Last modified: Wednesday, July 25, 2007 12:11 AM MDT

Revealing the mysteries of the carny

By Cameron Mathews

CHEYENNE - She has spent nearly the last 11 years exploring and photographing the underbelly of society's disenfranchised.

Virginia Lee Hunter's intent wasn't to scathe them, but rather to collect some truthful insight into the hidden lives of those who didn't fit in - the carnies. The American renegades, she said.

"I was curious as to what a carny was," Hunter said at the Cheyenne Frontier Days carnival in Frontier Park on Tuesday. "There's a mysterious rap about them. I wanted to reveal what that was."

After 11 years in the making, her first book, called "Carny: American on the Midway," was released in June.

Hunter, a St. Louis, Mo. native, started her project back in 1996 at the 100th annual Cheyenne Frontier Days with the purpose of capturing images at county, regional and state fairs.

She's been working seriously as a photojournalist for about 20 years, and some of her work has appeared in Marie Claire and London Times magazines, she said.

Hunter journeyed behind the scenes of American society into the dark world of carnival life, only to shine a spotlight onto the lives of those who live it.

It took the carnies a few years to grasp - even with a camera tucked underneath one arm - that she wasn't an FBI agent or a city police officer.

They discovered how far from her Los Angeles, Calif., home she had come to just to see them, and it was then they opened up to her.

"My intent was two-fold," Hunter said. "I wanted to capture the nostalgia and collar the memories of the carnivals. I wanted to pay homage to what the carnival brings to rural America."

The book is a collection of photos taken of various carnival folk and fair attendees, including spots across the western plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, Appalachia and through the valleys of California.

In her statement printed in the book, Hunter said she discovered that carnies are America's gypsies who take the hard knocks society gives and spins them into sugar for the little child in everyone to enjoy.

"I wanted to create a portrait of carnival life," she said. "These are people who want to belong to something even if they're loners. The carnival gives them that."

Hunter moved from place to place, carnival to carnival -referred to by the carnies as traveling amusement - listening to workers share their stories.

"Many people think carnies are criminals," she said. "They look hard, but people here (at carnivals) are family. They belong to something."

It's cheap labor, but Hunter said carnivals allow their employees to find their own business - and they don't have to pay any bills. They do it to steer themselves away from participating in mainstream society, she said.

As far as her book goes, she wants people to have a better understanding of what carnies do and how it relates to Americana, she said.

She said she hopes her photos trigger people's memories and get them to break from the stereotypes attached to a carnival. To her, each photo carries its own story.

"Everyone has a life story," she said. "For them, being out there allows them to live their happiness.