Van Life Profile: James Barkman of Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania

Having called the road home for several years now, James Barkman is a photographer often found along the western United States and Canadian coasts. He enjoys cold weather, remote locations, avocados, and film cameras.


Quick bites

  • Born: 1993, Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania
  • Vehicle: 1976 VW, named Melody
  • Miles: Unknown!
  • Usually shooting with: Minolta XE-7, Mamiya 7, Leica M6, Sony A7RII
  • Go-to van meal: Egg and avocado burritos
  • Favorite free day activity: Surf
  • Currently listening to: War on Drugs

What were you doing before living in a van and why did you make this transition?

Before I moved into my van, I had owned it for about 6 months. Camping and outdoor activities were always a big part of my life, so it made sense to move into it full time to be able to pursue what I loved to a greater degree.

Van life is glamorized in the media and it’s easy to be fooled into thinking it’s all pleasant, easy, carefree. Could you talk about the challenges?

I’ve had a greater amount of mechanical challenges than most people experience due to my vehicle choice, but depending on where I’m located there’s definitely a healthy dose of issues. The northwest is rainy and cold, the southwest is dry and hot, and so on. Getting busted by cops, fined, towed, etc., etc. isn’t fun for anybody.

There are a lot of things that can be extremely frustrating, but for me, the pros outweigh the cons.

Mel is alive again! #mamiya7

A post shared by James Barkman (@jamesbarkman) on

Given that your VW has created so many issues, do you ever wish you instead had something that just works? Or is the struggle worth it?

I’d be lying if I said I’ve never sat down and reconsidered my life, haha! For me, what’s really rewarding is the experience of driving something that I’ve fixed or built myself. It’s something that’s hard to explain, but relatable to anyone who’s worked on novelty or iconic vehicles.

Zen and the art of Volkswagen maintenance

A post shared by James Barkman (@jamesbarkman) on

You worked with renowned photographer Chris Burkard for some time. What’s the biggest thing you learned from him?

I think one thing I learned from Chris [Burkard] is his drive and work ethic to carry through on the visions he has. It’s easy to have a lot of ideas and talk about what you want to accomplish but harder to carry through with them.

People are often curious about the financials of van life. Could you talk about your monthly expenses: how much you’re spending and where that money is going?

Breakdowns aside, it honestly depends on how many miles I log that particular month. My fuel economy is lackluster at best, so traveling expenses tend to rack up very quickly.

I often spend a considerable amount of time along the coast and will stay within a smaller radius when I do. Because my rig is 41 years old, vehicle insurance is very low and helps keep living costs down.

Working in a creative field, do you find benefits to living on the road? In what ways?

Most definitely.

My mind is best stimulated when in a spontaneous and changing environment. While there are many assets to living in a mobile/nomadic space, at the same time there are certain aspects that it lacks such as stability, accountability, etc.

I think that wherever you are or whatever culture you’re a part of, there are both assets and liabilities within that particular space that are important to be aware of. As a creative, there really is no absolute right or wrong, and I think it’s important to know how you function best in different seasons of life.

Are there any specific books, artists, musicians, or films that particularly shaped your view on the world and led you to this lifestyle?

I’ve always been into biographies, and my favorite book would be The Endurance by Ernest Shackleton. I’m also very inspired and moved by the work of Richard Mosse, Aaron Huey, Steve McCurry, and many other documentary photographers.

It’s raining and you’re stuck in your van for a full day. What do you do?

Make a french press and throw it in a thermos, catch up on editing/work projects, surf if there’s a wave, scan film negatives, watch a movie, read a book.

A post shared by James Barkman (@jamesbarkman) on

A post shared by James Barkman (@jamesbarkman) on

Would you recommend van life?

Absolutely. I believe that van life is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and when pursued as such can prove itself to be a valuable and memorable experience.


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