Miles of Portraits... By Bicycle - Annalisa
Annalisa van den Bergh. It's not the easiest name in the world, but you'd better remember it. Why? Cuz she's gonna be hella famous.
Talented photographer, strong cyclist, and courageous explorer, Annalisa has a penchant for taking the portraits of strangers. Her photographs capture the shared humanity of Americans, in a time when we're both politically and culturally divided. To view her work is to meet someone new. And it's hard not to fall in love with the smiles, determination, and stories of the people in her photos.
Annalisa's photographs capture the shared humanity of Americans, in a time when we're both politically and culturally divided.
Last year, Annalisa rode her bicycle across the United States, collecting photographs and stories as she went. Her completed project, Miles of Portraits, received national attention. This summer she's launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a 1,000 mile journey from Seattle, WA to Alaska by bicycle. As a born-and-bred Alaskan, I couldn't be more excited about her subject choice.
I was granted an exclusive interview with the photographer herself, even as she prepares for the adventure of a lifetime. North, to the Future!
Annalisa, where do you live, and what role does your bicycle currently play in your life?
I was born and raised in Manhattan; a place I’ve come to love and hate. I live in South Brooklyn now –– which I find to be a peaceful release from the stress of Manhattan. Following my cross-country bike trip last year, I decided bike travel makes me too happy not to find a way to do it as much as possible.
What inspired you to try bike touring?
In middle school, I was a competitive gymnast and eventually had to retire due to a hairline back fracture. I was missing that active part of my life so, at the age of 14, my mom signed me up for a summer bike trip from Buffalo to Toronto with an organization called Teen Treks. It never occurred to me that you could use a bicycle to reach such faraway places and after that first 120-mile trip, I was hooked. I quickly set my sights high. The larger than life idea of biking across America became all I dreamed about.
"At the age of 14, my mom signed me up for a summer bike trip from Buffalo to Toronto with an organization called Teen Treks."
Tell us about your first bicycle tour from Seattle to New York. What route did you follow, who did you go with, etc?
This year marks 10 years since the first time I biked across America from Seattle to New York (mostly) along the Northern Tier Trail. It was the highlight of my life.
I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity to take on this trip as a teenager. I feel like you learn so many things you would never learn in high school. You see the country –– the whole country. You learn the power of taking things one day at a time, of setting your sights on a goal and following through with it, of experiencing what the human body is capable of.
What makes bicycle touring special, compared to other modes of travel?
- The downright liberation of using your own energy to go from A to B.
- The way in which you constantly feel like a badass
- The exhilaration of an earned downhill.
- The perfect pace.
- The way in which everything tastes delicious.
- The people you meet who you would have never met while driving a car.
"...The people you meet who you would have never met while driving a car."
What were some of your biggest challenges on that bike tour?
It took me a while to really nail down any major challenges besides some group fights and the fact that I was often in the back (I rode a hybrid while everyone else had a touring bike). I think that's because not long after the trip, any miseries transformed into “type 2 fun.”
What inspired you to go by yourself again in 2017?
The main motivator was my mother’s death in 2014. Seeing her unconscious and later struggling to take two steps down the hospital hallway left me with quite a bit of PTSD. That nightmare made me want to take advantage of my own health and ability to do something crazy. Not to sound morbid or anything, but our health is not a guarantee.
"The main motivator was my mother’s death... That nightmare made me want to take advantage of my own health and ability to do something crazy."
Share one (or a few) of your favorite memories from that solo bicycle tour.
The people were my favorite part, hands-down. I was lucky enough to form a trail family. We leap-frogged across America and every week or so, we’d reunite. At a firehouse in Berea, Kentucky, we had a pizza party and called the fire tower our home for the night. At an ice cream parlor in Missoula, Montana, we caught up with our “trail parents,” Doug and Donna. At the anchor statue in front of the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon –– the official beginning/end of the TransAm –– we were greeted with a surprise. Mark and Gil, part of a group of sponsored veterans we met back in Virginia, waited for us at the finish line. There is something so special about the community that forms along the TransAm trail.
What happens when you take someone’s portrait? Were most people shy, eager, confused, or awkward when you asked to take their photo?
Most people were open to it. I think that was because I was riding a loaded bicycle –– the ultimate conversation starter. People asked me my life story so I asked them theirs.
"I was riding a loaded bicycle –– the ultimate conversation starter. People asked me my life story, so I asked them theirs."
What were you trying to reveal through your “ Miles of Portraits” project? What did you learn along the way that you didn’t expect?
I wanted to put a face to the country, and reveal the kindness that exists across America despite what we hear in the news. I wanted to show how how the bicycle is this great equalizer and prove that, at the end of the day, most of us look out for each other.
What surprised me was how easy it was to find people who were willing to have their picture taken. I found that the spectacle of what I was doing was enough to draw people in and open up. I believe this is because I was so exposed. A bicycle literally has no walls. You're more vulnerable but you're also this magnet for attention –– which you can use to your advantage.
It's funny. We get used to the Usual Questions people ask. We joke that we should carry a sign that answers them all. But if I can cause one person to think that maybe they can do this too, then I'll never get tired of the monotony of those questions.
"A bicycle literally has no walls. You're more vulnerable, but you're also this magnet for attention –– which you can use to your advantage."
Anything else you’d like to tell the world about yourself, bicycles, or your experience as a human?
This July, my friend Erik and I are taking Miles of Portraits on a 1,000-mile bike trip through Alaska. We just launched our Kickstarter and were recently given the “Project We Love” stamp! It’s up until June 30th and we hope you’ll check it out, pledge, and share. $20 gets you a magazine of portraits.
What's next? Where can we read/see more about your upcoming trip to Alaska.
It's all on our Kickstarter at the moment, and on my website Work From Bike. On the Alaska trip, we'll be writing a photo essay for Adventure Cycling's in-print magazine that will document our journey through the blood sugar graphs we use to manage our type 1 diabetes. We're thrilled to have the opportunity to share the struggles and triumphs of this condition we live with every day with such a large non-diabetic audience. So look out for it later this year or early in 2019!