Photographer turns camera on teenage ‘freighthoppers’


Mike Brodie spent five years riding freight trains across America, returning with an astonishing visual record of the teenage ‘freighthoppers’ that travel the USA illegally, by rail. Without any formal training in photography, Brodie began  documenting his experiences after finding a discarded Polaroid camera behind a car seat.

As a way of keeping in contact with the people he met while traveling, he started posting images to various websites under the name ‘The Polaroid Kidd’, and a selection of his photographs, spanning 2003-8 have finally been collected in a new book ‘A Period of Juvenile Prosperity‘, published by Twin Palms. 

Photograph: Mike Brodie

According to an interview published by The Guardian, of the teenagers that he met while travelling, ‘a lot of the kids I knew have since gone back to their old lives. It was something they did for whatever reason before they settled down. Some were running away, some were out for adventure. It’s like being homeless by choice, I guess, but, living like that you learn a lot of American values like self-reliance, independence.’ 

Mike Brodie no longer takes photographs. After training at the Nashville Auto Diesel College he now works as a diesel engine mechanic. In his words ‘a good, solid career’.

We think his work is amazing. You can see more of it at his website.



Just to make comment about one or two below… the above link to the original Guardian interview states that his first camera was a Polaroid but the images in the book were shot on a Nikon F3.

I like the photos a lot, btw.

Bill Bentley

The blackberries in the hat one is my favorite. A few look too posed imo. But great work overall.

Paul Guba

Nice stuff. Amazing how it never rains though I did see some snow. I often fantasize about being a diesel mechanic.


Simple reason it never rains, he didn’t want to get the camera wet.


Outstanding effort. Reveals that special blend of obsession and dedication necessary to produce truly lasting impressions.


An excellent idea for a themed series of photographs. And brilliantly done, too! One doesn’t always need a $3000 brick and a sack full of $2000 beer cans to take impressive images.

Today it’s probably less romantic to ride freight trains across the continent than it was in Jack London’s days, when hobos used to carve their monikers into the water tanks along the railway line to communicate and to stay in touch … today there’s the Internet 🙂 Still, I envy these youngsters the experience.


Awesome series. Shame he’s left photography.


He did exactly what Matthew Brady accomplished in his atrocities of the Civil War … Superb photo journalism for a new generation now on the tracks. it says allot about our times. But I am curious how release clearance plays into this … For a commercial book vs legit news? Or did I miss that detail?

Aperture Creations

a lot


Commercial normally refers to the use of images to promote the sale of a product, creation a book of photography or an exhibition of photographs does not fall into this category, so there are no problems, with regards to model releases.

Rage Joe

One of the very few times you see pictures worth publishing on this site ;)!!!
What a difference between this work and 99,999% of the so called “street photographers” work ( with their idiotic leicas)

Truly excellent job. The pictures on his web site are worth checking too. Excellent job.


So, you still think it’s got something to do with the camera? Sheesh, some people never learn….


Sorry, but there is nothing glamorous about the lifestyle. I did enjoy the photos. I am from the same area as Kerouac and believe he would be disappointed if he thought he had anything to do with making this popular. I know a guy who lost a leg hopping a train. Ask him if it was cool. American values? Please. There are non productive unwashed citizens in every country I have been to. Glad that the photographer now works steady. Since 9-11 railroad security is much better. It was needed.

Good photos of the great unwashed.


I’m just wondering where the words “glamorous” and “cool” came from. They are not mentioned in the article, or by any other poster.

I know that you must have seen those words somewhere, rather than having attached your own prejudices to the article as if they were the intent of dpreview, the photographer, or the people depicted.


So sad, but outstanding work!


one cannot just be an observer and create such body of work: you need to be part of the project. if there was a camera aimed at this photographer during working, the pictures would be as compelling. should not be confused with sanitized and timid homeless hunting on the sidewalks.



M Lammerse

I like the project a lot, however I do not like the ubershopped result..nowadays every photograph has to look if it was mingled by instagram filters. You use a great quality camera and bring it’s quality back to that of a hype product like the iphone…


It’s polaroids!! It was taken with polaroids!! .. and other traditional mediums apparently not digital!


This may be the most utterly ridiculous comment I’ve read in the last 3 years on this website.


Lol, that wins internet seriously. 😀

Accusing polaroid shots that they look too polaroid.. that really cant go worse, can it? Im afraid Im too optimistic..

