Lucia retrieving her stashed pack in the bushes. California. 2013.

Lucia retrieving her stashed pack in the bushes. Kitra Cahana, California, 2013.

I’ll confess that until I met Kitra Cahana last week, I knew next to nothing about her work. That’s my loss more than anything because her work is fantastic; it’s empathetic and it subtly prods many assumptions of priggish Western culture.

Case in point is Cahana’s series Nomad, which documents the lives of a morphing group of young travellers in the U.S. All of it — the boxcars, the festivals, the tiredness, the freedom, the victories, the marginalised physical and psychological spaces, the run-ins with police and the friendship.

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Mogli tries on a new dress he just found in a free pile at a truck stop in Washington State. Kitra Cahana, 2010.

As a 2014 TED Fellow, Cahana talked about Nomad to a crowd of TEDsters last month. The presentation A Glimpse Of A Life On The Road doesn’t sugarcoat of idealise the lives of these modern day nomads. “Addiction is real,” she says as she begins to list the many hardships that come with living subject to the elements and under the hammer of increasingly punitive laws.

“Who knows that in many American cities it is now illegal to sit on the sidewalk, to wrap oneself in a blanket and to sleep in ones own car?” Cahana asks the TED crowd. She goes on:

By night they sleep beneath the stars …

Some travelers take to the road by choice, renouncing materialism, traditional jobs and university degrees in exchange for a glimmer of adventure. Others, come from the underbelly of society never given a chance to mobilize upwards — foster care drop out, teenage runaways escaping abuse and unforgiving homes.

Where others see story of privation and economic failure, travelers view their own existence through the prism of liberation and freedom.

They’d rather live off the excess of what they view as a wasteful consumer society, than slave away at an unrealistic chance at the traditional American dream. They take advantage of the fact that in the United States up to 40% of all food ends up in the garbage, by scavenging for perfectly good produce in dumpsters and trash cans. They sacrifice material comforts in exchange for the space and the time to explore a creative interior.

Vagabonds confuse most of us. And when I say ‘us’ I mean ‘me.’ Why would someone even do that? Live like that?

To exercise empathy I must meet others at a half-way point, and I must meet them where they are at. And to understand. It was my lesson, from listening to Cahana, that I haven’t allowed my imagination to extend far enough to see a life-on-the-road as a solid political position.

In majority America, given the obvious economic inequality, waste, unemployment, sexism in populist media and the associated perverse obsessions of consumerism, you would think, we have plenty of reasons to opt out?!

Put like that, life-on-the-road seems like one of the more sensible responses. I’ve got a few lessons to learn from Cahana’s friends and subjects.

Kitra Cahana speaks at length about Nomad on the TED blog.

Watch:

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