From powwow to Mardi Gras, America’s essence is in its festivals

In an age of strip malls, fast food chains, and big-box stores, every small town in America looks the same. Or so it would seem if you roll down any interstate highway.

But linger and ask about local festivals, and soon you will find that the U.S. is a richly diverse country that celebrates cultures of every kind. The melting pot is chock-full of spicy ingredients.

That was the experience of two adventurous photographers, Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen, who set out to discover and document America’s small, hidden, and bizarre festivals.


McDermott (left) and Owen shooting from a crane lift in Apache Junction, Arizona.

Photo © American Festivals Project

Forty thousand miles and forty festivals later, they have thirty thousand pictures and many hours of video that showcase the many ways Americans celebrate.

“We discovered that what may have started as small local festivals have become in some cases national and even international events, thanks in large part to the Internet,” Owen said in an interview. “These festivals are attracting people with a shared passion or interest, and so they have become global experiences with a local flavor.”

Mustache-Competition-photo.jpgThe World Beard and Mustache Competition attracts contestants from every corner of the world. In the past few years, the competition has been attended by more Americans than any other country. See more photos on The American Festivals Project’s World Beard and Mustache Competition Web page.

Photo by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen

McDermott (27) and Owen (28) are from Charlottesville, Virginia, where they met through a mutual friend. The idea to document American festivals is McDermott’s, who was inspired by the cultural festivals he photographed while teaching English in Japan.


“I wondered if American festivals would be as culturally relevant as those in Japan. If I documented them, would I discover that they said something about American culture,” he said.

Funded in part by the National Geographic Young Explorers Grants program, McDermott launched the “American Festivals Project.”

In a truck converted to run on used vegetable oil they scrounged along the way from fast food restaurants and universities, the duo hit the festival circuit.


McDermott pumping vegetable oil from the back of a local diner in Ainsworth, Nebraska. The truck could hold 80 gallons of veggie oil and allow the team to drive over 1,000 miles before another fill-up.

Photo © American Festivals Project

“I thought we would look for the most bizarre festivals and those that were dying out. But what we found is that in most cases the festivals are alive and doing well,” McDermott said. “Their dynamic has changed with the influx of many visitors, but they are doing well.”

The photographers sought out festivals that seemed to focus on the more peculiar facets of the American way of life.

And so they headed for the Machine Gun Shootout, Wooly Worm Festival, Cajun Mardi Gras, Rattlesnake Roundup, Xtreme Cheerleading, Middle of Nowhere Celebration, Rainbow Gathering, Okie Noodling Competition, Lumberjack Championships, Pine Ridge Pow Wow, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Hick Festival, and Pole Dancing competition. What could be more American than festivals like those?


Xtreme Dance and Cheer Competition, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. See more photos and read about this at The American Festivals Project’s Xtreme Cheerleading Web page. 

Photo by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen

Okie Noodling Festival from American Festivals Project on Vimeo.


World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup, Sweetwater, Texas. See more photos and read about this at The American Festivals Project’s World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup Web page.

Photo by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen


Rainbow Gathering, Sante Fe National Forest, New Mexico. See more photos and read about this at The American Festivals Project’s Rainbow Gathering Web page.  

Photo by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen

Rainbow Gathering 2009 from American Festivals Project on Vimeo.


Pine Ridge Pow Wow, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota. See more photos and read about this at The American Festivals Project’s Pine Ridge Pow Wow Web page.

Photo by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen

Pine Ridge Pow Wow from American Festivals Project on Vimeo.

“The Machine Gun Shootout in Kentucky was an example of what we thought were going to be eccentric people shooting their guns,” McDermott said. “Instead, we found people passionate about their collections, and owning and firing machine guns in a safe and educational manner.”



Machine Gun Shootout in Kentucky. See more photos and read about this at The American Festivals Project’s Knob Creek Machine Gun Shootout Web page. 

Photos by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen

Every festival gave them the same impression. The participants they met were passionate people with compelling reasons for doing what they were doing, and who were very good at it.

“We discovered that we were not photographing one-off events so much as sub-cultures. The Machine Gun Shootout is a festival for the machine gun sub-culture across the U.S. And the same can be said for the other festivals,” McDermott said. “These festivals are sub-cultures within the homogenous American culture.”

“The Cajun Mardi Gras is not only for the local people,” Owen added. “It draws old-time musicians like fiddlers, from everywhere. It’s really like a gathering of tribes. These festivals are focused human gatherings.”


Cajun Mardi Gras, rural Louisiana. See more photos and read about this at The American Festivals Project’s Cajun Mardi Gras Web page. 

Photo by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen

“There are strong family traditions in some of these festivals,” McDermott said. “For many participants, such as at the Lumberjack Championships, there is real pride in what’s been passed down through the generations, and an opportunity to show that off.”


World Lumberjack Championships, Hayward, Wisconsin. See more photos and read about this at The American Festivals Project’s World Lumberjack Championships Web page.

Photo by Ross McDermott and Andrew Owen

2009 World Lumberjack Competition from American Festivals Project on Vimeo.

It sounds like an idyllic vacation, traveling across America, visiting interesting festivals, meeting colorful people. But from a photographer’s point of view it had challenges and was very hard work.

“Unlike photographers who have the privilege of revisiting an event to rework shots that they might have missed, we were working on a very short notice, and often had a one or two-day window to gather all our material. We would arrive and start shooting, sometimes from sunrise to dusk, in all kinds of weather and without really knowing what the event would offer,” McDermott said.

They would sometimes have to spend hours looking for veggie fuel for their truck. Driving from one festival to the next could involve long overnight journeys.

Sleep happened whenever the guys had a chance. In Oklahoma, it was so hot inside the tent that McDermott decided to sleep on the concrete picnic table.



Photos © American Festivals Project

“We attended a festival in Louisiana on one day and another in Wisconsin the very next day,” Owen said. “That meant we had to drive through the night. We started shooting the second we arrived, and didn’t stop for 12 hours.”

McDermott and Owen are mulling over several uses of their collection of images and video. They are busy with talks and planning an exhibit in Charlottesville on January 9th at The Bridge–Progressive Arts Initiative.

Are there any plans to photograph the festivals of Europe or Asia?

“Not right now,” McDermott said, “we’re still trying to absorb what happened to us in America.”

To see more of the 30,000 photos made by Ross McDermott and Andrw Owen, please visit The American Festivals Project Web site. Prints of the photos can be be ordered.

Support the AFP! from American Festivals Project on Vimeo.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn