift, plus a number of large-scale portraits of people who gave him a lift, a selection of the makeshift signs that he used to help attract his arbitrary travelling companions, and some ‘painterly’ road photographs.
For me, the last section, the most purely aesthetic part, was the least engaging. Nonetheless, the pictures (like the ‘still life’ of the dead rabbit lying as if in its very own lane) are well composed and work on a number of different levels. The collection of makeshift signs is whimsical – place names (ABERDEEN, NEWRY, S’AMPTON) or routes (A60) scribbled in ballpoint pen on whatever semi-durable, vaguely rigid surface (cornflake packets, sweet boxes) that the hitcher can find in his overnight accommodation, or from rummaging through bins at a service station. The cards brought back memories to this former hitcher of slip roads, service stations, flyovers and B-roads. The whimsy testifies to the carefree, provisional, make-it-up-as-you-go-along character of hitching. As art, however, it may be too specific to the experience of hitching to have a resonance beyond those with some experience of this mode of travel.
The other two parts of the exhibition engaged me because they relate to the essence of hitching: people and relationships. Hitching is not concerned with the means of transport. I don’t think I can remember the make, let along the model, of any car I ever got a lift in. The purpose of hitching, for the hiker, is to get from one place to another. Sometimes the other place is only a provisional objective. I remember once in the early 1980s setting off from Belfast in the north of Ireland with a friend and a tent to go camping in County Kerry in the south-west. We never made it to Kerry, but we had a night of fun with family friends in Monaghan – nowhere near our destination, or on the route – and a day exploring ancient monuments in Newgrange, a little further south. But ‘there’ has to be some place that is not ‘here’, to which the hitcher aims. To get from ‘here’, however, the hitcher has to rely on the help of others. This is where the driver comes in.
The large-scale portraits, apparently the only photos on show not taken with a disposable camera, indicate both the range and the ordinariness of the people who are willing to give a lift to a stranger. I was not surprised to see pictures of those who work on the road – truck and van drivers – poised beside their working vehicles. The portrait of the young truck driver, chosen as the image to publicise the exhibition, is in keeping with the tradition of social documentary photography (portraiture which portrays the dignity of the worker). But the context for Coekin’s portraits is different; it is his subjects’ contribution to the reproduction of the fabric of interpersonal relations, rather than their contribution to the material production of society, which is on display here.
It’s the pictures of those who don’t spend all their time driving for a living, with the attendant isolation that implies, which surprised me. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. The portrait of a young black couple took me back to a trip with a girlfriend years earlier; we hitched a ride from a jocular black couple in a tiny car which juddered and boomed with loud rap music. I was even more surprised to see a portrait of a single woman – although, again, it was not unusual for me, hitching as a single man, to have been given a lift by a single woman. I assumed that single women would be most concerned about stranger danger, given the regular scare stories in the media. The randomness of hitching, however, allows drivers to be self-selecting. They elect to give a lift; they are not instructed to do so. This exhibition is refreshing in that it reminds us that people do not always behave as we might expect them to. Despite the culture of fear that infects the UK, many people are still willing to stop for a stranger and allow them to share their personal space and their time.
In this regard, the exhibition provides a snapshot of human relations on the roads of the UK in the twenty-first century. The pictures in the first part of the exhibition show the hitching experience as seen from the driver’s point of view: the drenched hitcher, hopeful and hopeless, standing in the slip-road; the roadside landscapes. The text which borders the photographs provides fragments of conversation from the driver’s side of the dialogue, presumably answers to the question ‘Why did you stop and give me a lift?’. The text displays humour and playfulness: ‘You looked like you needed a lift. In more ways than one.’ In other ways, this text testifies to the main motivation of the driver, either explicitly – ‘I wanted some company’ – or implicitly – ‘I was bored’. This shows the limit point of today’s irrational fearmongering: the fundamental human need and desire for the company of other people.
The text also shows calculation on the part of the driver: ‘You looked normal.’ This comment might be interpreted as one which is influenced by fear. It involves an assessment of the character of the hitcher, and a judgement that they do not pose a threat. Everyone must be familiar with making such assessments, even if it is not in the context of making a judgement about whether to spend a few hours, in close physical contact, with a complete stranger, in a confined space, physically isolated from other people. Making such an assessment, however, is not new. I remember similar things being said in the 1980s, and I remember having to make these judgement calls myself when deciding whether or not to get into a car.
The 1980s were a different time, but they were not halcyon days in which there were no dangers on the road. What has changed since then is not the dangers that we face from other people, but our assessment of danger and, intimately linked to this, our assessment of our own ability to negotiate and deal with any challenges we might encounter. In my years spent hitching I met many characters – amusing, surly, flighty, gentle – who I made a judgement to trust and take a lift from. Sometimes I made a bad call. I was groped by a truck driver when I was a naive 17-year-old; on another occasion, in the murderous mid-80s, I had to talk my way out of going for a drink with two guys who had given me a lift, who were festooned with Loyalist tattoos (I came from the other side of the tracks).
But these frightening experiences were also character-building. Through having to deal with these difficult situations, I gained a sense of my own power. Those spontaneous, happy-go-lucky moments on the ‘open-road’ seemed to provide a sense of freedom. This kind of freedom, in hindsight, was also carefree. They were moments of freedom in which nothing mattered. When I had to confront a challenge, when something mattered, that was when I learned about the power I had to make myself free.
We are no more or less at risk today than we were in the past. What has changed is our belief in our own abilities. The fact that there are people who are still willing to give a lift to a stranger, however, demonstrates that this belief is not dead. Avoiding the stranger diminishes us; it pulls us back from engaging with humanity, in all its diversity, and in doing so diminishes our own humanity. The Hitcher suggests we should allow our paths to cross a little more.
Chris Gilligan is a lecturer in sociology at the Aston University in Birmingham.
The Hitcher by Chris Coekin has an extended run at The Photographer’s Gallery, Great Newport Street, London until Saturday 8 September.
Frank Furedi noted how our lives were dominated by a culture of fear and uncertainty and how are perception of risk is informed by a heightened sense of human vulnerability. Stuart Waiton asked why adults were increasingly afraid to challenge children. Josie Appleton asked Londoners after the 7/7 bombings how they coped with fear of terrorist attacks. Or read more at spiked issue Risk.