Scorn for redneck culture — often dressed up as ironic appreciation — has long been a standby of American humor, a mechanism by which socioeconomic tension is reduced to a soothing cascade of condescension. It’s a classic indulgence of middle class banality, kind of like a mall fountain, but more cruel. That this is a sublimation of political antagonism should be obvious to anyone following American elections, where alternating middle class factions pair off with alternating elite factions with the more or less generalized effect of soaking the poor.
At the Gathering of the Juggalos, however, an annual bacchanal that has in recent years attracted significant media attention, from the New York Times to Wired, the subculture cultivated by Detroit rappers Insane Clown Posse (ICP) indulges in a rural and ritualistic annihilation of mainstream decorum. At the Gathering, the only soaking is done universally, aggressively, with Faygo, a soft drink that functions as the unofficial beverage of ICP. Predictably, the Juggalos have been a regular target for a certain brand of sneering sociology, a sentiment noxiously pervasive in much of the journalistic writing on the topic and one rightly condemned by Matthew Newton in a 2011 Forbes article.
A refusal to muck up the Juggalo experience — either by sarcasm or sociology — is the ultimate triumph of photographer Daniel Cronin’s The Gathering of the Juggalos (Prestel, 2013). Cronin’s project intimately captures a much-maligned group without being scopophilic, conveying a perspective that is sincere without being saccharine. Rather than tacking too far in either direction — risking neither callous irony nor National Geographic condescension — the photo book is a subtle study of the characters who make up the Gathering of the Juggalos, people whose marginal status in society is momentarily redeemed in a rural universe of their own creation.
The book is prefaced by an excellent introductory essay by Camille Dodero, whose thorough yet unpatronizing coverage of 2010’s Gathering (including the notable Tila Tequila debacle) cemented her status as America’s foremost Juggalo correspondent. Her essay grounds Cronin’s efforts by orienting the subculture within the fractured landscape of American sociopolitics, writing that “Juggalos tend to be dropouts, orphans, survivors — the lowest members of America’s silent caste system.”
The anarchic Gatherings may draw comparisons to Burning Man and recall Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, but such egg-headed allusions miss the point entirely, and Dodero’s essay is blissfully devoid of such references. Beyond familiarizing the reader to the basic tenets of the Juggalo ethic, her essay is further held together by an intriguing personal narrative, the story of one Juggalo, Knox, who traveled 2000 miles on foot from Oregon to the Gathering in Hardin County, Illinois.
In humanizing what Dodero refers to as “a publicly detested demographic,” Daniel Cronin’s images weave a variegated story of outsider camaraderie and human mirth, a depiction of marginal America belonging to a grand documentary tradition.
The Gathering of the Juggalos is available from Prestel.