A Step Into the Old West

In the recent months, three Visual Journalism students from Brooks Institute have been building relationships with two communities of reenactors in search of stories and pictures.  Students Zachary Kelly, Cody Phan and Marie Hobro found a goldmine of material to photograph, film and document at a reenactment camp. Reenactors are history-buffs who take on a literal understanding of history and display it in reenactments for people to watch, learn from and enjoy.

Northeast of Fresno, California, lies the quaint town of Kernville, home to this journalistic nugget. This gold-rush town consists of a mere 1,500 residents and is a popular spot to stop on the southern end of the Sequoia National Forest. People who recreate in the local parks usually make a stop at the homestyle cafés and restaurants in town. It hosts many outdoor recreation opportunities such as boating on Lake Isabella, kayaking and fishing along the Kern River and also camping hiking, and hunting in the surrounding forests.

Each year in February, for President’s Day weekend, the small town swells to 50,000 people as it hosts its Famous Whiskey Flats Days. The weekend-long festival includes vendors, parades, competitions, and a rodeo. But what it is known most for is the community of reenactors at the “Encampment.”

The Encampment includes five themed camps that show a historical link to the Kern Valley. Native American Indians come to show authentic traditional lifestyles in their Indian camp, which includes axe throwing, bead making, archery and tee-pees. There is a trading post camp run by a direct descendant of Daniel Boone, who sells period-correct wares, knives, guns, animal pelts and jewelry out of his tent. The Cowboy camp and settlement camps are the largest consisting of a saloon, a sheriff’s post, a cook, live musicians, a photographer, gold miners, an undertaker and various other period-correct actors. Lastly there is a cavalry soldier outpost with a regiment of mostly ex-military men who put on a show and provide defense from random Indian and cowboy raids. Spectators are usually excited to see them firing at each other in a cinematic way. Each camp is packed with the families and friends of the actors who provide a more realistic and full feel to the environment.

This fall, the trio of photographers returned to the town for its October Festival, another event that allows the reenactors at the encampment to put on a second show for the year. Instead of returning to film, they returned to visit the actors with whom they had built friendships. Their pictures represent the personalities of the reenactors as seen through an intimacy built by these friendships.

Since the time spent with them in February, the group has also filmed and documented a pirate reenactment crew. A few of the actors are participants of both groups and provided great access.

The people who reenact for these events are a die-hard group of passionate historians. Each put the way of modern society behind them for nearly a week before the event in hopes of getting more fully into character and providing a more authentic sense of history for people to enjoy.

All costumes, firearms and swordplay are safely constructed and used to ensure the actors and visitors are not harmed, and they provide an authentic representation of the past.

Watch the Documentary Below