Own and McDermott

Owen and McDermott


Two Photographers Travel Cross Country in Search of the Strangest Festivals
Last fall Ross McDermott loaded up an old veggie-oil-powered truck and hit the road in search of the country’s most obscure festivals. Earlier this year, he was joined by fellow photographer Andrew Owen. With cameras in hand, the duo is documenting the country’s colorful culture through the American Festivals Project.

“I wondered if American culture could be experienced through its festivals,” McDermott says. “Festivals in other countries seem religiously or culturally linked, but the ones here are pretty random. I think because Americans have wealth and lots of time on their hands, they’ve created these crazy things.”
Since leaving home in Charlottesville, Va., McDermott and Owen have attended some strange events: a water-tasting competition in West Virginia, the Woolly Worm Festival in North Carolina, a prison rodeo in Louisiana, and Toboggan Championships in Maine. The project is being funded by a grant from National Geographic, and McDermott uploads some of the most colorful shots at americanfestivalsproject.net. He and Owen will also be presenting a slideshow of
the best pictures at, appropriately, the Festival of the Photograph, in Charlottesville on June 11-13. Here are a few of McDermott’s favorite festivals (so far):

KNOB CREEK MACHINE GUN SHOOTOUT, West Point, Kentuckky
“It was probably the most intense event I attended. In terms of shock and awe factor, it was amazing. Machine gun owners come together for three days and just blow stuff away. They were using everything under the sun from flamethrowers to M-50s.”

Over 35,000 people come to Knob Creek, Kentucky, to participate in the world’s largest Machine Gun Shootout. Machine gun and flame thrower rentals are available throughout the weekend.

Over 35,000 people come to Knob Creek, Kentucky, to participate in the world’s largest Machine Gun Shootout. Machine gun and flame thrower rentals are available throughout the weekend.

CAJUN MARDI GRAS FESTIVAL, Somewhere, Louisiana
“It was pretty much one of the best days of my life. It’s the rural underground Mardi Gras for locals. They’re trying to take it back to the roots. You’re not allowed to wear beads or any of the other tourist stuff. It’s about the old customs. I can’t even disclose the location, because they try to keep it secret. Visually, it was like being on acid. People showed up at 8 a.m. and started drinking. There’s also non-stop Cajun music and so many costumes and colors. It was complete madness. There’s a five-mile tour through rural Louisiana collecting chickens, and there’s people wrestling pigs and each other everywhere.”

On the feast night of St. Joseph’s in New Orleans, “tribes” of African-Americans masquerade in headdresses to honor Native Americans who helped to free blacks during slavery.

On the feast night of St. Joseph’s in New Orleans, “tribes” of African-Americans masquerade in headdresses to honor Native Americans who helped to free blacks during slavery.

MUDBOWL CHAMPIONSHIPS, North Conway, New Hampshire
“It was a straightforward two-day mudbowl tournament. They were playing touch football in waist-deep mud. The guys were very competitive and taking it very seriously.”

Spectators enjoy a sunny afternoon and football action at the World Mudbowl Championships in North Conway, New Hampshire.

Spectators enjoy a sunny afternoon and football action at the World Mudbowl Championships in North Conway, New Hampshire.

THE QUIET FESTIVAL, Ocean City, New Jersey
“They call it a celebration of all things quiet. There were probably only 10 people participating this year, but it’s been going on for 19 years. It started at the local courthouse with a Yawn Off. They also went out to the beach and had a wind-chime symphony. I’m intrigued by events like this because of the uniqueness. They’re definitely tame, but I almost like this kind of event better, because I am able to think and work as a photographer. At the crazy events I’m just clicking away with the sensory overload.” •