‘She’s a barmaid in Gibsonton, a town built for circus folk. “Honey, I’m cooking!” she said, but let me go ahead’
I’d always wanted to do a book on small carnivals. So when a documentary maker told me about Gibsonton in Florida, I immediately bought a plane ticket. The town was built for people from the carnival industry, to give them a place to live off-season. It’s divided into zones for animals and circus acts: you can have a carnival ride on your front garden and a giraffe in your back. It was close to Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus and was once a village for little people, who we used to call “dwarves”. The people considered “giants” had their own encampment.
I’d seen an interview with a guy named Ward Hall, who owns the World of Wonders, the last travelling sideshow in America. The interview was from the 1980s and he was looking old then, so I wasn’t sure he’d still be alive. But I tracked him down and we talked. He invited me out to his house and took me to Showtown.
Showtown is the bar where all the old guys from the sideshow go to have a coffee in the morning. It smells of burgers, fries and beer. My first thought was how cool it would look to shoot somebody at its window. When I asked the woman, she said: “Honey, I’m cooking.” So I asked: “What if I go outside?” She said: “All right, but have that camera of yours ready.” She stuck her head out and shouted: “This what you’re looking for?” I took two frames.
Because I was with Ward, people in the bar could tell I wasn’t there from a TV show to shoot some “freaks of the circus”, so they opened up. Ward also showed me his garage, which was full of amazing old circus oddities, like the boxes ladies would get placed to be sawn in half.
I never go to a place with a camera first. I turn up on my own, show my books and explain what I do. Often I don’t take any pictures for the first week. I spend a lot on beer and coffee instead. I don’t talk politics, particularly on the road, because I’m there to understand who the people are, not express my own opinions. That’s why I never take anyone with me and I don’t use lights or tripods. When something happens, I can move fast.
There is something about hanging out with people, even letting them watch you load the camera, that means they’re included in the process. This woman knew what I was doing. In a funny way, she understood what I was looking for – something real.
Hunter Barnes’s CV Born: Norfolk, Virginia, 1977.
Trained: Randolph Technical College, North Carolina.
Influences: “Rick Griffin, who did a lot of stuff for Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. I could look at his stuff for hours.”
High point: “My last book, Roadbook, felt like a positive shift – 15 years’ worth of images.”
Low point: “When I did a New York opening on the night of the 2008 economic crash. It was the most grim exhibition opening ever. Nobody was talking, none of my work sold.”
Top tip: “Go with your gut – it won’t steer you wrong.”
Tickets by Hunter Barnes is published by Reel Art Press. His work is at Milk Gallery, New York, until 3 December.