Interview with NearZine
Interview by Ed Walker.
01: How long has NEAR been running? What made you decide to make it in the first place?
NEAR started in April of 2002, pushing 17 years young. On several occasions while I was training, old heads would mention they carried around a disposable camera because “we see some crazy things” or “things change real quick around here” (I think most of them were closet railfans). I took that to heart early and started packing my cameras in my work grip. I was a photography major in college before I hired out, so having a camera with me at all times was already second nature.
The whole idea to share my photographs and videos came to me when I was asked to submit a video for a small film festival. That’s when I made the “You Are A Conductor” video that ended up going viral on YouTube. After it got to 50k views I took it down because I was afraid the railroad big wigs might see it. NEAR was the moniker for what I did from then on out.
02: What would you say the goal of NEAR is? What's the central idea behind it? Are there any small personal goals that you have for it?
I guess the goal has its roots in sharing my perspective on the railroad. Not many folks have a context for “humping cars” or “throwing a switch”, things like that. Back when I hired out I’d make videos to share with friends and family, videos that would highlight the different aspects of the assignment I was working. I’d edit the footage to the music I was into to at the time and have them handy to share with friends and family. I guess that’s what I’m still doing today, just to a broader audience.
I have a few personal goals, but they are things that I just don’t feel the freedom to share just yet (waiting until I retire). It’s a career-long documentary that will reach its full potential once I’m out of here.
03: What response has the magazine had? Who is reading it? What's surprised you most about it?
The response has been mind-blowing. Sharing images with y’all has definitely been the completion of the joy I find in railroading. The art community seems to be the only one interested, which was a welcome surprise. I always imagined the railfans would be the largest group of readers but they seem to all but overlook it. I once considered myself a railfan (sported a “CONRAIL RAILFAN ON BOARD” license plate frame for many years) but much as I love the railroad I definitely identify with the art community more than the railfan community.
04: Have there been any moments that have slipped away that you wish you could have photographed for NEAR? Anything you just can't express through photos that you wish people knew about?
There are moments everyday that slip away. Just yesterday I was working the Southern transfer job and missed out on a lovely sunset while my train was being overtaken by a NS coal train on the second main. All because of inward facing cameras in the locomotive.
The sounds of the job are definitely something I wish I could express better. There’s just no way to convey the beautiful rhythms that come and go in the monotony of being in an idling GE for 5 hours. I’d also like to be able to share the negative sides to the job, too: how dangerous it can be; the severe loneliness we can experience; being on the road, up all night; sleeping in a hotel for days on end, waiting for the phone call to take a train back home.
05: What's the hardest thing about creating a freight magazine? Has there been any negative feedback, like say from an employer?
The hardest thing, without a doubt, is finding new ways to see the same old lines. Our crew districts hold us captive like zoo animals so I’m limited to the same handful of routes. Which is a challenge I willingly accept. This is my territory. I know it forwards and backwards and forwards again. And I’m blessed to be working a line that is rich in history, too. I can’t imagine a better line to be stuck on than THE L&N main.
Thank God I’ve never received any negative feedback from my bosses, or anyone for that matter. I internalize that stuff to a fault. In fact, I’ve had several trainmasters over the years support what I do. I’m grateful.
06: Can you talk a bit about your photographic process? What do you look for when you’re on the lines and how do you know when you’ve captured a great photograph?
The process is somewhat random. I’ve been railroading for almost 2 decades, so that has me always thinking a move ahead and always looking in the usual places for movement to capture. However, I’ve put myself in those situations and the move has gone a different route or I’ve had to make my move first, things out of my control. Then I’ve been totally caught off guard only to get the camera out of pocket, powered and rolling just in time.
I usually don’t know what I’ve got until I get home and start looking through the images. It’s a bit of covert ops; I’ve got to stay in stealth mode. The constant motion of a freight yard or main line has me shooting from the hip 99% of the time. Very rarely do I get to set up for a shot.
In college, I attended a lecture by one of my favorite photographers, Sam Abell. The title of the lecture was “Compose and Wait”. He encouraged us to frame up our images and then wait for the right lighting or circumstances before making them. Could be days, weeks or years. Unfortunately, adopting that principle on the railroad is like swimming upstream. I’ve got to hide the camera from co-workers, company-controlled cameras and most managment that are highly adept at “hiding in the bushes”. To walk away from a work week or round trip with a solid image or piece of footage is a true joy.
07: Your photography and videos are made really well. What kind of cameras do you work with?
Thanks! I’ve used anything from a Lomo LC-A to a Canon 5D Mark III. The bulk of the recent video and from-the-ground photography was shot with a pocket camera, the Canon G7X Mark II. Again, always in stealth mode. Got my eye on that new Ricoh GR III.
08: If you weren't doing NEAR, what would you be doing?
NEAR. I can’t not do this.
NEAR has a new release in the works for Spring 2019. For more information: