Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear

Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Superstorms. War. Martial Law. The Rapture. The Zombie Apocalypse. Global Pandemics. The Bug Out Bag is the most basic piece of gear for disaster preparedness. It is usually a backpack or an easy to carry duffel bag containing the essentials needed to sustain life for 72 hours, or to possibly begin a new civilization.

Jeff’s Go Bag includes a bulletproof vest, a gas mask, and a bulletproof helmet. It was designed to get him to his car, where he had guns, knives, an axe, camping gear, water, and food. He also had property off grid where he would bug out to when SHTF (shit hits the fan).

Since 2014 I have been traveling America and photographing the Bug Out Bags and disaster equipment of the people I meet along the way. 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy reminded Americans to be prepared for anything, including your worst nightmare. Everyone I meet tells me preparedness is a necessity and for many it has become a philosophy of life. There are growing numbers of online communities that focus on safety and preparedness and prepper related retail has increased dramatically in the past decade. At neighborhood Safety Fairs and regional conventions like Survivalcon! you can buy everything from flashlights to Freedom Shelters, and also learn how to properly can food. I visited a store that will sell you 50 gallon water barrels and a Bug out Bag for your cat for $90. The store owner, Bud, is a retired professor who would rather you not discuss politics on the premises. A soldier in California showed me his hand tooled knives that were gifted to him by a fellow soldier while serving in Afghanistan. In Texas, Mike told me about his plan to find a shady tree and escape the Apocalypse entirely. All he has in his bag is a bottle of tequila and phenobarbital. Each bag becomes a portrait of its owner and it reveals their most basic needs and fears in the face of geopolitical and environmental change. I photograph them on site, armed with my traveling studio; a white rolled paper backdrop or a poster board pack from the nearest drugstore, flashes, diffusers, bounces, and whatever else I can squeeze light out of. In Oregon I met Amber Higgins, trainer of the Disaster Dogs. I photographed her dog’s bags on the floor of a public library meeting room lit with flickering florescents while we talked about how to train your family dog to assist in emergency situations. I photographed guns and gear on a bed in an off grid trailer in Texas lit with one naked bulb. I got lucky when Jeff wanted to come to my studio in Los Angeles rather than tell me where he lived. While he was there he assessed the safety of my building and gave me tips in case of martial law. At every shoot we talk about the items in their bag while one of us unpacks and arranges the contents. We talk about what each item is used for and how it fits into the philosophy of the bag. Soldiers will tell you that every item in their bag must serve at least two purposes, otherwise it’s out. I only met two people who had cash in their Bug Out Bags, which I still find odd. To believe that money will not be needed at all is a dark view of the economic stability in America.

PBJ lives in Georgia and their bag includes signal flares, maps, a compass, a first aid kit, tampons, fishing gear, a large mouse-trap, tools, GU energy gels, and several types of cord.

Preppers are practical people who make lists. They have exactly what you need somewhere in a bin or pocket. They are liberal and conservative, atheist and born again. Many are the people you were taught as a child to run to when there is a disaster: teachers, soldiers, security guards, and pilots. They are prepared and they are prepared to help others. The philosophy of being strong for others is part of their worldview. Most preppers I meet are community minded but some are fiercely independent. Some are reclusive and paranoid. Independence is a fundamental principle when describing the American character. We praise the self reliant man and credit him for the shining city upon the hill, but Twenty-first Century capitalism has changed Americans and our fears are running rampant. The new self-reliant American no longer experiences transcendence in nature as Thoreau once did, but instead, escapes to nature in an effort to hoard and protect property. Living off grid has become a capitalist enterprise, banking on our fears and desires for stability. Paranoia and fear are accepted states of being at some level and we all exist someplace on the spectrum. Fear is a powerful creator of conspiracy theories and post Apocalyptic narratives that we love to binge-watch. But many Americans are taking notes from the Doomsday Preppers and Zombie survivalists. Self storage occupancy continues to increase and pre-packed Bug Out Bags are showing up in stores near you. In Utah I met Morman preppers who believe we are already living in the end of days, some of us just haven’t realized it yet. The perceived need to prepare for the survival and rebuilding of our planet is a heavy task that requires a lot of faith. They are now preparing for that task.

MM is ex military and his bag includes several weapons, hand tooled knives given to him by a fellow soldier in Afghanistan, three pairs of socks, waterproof paper and pens, an extra phone, instant coffee packets, marijuana, a beer, and a cigar.

If you live in an area of the country where natural disasters are regular occurrences you know that emergency preparation is a necessary part of life. An earthquake, hurricane, or tornado can knock out your power for days or it can be devastating, you never know for certain until it happens. Flashlights, extra batteries, and water were a part of most household pantries. The 72 hour essentials that dictate the contents of the Bug Out Bag is based on the fact that a human cannot survive longer than 72 hours without water. So what else do you need to survive? Your medications certainly, but do you really need MREs and a weapon? The commodification of our fears has nurtured the prepper culture and now today’s Bug Out bag contains much more than the necessities for surviving a natural disaster. It contains the gear we need for a man-made disaster we believe is possible; the Apocalypse.

This is the foreword to my book Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear, a documentary photography book that examines of the prepping habits of 13 different Americans in the event that power, communications, emergency services, and/or social order fails.

See more of the project at www.Allison-Stewart.com

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