I chose the carnival as the subject of my photo thesis because, well, I was desperate. What I really wanted to shoot was Yooper life, but since the Upper Peninsula was a few thousand miles away from Berkeley, that was not an option. I had no idea what to shoot, and after a bungled week of misunderstandings at a women's shelter, my advisor told me about the carnival so I went to check it out.
Wherever the carnival went that season--Hayward, Daly City, San Jose--there I was with my big camera. The more I showed up, the friendlier and more relaxed the staff became around me. I started printing out copies of my best shots to show them how things were progressing, and found myself with a few eager collaborators. Some of the workers were quiet while I photographed them, while others loved to chat. One of my favorites was an older guy who ran the rope ladder game. He told me that he had worked on a carnival in his youth, and that a few years ago his wife had kicked him out and run off with another man, so when his friend invited him to travel with the carnival again, he signed right up. There weren't enough bunks in the trailers, so he slept on the ground underneath one of the rides every night.
I wasn't allowed to see the bunk trailers, and although I can't say everyone there was a user, the drug culture among the crew was noticeable. A couple of the younger guys had the terribly wasted faces of meth addicts, and although they were friendly enough to me, they wanted nothing to do with my project, and I tried to keep a respectful distance. One women sat down with me one night during her cigarette break in a back tent, and told me how once she'd been a nurse and served in the military, and how her drug use had ruined all that. As much as everyone smiled and joked around with me, I could still sense a tense, defensive layer underneath--these were people clustered together on the fringe, in a life of perpetual transience where they could do their work, get paid, and be left alone.
The last night I visited the carnival, it was at a school grounds in San Jose. Billy came over to say hi like he usually did, and then in a low voice he asked me, "Hey Rachel, you get high?" I don't remember what I answered, but after I took the last few shots I needed, I left and never went back. The carnival was a fascinating world, but the more I visited it, the closer I got to seeing the darkness behind the brightly colored lights. I felt that Billy's offer meant that I had crossed a threshold of trust, that he was letting me in one step closer to the hard life of a carnival worker. But I only wanted to watch from behind the guardrails, not take the ride myself.