Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus

Country of origin: United States
Project location: United States
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2014

Every day the Cherokee Bend 50 – colloquially known as the Maids’ Bus – makes one trip from downtown Birmingham, Alabama, which is over 70% African American, to the municipality of Mountain Brook, a wealthy and predominantly white neighbourhood.

For over 50 years, the same people have boarded the bus daily. These passengers are the senior African-American women who work as the housekeepers to the wealthy.

Carolyn Drake was invited by a radio journalist friend, Ashley Cleek, who had been recording the voices of the women, to ride the bus with her: “There is a lot of talk among the women on the bus. It’s a place where information and stories are shared and spread. I was very much an outsider among insiders and some of the women did not like having a camera put in front of them so it took a lot of time to build a rapport with people.”

When making this series, Drake tried to “look straight at what [she] felt was important in this country.” Having lived and worked outside of the US for many years, this series felt like a starting point for a wider project about coming home. “I moved back wishing to see this place with fresh eyes, and with affection, but having a hard time doing it.”

Carolyn Drake works on long term photo-based projects seeking to interrogate dominant historical narratives and imagine alternatives to them. Her work explores community and the interactions within it, as well as the barriers and connections between people, between places and between ways of perceiving.

Between 2007 and 2013, Drake traveled frequently to Central Asia from her base in Istanbul to work on two long term projects which became acclaimed bodies of work. Wild Pigeon (2014) is an amalgam of photographs, drawings, and embroideries made in collaboration with Uyghurs in western China. In 2018, the SFMOMA acquired the body of work and opened a six month solo exhibition of Wild Pigeon. Two Rivers (2013) explores the connections between ecology, culture and political power along the Amu Dary and Syr Darya rivers and was exhibited at The Pitt Rivers Museum, the Soros Foundation, the Third Floor Gallery, and the Photo Book Museum, among other venues.

Drake is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize, the Anamorphosis prize, an HCP fellowship, a Lightwork residency, and a Fulbright fellowship to Ukraine, among other awards. Her work has been published widely, in publications such as The New Yorker, Aperture, The New York Review of Books, Harpers, Foam, The New York Times Magazine, Prix Pictet, IMA, the British Journal of Photography, The Guardian, and Paris Review. She became an associate of Magnum Photos in 2017.