The grand American road trip is such an overplayed motif in photography that there’s always a risk of tedium and boredom. After all, who can rival or surpass Robert Frank’s seminal and sombre account of the post-war American condition, The Americans (1958) Frank not only redefined the possibility of the photobook in his pictures of delis, diners and roadsides but was also able to touch on the desperate sense of what oppression may truly feel like.
In the newest book by Japanese photographer Chikara Umihara, Whispering Hope there is a similar sense of loneliness and resignation. The snapshot-style photographs were taken from Greyhound buses throughout the tangle of highways in the United States. The bus trip itself has a different set of restrictions to a car trip. For one, the bus implies a specific demographic — passengers usually don’t own a car or can’t take an aeroplane. Instead of the freedom we associate with something like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the bus trip is marked by pre-established routes and depots. As a result, the photographs in Whispering Hope predominately show us the impoverished and the marginalised, as well as the highways and byways of seemingly anonymous American towns. The vantage point of the bus — roughly 8 feet off the ground — may suggest a literal looking down on the subject matter. However, in order to offset this risk of dispassion, Umihara has included written accounts from his trips. One reads:
“Alex is heading to Little Rock, Arkansas. He’s seventeen. He is sitting in the sun, the scorching summer heat, and awaiting his bus. He’s leaving Alabama because his new girlfriend is waiting in Arkansas. They met each other a month ago when she was visiting in Mobile. She’s twenty-eight, and just got divorced. He’s planning to find a job as a mechanic. He said, “I know how to fix a car really well”.
Not only do these small excerpts of text imbue meaning in otherwise unremarkable photographs of bus stations, back alleys and roadside detritus, but they also provide a glimmer of possibility for redemption and optimism. As if, in the most desperate of scenarios, there is still the yearning for hope. The text allows us to feel and empathise with a seemingly forgotten American landscape and its inhabitants. It seems Umihara siphons the beauty and pathos from these otherwise sad, lonely and rundown people and places and presents them to us as hopeful representations of the human condition. After all, travelling by bus is a communal experience, and through the text it’s as if the lonesome characters from Umihara’s pictures and bus rides achieve a sense of solidarity.
In addition to a sophisticated use of image and text, the design and materiality of Whispering Hope work in its favour. The photographs taken from the bus windows are printed full-bleed on double-page spreads — reminiscent of typical post-war Japanese photobooks. There is a shift in stock on the pages with text, which clearly differentiate them from the image pages. There are also portraits taken outside the Greyhound buses in depots or terminals; these are dramatically scaled down and given a generous amount of white space. These portraits seem slower and less snapshot-like, the compositions feel deliberate and in contrast to the street scenes, in most cases the subject is aware of the photographer. They are integral to Whispering Hope and allow us to imagine that they may be related to the narrative voice from the text components.
Umihara gives us an empathetic view of the American interior. He captures something of our disillusioned present and the tragedies that befall us. This is an update of the classic road trip book and suggests that perhaps the best way to see America is as an outsider — Frank was Swiss, after all.