What will be next? Grain on film looks too shopped? 😀


OP may well be someone who never shot film, doesn’t understand that Instagram filters are designed to make shots look they were taken on film, and mistook original film shots for digital fakes.

My first camera was a Polaroid. I won it in a contest in middle school.


Like all good photography of this sort, it gives me angst and causes me to think.


Like all good and brave photography of this sort, it gives me angst and causes me to think.


A deeply moving set of pictures. Pray for our youth, but better yet, see them as people who need our love and care.

The photography is stunning. Someone get this guy an OM-D! 😉



Yes! Let’s force the guy into a camera he doesn’t want! Brilliant idea!


Because pictures of girls menstruating are just so progressive?

“the future of art is depravity”

The future is bleak.


In your world girls don’t menstruate? Instead of picking on a little and insignificant detail in the whole body of work, appreciate what the work does: It shows a reality removed from most of us. This is truly unique and amazing work. Too bad you have none of that.


What? The future may be bleak for you, but this pictures doesn’t change that. There is nothing evil about the human body compared to the heart that judges so many others without compassion.


what is your problem, it shows that this young people have not even money to pay for the essential things of life in a modern society. We can judge only when we know why this young people live such miserable live. Excellent series well captured and I’m sure its just a fraction what you get to see on missery of the young people.


A little and insignificant detail? I think not, it’s the only shocking thing there because we are generally so isolated from these aspects of human reality.

The way she’s holding her legs open makes it a provocative shot because of the sexual invitation and the inevitable female flushing that goes with sex in the first place. Clever stuff.


LOL!! The only shocking detail?! So for you it is more shocking that a girl menstruates than the fact that she is homeless. The shot has nothing provocative about it. When I look at it or anyone normal would see that maybe she is just saying ” I am having my period, I have no towels/tampons and I feel uncomfortable”. Unfortunately for you and people who think like you women have no other means of menstruating apart from their genitalia which unfortunately for you it’s between their legs. If that’s provocative to you, you have issues.


What if she is just saying ” I am having my period, I have no towels/tampons and I don’t feel uncomfortable”


I love these ideological rants, “he hates women”, “he hates the homeless” “he thinks the female body is evil”.

Yes, it’s all true.
Because I fail to appreciate the beauty of the bloodstained knickers of a menstruating homeless teenager that rides on trains, I am the Antichrist.


Redvalley – It doesn’t matter what she thinks she’s saying but what the image creates in our minds.

If you saw someone you know without tampons having a period you would be shocked, to frame that image in a centrefold pose is designed to shock doubly so.

It’s art, everyone sees something different. There is no right or wrong interpretation. You could just say it underlines the poverty of homelessness, I saw a bit more.


shunda77, you’d be one of those who knocked the penises off of Michealagelo’s statues because they “offended your sense of morals”. Fortunately there are those who can appreciate reality as it exists rather than wrapping it in sackcloth.


@DPR: Did these get edited?

In the linked article and website the images have a softer palette and tone, more like the image bottom right.

But on this site the first two look a lot more saturated and contrasty. Were they edited for display here or is there another reason for the difference?

Barney Britton

No editing was done. It could be a color management issue with your browser, but I’ll have a look later.


Excellent. Just goes to show that it isn’t about the gear. It is about you.


Good project = fewer comments


Or idiotic comments like that of Shunda77


sad way of marketing something though…


In this enormous and stunning work, the photographer doesn’t only have the eye.. he has the courage and perseverance to continue shooting such a difficult issue throughout a long period of time. This is simply amazing. The other side of the coin. Obama should have a look at that book. As a parent it makes me sit back and ask myself many questions and thank God that I do not have to go through such an unbearable dilemma. And that’s precisely what Brodie wanted to achieve, to move the viewer.

Simply amazing and heart breaking

Michael Berg

Keep in mind that these teens for the most part chose this life for other reasons than poverty or lack of work. Obama should take a look at the book, but for the same reasons that you and I – the documentary of people who live outside our normal frame of reference. Fascinating.


Impressive photos. Brodie’s photos reminds me of a book which was printed 36 years ago: “American Pictures” from Jacob Holdt.


stunning work


Some truly great images there. He certainly has the eye.


Jeez. I saw this in Russia, but never thought this also exists in the U.S.


The power of a camera and someone who sees things! No wonder people get afraid when they see someone with a camera!


i like photography that takes you places, literally or figuratively.

seems these images do both.


