Photographer Cleo Wächter hitchhiked through Scandinavia to research the fear for the unknown other. What happens when we do engage in a conversation with that other? Earlier this year, she won the Stichting Dialoog Stipendium. This grant allowed her to travel the same route that her father hitchhiked in 1980 and to document the experience. Her work is on view from the 25th of August until the 11th of October at STROOM in the Hague en will also be published in Vrij Nederland. She wrote a blog about the experience.
“Hitchhiking is only possible through mutual trust. A lot of people would call that naive, but when it’s pulled off succesfully it also proves that that is still possible in this day and age. ‘Fear of the unknown other’ is one of the big themes of our time. What happens when we do start that conversation? How scared are we then?
The project that I sent in to Stichting Dialoog early this year is about hitchhiking culture. My interest in this theme was piqued by the trip my father took. In 1980, at 17 years old, he hitchhiked some 8000 km through Scandinavia. It was a time in which hitchhiking was pretty normal. Travelling was becoming increasingly easy, because it was around five years before the Schengen agreement. I was curious whether a lot had changed and whether a trip like that was still possible in this time. I was also curious about the places my father had visited but never photographed. I very much wanted to redo his trip and to draw my own conclusions. ‘Dialogue’ was a tool for me to physically further my route.
There’s no single clear cause for the disappearance of the hitchhiker from our culture. Concrete measures like the introduction of an annual public transport card (OV-jaarkaart) in 1992 did play a large role, or the fact that, compared to 36 years ago, more people own a car. Airplane tickets are virtually free sometimes. The necessity of hitchhiking has changed. There’s also the well-known assumption that people have become more individualistic and less dependent on each other.
Before I embarked on this project, I had only hitchhiked once. From the village to the camping site. So, to prepare, I hitchhiked some short distances inside the Netherlands a couple of times, sometimes with somebody else, but also on my own. My friends and family often urged me to be careful. It’s understandable, but sometimes I wondered whether those fears had any real basis. I remember a heated discussion we had about pepper spray. Is it sensible to bring it along, or do you just make yourself more suspicious in doing so? The option hadn’t even occurred to me, it’s not like I ever carry pepper spray on me.
The trip itself took some 6 weeks in the end, more or less. I covered the biggest distances with my little brother in the first three weeks. Within two weeks, we were standing on the North Cape, after that I slowed down a bit. The hitchhiking went easier than expected, though I didn’t really know what to expect. My biggest fear was mainly to not get any further. But my mantra was: in the end, there will always be someone that will stop for you. I made the trip in 50 rides, more or less. The drivers ranged from truck drivers to policemen (off-duty), a retired psychologist to musicians. A couple of times, hitchhiking just wasn’t an option: I took a train to cross the border, a bus ride of a few kilometers and a ride that I had arranged online, each for different reasons.
The incentives for people to stop for us ranger from curiosity to the conviction that it’s self-evident to help others. We often heard that we looked ‘normal’, so maybe that worked to our advantage.
Surprisingly, hitchhiking went the quickest in the least densely populated areas, places like northern Finland. People there understand that if you’re standing by the road, you’re truly dependent on others. The more touristic the area, the longer the waiting times.
I rarely felt ill-at-ease. I never felt unsafe. There were moments that I had to justify my beliefs or that there was a mean dog in the back seat, that I had to hear too personal stories. There were days that I felt scrutinised and alienated. But usually it was easy not to see cars that didn’t stop for me as a personal rejection. It only made it feel better when someone would stop.
If I compare my trip to my father’s, I think we had similar odds. It may be true that people were more likely to stop for you in the past, but we have better roads now, bigger, faster cars and online resources. Maybe the ‘zeitgeist’ changes, but people have remained helpful and curious at their core.
At the moment, I’m busy processing the material and the experiences. From the 25th of August until the 7th of October, I will be displaying my first reflections on the trip at the Opzicht platform in STROOM, the Hague. A publication is in the making.”
Hitchhikers Manifesto (Cleo Wächter)
-Someone will stop sometime
-Only the nice people stop (usually)
-Rejection is nothing personal
-Eat, sleep and shower when you can
-People want to help if they are able
-You don’t need more than you can carry