As I get older and grow wise to the world, the human side of railroading has become more evident and important to me. While at one time I solely focused on the equipment and infrastructure when I was trackside, I now try to include people in my photographs as much as I can.
In this day and age, it’s a real challenge, as much of railroading has been cut off from the public. This has been happening for quite a while now, with railroads downsizing their facilities and infrastructure, resulting in fewer places to encounter people on the railroad. The events of 9/11 have only accelerated the pace of restricting access, as well as altered corporate and governmental attitudes towards visitors with a camera. In fairness to the railroads, this is happening everywhere, driven by security and liability fears.
So, what is one to do? With access non-existent or restricted to the employees that run the railroads, how do we include people in our railroad photography? I have had to change my perspective and found several ways to do so. Tourist and museum railroads operate under the same rules and procedures as commercial railroads, but are deliberately much more accessible. Secondly, I have turned the camera around onto my own group; the train enthusiast.
For me, train enthusiast or railfans are an integral part of the railroad story. Since the first train rolled down a track, the railroads have encouraged people to come trackside and look at the spectacle of their new locomotive, to celebrate the opening of a new depot or to tour their latest streamlined equipment. The railroads needed people, not only as passengers and shippers on their lines, but to gain public and community support for their business goals. Look at the current efforts that BNSF and Norfolk Southern have in engaging the public, including outright support for the railfan community. Railroads shaped public opinion from their infancy and continue today, for having the public on their side was smart business strategy. Bolstered by the railroad’s PR efforts, the railfan community keeps growing and by doing so increases its economic and social presence.
I used to exclude people from my photographs whenever I had the choice, as I found them distracting and not fitting the quasi-historic vision I had of the railroad. Over time, my point of view evolved and I now embrace the railroad enthusiasts and other people that I used to consider non-essential to the railroad. Change was slow, brought on by the viewing of historical photographs that included these people, for these images always caused me to pause and observe the photo in depth. Looking at railfans from past years, I see the same enthusiasm, body language, and group social dynamics in them that I see trackside today. The technology, fashion, and even the scene may have changed, but the obvious engagement and joy is timeless.
For my current project, it was this change in perspective, as well as a realization that I had already started to photograph people trackside. While it was usually an afterthought and situational, I slowly realized that I was more and more drawn to the emotions of the people around me. As I opened my mind to the possibilities, I realized that documenting them can be an interesting project onto itself and started making trips where train enthusiasts were my prime subject.
It’s hard to imagine, but the photographs we are taking today will be historical in just 20-30 years. Moving beyond that time frame, I wonder, will future generations of rail enthusiasts see a common past and shared experience 100 years from now with the railfans of today?