Finding Freedom

by | Nov 15, 2019 | PHOTO

Through his camera lens focused on motorcycles, photographer Liam Kennedy makes his home on the open road and inside the bike community.

Candid but clear, and often colorful, the photos of Norfolk’s Liam Kennedy tell a visual story of life on the road in modern motorcycle culture. His photos follow Virginia’s subculture throughout the Old Dominion and across the country.

“I think motorcycles attract someone who wants to be free,” Kennedy said. “A motorcycle, from the outside, looks like a violent activity — but in reality, it’s nothing like that. It’s the closest you can get to feeling like you’re flying.”

Kennedy came to the profession through his background in the military; he was a photojournalist for eight years, and did his formal training as a Mass Communications Specialist in the U.S. Navy. On the heels of his years in the service, he’s found a calling for his work within his own subculture of motorcycle enthusiasts. Between planning cross-country trips and traveling back and forth to Richmond, he’s made a place for himself in the statewide community of riders and builders.

“In Virginia, people are very interconnected with each other,” Kennedy said. “The culture is the same from Norfolk to Richmond. We all know people in each area, but there isn’t one scene over the other — there’s a competitive aspect to what we do, I suppose, but you’re hard-pressed to find that around here. There are no real bike shows where people are winning big awards (at least with our kind of choppers, anyway). It’s hard to explain; we enjoy riding, we like unique bikes, and there are a lot of talented people in Richmond, Portsmouth, and Norfolk. I don’t build bikes, but I can appreciate what some of these people are doing.”

Kennedy plans to make his official move to the River City within the next few months. While he’ll make Richmond his home base, much of his time will still be spent on the road, working as a freelance photojournalist and documenting his travels from coast to coast.

“It just so happens that Richmond has been my landing base for the last two years. I really found a sense of community there,” Kennedy said. “I wish I could tell you what it is about Richmond — in my whole life, I’ve never lived in a place more than five years, but for what I enjoy doing, for my lifestyle, Richmond fits the bill. It’s a very transient town, so someone coming and going is not unheard of.”

It’s been five years since Kennedy found his love for motorcycles, and he purchased his first bike shortly after in 2015. While he’s started learning the mechanics of the bike and doing its maintenance work in the last year, the main thing he operates on a motorcycle will always be his camera.

“I am operating my motorcycle while I’m shooting photos. I’m shooting from the hip, I’ll take my arms off the bar. I’m an idiot,” Kennedy laughed. “I grew up in Indiana, I took high school film and digital classes and was big into filming skateboarding when I was 16… I still skateboard, and I’ve been skateboarding since I was five years old. I do photo and video work for Cardinal Skate Shop down in Norfolk.”

Filming skateboarding videos was Kennedy’s introduction to working with photo and video media, and he pursued it through his younger years until he came to the end of high school. When he was faced with the decision to either be kicked out of his house during school or join the military, he chose the latter — and with an interest sparked by high school photography classes and filming his friends skateboarding, he joined the Navy with a rank concentration in Mass Communications. Later, through the military, he enrolled at Syracuse University in New York.

“It’s funny how much art you actually see when you’re in the military,” Kennedy said. “For instance, all the command logos — somebody had to make and design those. And generally, they’re by someone in their command, or someone who does my job. We’re trained to do photo, video, AP Style journalism, and graphic design… The military is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I learned a lot about life, not just in my job, but with the people and where they come from.”

Kennedy’s professional equipment of choice is usually a Nikon D4, and he uses a Nikon D610 for personal use as well as a Nikon f100 for 35mm shooting. His name carries award-winning photojournalism with his work, which has taken him from the continental United States to many small corners of the world.

“I did an article in the Philippines in 2013 after a bad typhoon hit the area, Operation Damayan. We went there to deliver relief aid,” Kennedy said. “I’m probably more reckless with gear than I should be, but the hardest part of those situations is having to detach yourself from the reality of what’s happening. Photographing people who may not be alive anymore, or who may have just lost their house; being respectful to them while getting the story, and trying to relay that information to people who have no idea what’s happening. Photographing protests is natural. I become detached when the lens goes up to my face — like I’m just watching a movie. I’m not happy or sad, I’m just there.”

These days, it may seem like Kennedy’s passion lies in the motorcycles themselves, but in reality it’s the people who ride them that provoke his affinity for the bikes. He rides a 1999 1340cc Evo Big Twin chopper.

“Choppers are so stripped-down and basic. Choppers are teaching me patience and how to work with my hands. We’re losing craftsmen every day,” Kennedy said. “We’re losing people who know these machines and how to work on them. [In photography], I’m trying to preserve these men and women who work on the machines in some sort of fashion. I don’t want some kid to forget and think everything is automated; sometimes you’ve got to work with your hands and get dirty.”

The adventure comes with the ability of a motorcycle to turn a simple means of transportation into a wilder experience of motor freedom. When society has come as far as it has in technology, Kennedy notes, we have a tendency to forget where we’ve been, and the foundation that was laid many years ago which allows modern tech to thrive as it does today. The functionality of older and antique motorcycles — especially Harley Davidsons — is simpler, but temperamental in ways unique to each bike.

“Breaking down is part of the fun,” Kennedy said. “It’s not really fun when the vehicle does it all for you. The motorcycles — I could take them or leave them. It’s really the people I enjoy. Without the people, we wouldn’t have the bikes. We wouldn’t have this kind of folklore around it.”

Kennedy’s Harley has seen many miles of open road, not only in Virginia but in trips across North America. He’s had breakdowns that forced him to leave his bike on the side of the road in Arizona overnight, and he’s been stuck on a mountain in San Diego as it started to snow. Riding cross-country from Virginia Beach to Mexico, he teamed up with a group of friends to begin a major trip crossing national borders.

“We were in New Mexico, and my buddy lost his gas cap. We had already pulled over four or five times that day, people were breaking down and losing stuff,” Kennedy said. “We couldn’t get out of Albuquerque for whatever reason, and while we were looking for the gas cap, my buddy Ethan found a $100 bill. So we ended up buying a new gas cap. We were trying to make it back through New Mexico, and the sky split in two — pitch black on one side, and bright daylight on the other. We were about to have a very bad time in a few minutes… everything just opened up with hail, wind, and no shelter to stop at. So we just had to keep riding through it.”

As long as there are folks still out there willing to take something apart in order to learn how to put it back together, craftsmanship stays alive. It’s kept by those with the due diligence required for the impressive skills, and Kennedy is one who keeps this brand of freedom alive and well-documented — providing proof that society might not have changed as much as we think. When it comes down to these individuals, after all these years, some still prefer to hear the pull and chug of an antique chopper over the hiss of modern mechanics.

Kennedy is set to head out on another cross-country trip in June, seeing the Pacific Northwest and traveling back through an outline of the United States. 

“I just do my own thing. I go wherever the wind takes me that week.” 

Below, find a collection of Liam Kennedy’s photos from the road. More of his work is available to view on his website and Instagram.

Written By Ethan Malamud and Caley Sturgill. Photos by Liam Kennedy

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

RVA culture rag since 2005. #RVA

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