In the summer of 1998, Anne Marie Michel's recently divorced housewife mother drove her and her sisters across the country to start a new life. Now, nearly 25 years later, the London-based photographer has released Sisters of the Road, a series that documents the remarkable lives of forty female American truckers.
Inspired by her childhood, Anne Marie Michel wanted to hear about other women's experiences and personal stories and then share them with the rest of the world through their own words, set alongside arresting portraiture and images of the vast and ever-changing landscapes in which they traverse. Together, we see an intimate view of the day-to-day experiences of these unique and interesting women.
On remembering her own divorced mother driving across America to make a fresh start in 1998, Anne Marie recalls: "We had taken lots of family road trips before, but this was our first as our new family unit of women – and this was a one-way trip. We all shifted up one seat, my mother into the driver's seat and me into the front. Before this point, I had never seen my mother drive much further than the grocery store. I look back on it as a 'pivot point' in my life...a journey that made me realise that we are autonomous drivers in our lives – the route is ours to choose. If you're in a bad situation: keep moving, be resilient, and find a solution."
It's this attitude that underlines Anne Marie's entire series, one of resilience, the bravery in starting over, and overall, freedom. "Back then, we all knew that we couldn't stay, and that chapter of our lives was over," she adds. "The only option was to move forward, and my mother is one of those special people who can make everything seem like an adventure. If you don't have a choice, you have to get on with it and might as well enjoy the ride!"
It's a familiar story for many of us but not often one that's told. Michel's portraits slot her subjects into the unsung history of female migration across the United States. From the Pioneer women of the mid-nineteenth century, crossing the country in search of a better future, to Michel's subjects, Sisters of the Road highlights the female American traveller as both a historical and continued presence. Delve into each story, and you'll see there's always a reason to keep moving. But together, they tell a story of sisterhood in a hyper-macho and male-dominated industry.
With such an important mission to give space to these often-overlooked voices, Anne Marie admits there was a pressure to get it right. "It has been five years in the making," she says, "and I am still in frequent contact with all of the trucker women. I have them all on a Facebook group where I keep them up to date with the project and exhibitions. I take them with me via video link if I give an artist talk, and I try to keep their voices heard as much as possible. This project is important to them too, and they have been a huge support to me throughout. They're here with me for the journey."
Debbie Dingo is one such woman. "She is a true traveller with wanderlust and zest for life," says Anne Marie. "I met her in the desert where she was sat beside her truck in a foldout travel chair playing her guitar to her dog/trucking companion. She regaled tales of the road and beamed how she was living her dream – seeing a different sunset and sunrise every day, different landscapes. She always takes the back roads, which allow her to be a tourist and enjoy the journey." Debbie told Anne Marie, "All I need is my dog and my guitar".
Another to be photographed and interviewed for the series was Idella Hansen. Now in her seventies, she has been driving a truck on America's highways for over 50 years. "I shot her portrait near a cactus in Arizona. She was a fascinating person to photograph. She seemed to flip back and forth between a soft grandmother vibe and a fierce woman you would not want to get on the wrong side of. Her portrait is one of my favourites."
Idella drives 'high-security loads', and her truck's trailer is lined with Kevlar. Plus, she carries a gun for personal protection. "She acts as a mother hen to many fellow drivers," Anne Marie continues. "She has been known to diagnose engine trouble of stranded drivers by listening to the ailing truck on her phone." Considered a celebrity in the American trucking world, Idella even has a truck stop named after her in Arkansas. "She's a bit of a legend," she says.
Such are the bonds Anne Marie has made with the women in Sisters of the Road that Idella is taking her first-ever long-haul flight this month and travelling over the Atlantic to come and stay with Anne Marie in London. "She is the guest-of-honour at the Sisters of the Road book launch in July, and I'm looking forward to being her London and UK tour guide… and who knows, maybe a quick trip to Paris."
A photographer based in London, Anne-Marie Michel combines portraiture, documentary and reportage to give voices to those who are usually not heard. She began her career taking photos of rising stars in her sister's garage in Los Angeles, going on to shoot the world's red carpets, film festivals and fashion weeks. She takes inspiration from the fashion and celebrity world but now uses it to create arresting imagery which tells the stories of seemingly everyday individuals and locations.
Sisters of the Road is Anne-Marie's latest book, due to be released in July. Was there anything that stood out as a shared theme amongst these women? "They are all incredibly brave, resilient and hard-working – women of action," she tells us. "This is what I find particularly refreshing about them, especially when considering the traditional form of aspirational femininity in fashion, celebrity or media. The adorned, poised and polished woman – these women are not! These trucker women are fierce, independent, autonomous and constantly in motion. My series presents a counterpoint (and perhaps redirection) of an aspirational heroine."