Rich Niemeyer

It’s not the camera…who cares? If you have ever worked with runaways, you would understand most of their stories are horrific. They are NOT LOSERS. They are kids trying to survive, with emotional or mental issues, abuse or other maltreatment. They are hard to look at (the photos) as they represent a component of hidden America. I applaud Mike Brodie for taking and posting them. It makes us look at a piece of our culture we try to ignore. I understand why he probably put his camera down. Engaging in the pain is more than most can handle. Thank you Mr. Brodie. Tough post for a camera enthusiast site.

Scott Birch

Only possible with the latest APS-C or M4/3 one of those lousy compacts with those tiny sensors couldn’t have taken these pics I’ll bet they look suitably wonderful at 100% crop hey the bokeh could have been better blah blah blah ouch that hurt ..


They were actually recorded on film. However, the power of those images has obviously nothing to do with gear.

shigzeo ?

I apologise for the illiterate below you who not only can’t read hyperbole, but doesn’t get sarcasm or DPReview forum zeitgeist, either.

Michael Berg

I for one was almost offended by the lack of shadow detail, and the fact that he didn’t shoot in raw.


“Mike Brodie no longer takes photographs…

After training at the Nashville Auto Diesel College he now works as a diesel engine mechanic. In his words ‘a good, solid career”.

Aye, carumbah!



One of his photographs on his website can literally be called a pedophile photograph, it is an underskirt photo of an underage girls bloodied underwear, an EXTREMELY inappropriate photograph that screams “call the cops”.


If you think the photograph that I believe you’re referring to is in any way, shape or form sexual, I would claim that says more about you than the photographer.

And if the girl in the photograph is a day under 18, I’ll eat my hat.

Scott Birch

I thought that one a bit beyond the pale myself. Powerful pic, but … no. It’s an awesome collection of pictures though.


I agree with WellyNZ. The young WOMAN in the photograph is hardly a child. And the photograph is not even sexual. She is likely more street smart than the vast majority of suit and tie wearing adults, I would wager, based on the powerful messages being given by these photos. I bet she could kick a lot of our butts, literally. So, it is one thing to dislike it or consider it in poor taste, but to call it a reason to get authorities involved? It is this attitude that is precisely the problem. Let’s not desperately and irrationally cry for big brother to come ‘protect us from ourselves’ anymore then we have collectively done so already.


Excellent solution. Call in the authority to protect the people the authority already failed to protect. I see it so clearly now.

I originally interpreted the photo as “sanitary products are hard to come by when you illegally ride the freight train”, and I don’t think that’s a pleasant situation whether you’re 12 or 40.

But if you wan’t to give it a pedo meaning, I’d go with “escaping the ‘protection’ of authority”.


Pedophilia is “a primary or exclusive sexual interest toward prepubescent children”. If a girl is already menstruating, she is outside the reach of pedophiles… Get your definitions straight, Anepo.


Perhaps you don’t like this photo because of its context rather than its content? Censoring documents of dire social issues using such pathetic excuses has been done before, you know.


So your telling me a photograph of an underage girls panties is not creepy at all? *facepalms* and this comes from the country that let over 4000 pedophiles off the hook. (bush giving 4000 priests the pass on child rape)
And yes in some countries shes considered underage and in some states in the us probably as well.

Also. If you actually READ the article it both mentions teens and that some of them wanted to live like this.

Roland Karlsson

I think the photo is quite appropriate. It fits the context well. Its a bunch of dirty kids, and the sanitary situation they live in is very poor. The menstruating girl illustrates that better than all the other together. It makes you think – how can the manage living like this – and why do they choose it?

If you get going on that image sexually or if you think it is in any way a criminal offence to show it, that’s your personal problem, I would say.


Underage (under legal age to have sex?) and pedophilia are not the same, reread the definition of pedophilia, Anepo. Besides we do not know if she is 18 or not, and she has more clothes on than 99% of beach goers of her age. So?

Roland Karlsson

Anepo. That US calls 17 year old girls under age say lots about US morale. I don’t know about US, but over here about 20 % have had sex before they are 15 years old, which is our definition of under aged. Being 18 before legally having sex is just a joke. It probably makes more than half of your populations into criminals.


The child porn label applies when the model is below 18; but as has been pointed out, the context of the image is that sanitary equipment is not exactly what “freighthoppers” can prioritize.


If you have a problem with that image, but not with the others… well, you’ve got a problem, not the photographer.


As may say Bruce Gilden: You are the pedophile to have such thinkings !

Bangers and Mash

Tells a lot about the ungodly society we live in.


These kids need prayer.

bed bug

Somehow, I think they need a lot more than mumbles to a false deity…,

Roland Karlsson

And what good would it do to the kids if you give them a prayer? Maybe a visit by the police to their parents (or equivalent) would be more appropriate. And an investigation why they are on the run. Very few kids would choose this if they had a good home.

sebastian huvenaars


To all the kids in the pictures: Go to church, have job, consume stuff, be a good citizen.



Power photographs. A visual statement of the concept of down and out in . . .


Great photos


What an astonishing collection of socio-documentary photography.
Thank you to Mike Brodie for providing this “reality check” about what’s beyond the US west coast, “demeuré” coffee-shop screenwriters and alienated gadget users.
(…to the attention of “Connect”).
PS: The first photo linked here is an instant photography icon, if I ever saw one.


Wonderful images and a great story. Thank you, DPReview.

Maybe it’s me but it seems we don’t see quite as much photography of teens as in the ’60s & ’70s. Can someone point out the Bruce Davidsons & Mary Ellen Marks of the current generation? Yes, I would like to know (other than Mike Brodie.)


Martha Cooper covered the hip-hop scene in NY in the 80’s

a google image search should get you some results ..

keith james taylor

wonderful pics but a difrent story in the Guardan for example all the photographs where taken with a Nikcon F3 ” so never let the facts spoile a good story”. Thanks for the introduction to this fasinating body of woork

Barney Britton

He started with polaroid, and when the film became unavailable he moved to 35mm. I didn’t embellish this story with too many technical details because… I don’t really think it matters 🙂


I had to look that up too, because although I really like the work… many didn’t look possible from an old discarded polaroid. He actually went through 3 polaroid cameras until settling on the SX70. Then switched to the Nikon 35mm after they stopped making the Polaroid film.

Great stuff though… doesn’t matter which camera he was using but it did imply that he did it all with an abandoned Polaroid, when that really isn’t the case. Took a good deal of digging to even discover that, so it’s likely they’re indeed letting the Polaroid vagueness sweeten the story in general. Worked… got my attention.

Very good images regardless.


I went to his website and I thought plenty of the photographs have good image quality which I thought couldn’t possible with a polaroid or even a digital camera.


“Brodie began documenting his experiences after finding a discarded Polaroid camera behind a car seat” – someone must have also left him boxes of Polaroid instant films because they are expensive like hell.


reading the article in the Guardian, turns out all the photos are taken using with a Nikon F3.

I wonder how he managed to keep his camera during hitch hiking.


I wonder what car he “found” the Nikon F3 in.


So he took a bunch of pictures of dirty slackers and losers while he was one; I don’t see the brilliance. It’s not quite Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, Doisneau, Friedlander, Lange, Stieglitz, etc.


I agree, I’d much rather look at another stellar set of drooling babies and photos of someone’s pepper encrusted salmon that they ate on vacation for dinner. Now that is F8%#ing meaningful!!(sarcasm)


hater. this photos are amazing.


I’d rather see more photos of Yosemite. There just aren’t enough.

four under

So where is your wonderful portfolio. I am sure that it would entrance me.


meh, nevermind


Dpnick is just a st*pid right winger extremist, ignore him.

Scott Birch

Jeez DPnick, what does it take? By all means, show us better.


@DPNick Then you should also take up being a diesel mechanic and hang up your camera, because these are some of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen.

Roland Karlsson

Yes, they are dirty slackers and losers. But, I challenge you. Try to take something which gives just as strong reactions from the viewers as those ones. And also, try to get so near to an odd group of people that you can take anything near those images in the first place. Its both a matter of being able to see the photo and also a matter of having something to say.


Good photography. The first shot on this page is fantastic. I spent a lot of time in my youth hitchhiking.


The dark side to this is what people will do when they are desperate. Prostitution, disease and being prone to being victims of assault ect are common.


One of my relatives lives this lifestyle. Every time I see him, he’s been recently robbed. He’s been beat up more than once and propositioned for prostitution. He loves the traveling lifestyle though, and to him, the risk is worth it I guess. He could hold a job if he wanted to, but it just doesn’t appeal to him.


It’s not the camera!


Great approach to photography………I like that he gave up photography for now as it no longer serves a purpose.


A lot of these types end up here in Cali. Raw images and worthy of notice.




I’m glad the tradition lives on. When you are out there without a net, you grow up real fast.

Thanks for the photos.

mike kobal

stunning and emotional work, images one could never capture as an outsider, reminds me of Lary Clark’s Tulsa


Great pics!

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