Americans on average consume nearly 30 pounds of French fries a year. Fried spuds don’t make a meal on their own: We also eat about three hamburgers a week, averaging 156 burgers per person a year (that’s more than 48 billion meaty hockey pucks). And many Americans they get their fast-food fix–about 1 billion pounds of beef and 3.4 billion potatoes–at, you guessed it, McDonald’s.
McDonald’s remains a cultural institution, but it’s also increasingly the target of our collective frustration with all sorts of things. Any mention of the Golden Arches on major media outlets or in well-meaning documentaries is followed by spools of data linking Big Macs to rising obesity levels and greenhouse gases, among other damaging effects. As photographer Nolan Conway puts it, “McDonald’s makes itself a pretty easy target for attacks from the media and from artists.”
Late last year, Conway set on a new kind of American odyssey. He traveled thousands of miles to document the human face of our fast-food addiction. The resulting series of photos–180 portraits of McDonald’s patrons–cast the food chain in a curious new light.
“I made a point to go to McDonald’s as often as possible,” Conway tells Co. Design. He visited 250-400 restaurants (he lost count) in the two months that he worked on the photo essay. Not every location, of course, was flush with interesting subjects. “There were good days when I came across many subjects and would only visit a few. Then there were bad days when I was desperate for subjects and would visit more than 20.”
Conway literally stumbled onto the project while on a road trip pursuing a photo assignment. One night, he stopped over at a McDonald’s in Nampa, Idaho, (for the Wi-Fi, not the burgers) when, the photographer says, “a gentleman walked in with an open carry pistol strapped to his belt.” Initially intrigued, he then decided to leave when a young girl traipsed in wrapped in a blanket. The moment was defining. Conway began pulling off at every highway Mickey D’s he came across to scan for photogenic diners–a search that eventually spanned 22 states. Needless to say, “By the end of that trip, I’d nearly forgotten about my other project.”
The portraits encompass nearly every demographic. There are youthful groups of friends crammed into a booth, aging couples who haven’t lost the romance, families huddled around a mountain of fries, and inveterate loners enjoying their Value Meals in peace.
Rather than villainize the McDonald’s corporation or fault customers for failing to exercise more discriminating modes of consumption, Conway says he wanted to understand the customers. “So many of the people in these photos are unique and unusual–and frequently in ways that might be construed negatively by sophisticated urban audiences,” he says. “But these people are not ashamed of who they are.”