portfolio: Greg Clarke
fields editor Brad DuBois met Greg Clarke while backpacking in a volcanic crater on Maui. Clarke travels for months at a time, often on his bike, photographing what he sees and the people he meets along the way. We caught up with him while he was taking a rest in Chicago to talk about how he chooses his subjects, biking down the Baja California peninsula, and the perils of traveling alone.
A lot of your photos come from cross-country, or even cross-continent, trips you take on your bike. Tell me about some of the places you’ve been. Did you start taking pictures to chronicle your travels?
GC: I haven’t actually ridden across the country or anything, but I have ridden around in a lot of places. I’ve been traveling, not just on my bike, for the majority of the past few years. I’ve been taking pictures for a long time. My interest in taking pictures while traveling isn’t necessarily to document my travels, but using the bike, or whatever means of transportation, like backpacking, as a way to get into situations... Then you can get interesting pictures, which is what most of good photography is: getting yourself in the right situations and kind of embracing the chaos of not having total control of your surroundings or the people you meet.
And the traveling, be it on bike or backpacking, is a means to get to that end, that weird situation or that lack of complete control?
GC: Yes, when you’re on a bike you’re going slow and you’re looking at the things that are around you and you run into random people. Part of being on a bike is you’re really vulnerable to the world and that is inviting to a lot of people to interact with you and open up sometimes. You’re in a place of vulnerability, which is the antithesis of being in a place of power. When you’re non-threatening to people—which I guess being on a bike can also be threatening, when you’re a big dude with a giant beard and all your things, some people are threatened by that—but a lot of times you’re an approachable dude, you’re accessible to people… People are willing to open up to you.
You mostly travel alone. What’s the hardest part of doing that?
GC: I’ve been traveling alone for the most part. It’s not necessarily by choice, but it’s hard to get people on board to do long-term bike rides. The hardest part of riding alone is that it gets pretty lonely, especially when I was in Mexico and didn’t speak any Spanish. There are stretches of days of just desert where you’re extremely physically alone. The logistics of riding a bike and finding places to sleep and cooking and whatever, that’s not really hard for me anymore. I’m pretty comfortable and accustomed to it. It’s just living in your head, not having outside input on your thoughts or new fresh ideas that aren’t coming from internal.
Your trek down the Baja involved days without seeing people and lots of desert?
GC: There are stretches of several days of riding between towns in a couple spots. Your lifeline with water and stuff is every twenty or forty miles or so, these places called ranchos. They’re people’s houses. They’re like the truck stops, in the middle of the desert. They’ll have the front room with a couple tables, and they’ll make you food and you can buy water from them.
What are you looking for when you compose a picture?
GC: Things that are interesting or beautiful or fucked up. I guess anecdotes about things, about how pretty things are, how this person is or lives, or natural cycles of things.
I definitely see that. The natural cycle of things, like animals and plants, but also the chair. The chair is broken now, and it’s the end of it being a chair and now it’s just sitting out there.
GC: Yeah, the dump. The trash in Mexico is kind of wild. There’s nothing really good to do with it in most places, so people just take it to some spot in the desert and throw all their shit there and then set it on fire every once in a while. θ
Interview by Brad DuBois.