Allison Stewart Inside the backpacks of folks preparing for the apocalypse

Cover Image - Allison Stewart
WordsAlex Kahl

Tornadoes, the rapture, World War Three. There’s a lot to worry about if you’re so inclined, but some people take that worry to a whole new level. Preppers are ready for the apocalypse they’re sure is coming, and photographer Allison Stewart has captured the contents of the backpacks they keep ready in the event of disaster.

Born and raised in Texas and now based in LA, Allison is intrigued by American culture. For example, her project American Anthem featured Civil War battle reenactments during its 150th anniversary year. The parallels she drew between then and now speaks to a roiling American tension that tries (and seems, at the moment, to fail) to reconcile the past and the present.

SP's bug out bag
SP's bug out bag

Her apocalypse project, Bug Out Bag, started life when Max Presneill, a curator at the Torrance Art Museum in California, approached her about an exhibition exploring survivalist ideologies and dystopian visions. “He was familiar with my work and asked me if I had photographed any preppers,” Allison says. “I had been photographing war reenactors at the time and some of them were also preppers, so I started photographing the ones who would let me.”

She travelled to preppers events like Survivalcon! too, but once the project was picked up online, her subjects started coming to her. She was flooded with messages from interested people – “That was when I was really able to expand the project and include preppers from all the different regions of the US.”

She used the increasingly popular knolling   technique, displaying and documenting the contents of the bags designed to keep the owner alive for 72 hours. Each bag paints an interesting picture of its owner. For example, MM’s bag is packed with hunting knives, guns and radios while Mike’s contains nothing more than a bottle of tequila and Phenobarbital  .

“MM’s bag is based on the soldier’s philosophy, so there are doubles of almost everything in his pack,” Allison says. “The logic is that whoever you meet, your goal is to make them your partner rather than your enemy.”

At best misunderstood and at worst maligned, Allison found the preppers to be kind and helpful. “They are practical people,” she says. “Everyone I met was very generous. Jeff gave me a paracord bracelet he had made and MM gave me a bar of homemade soap that he regularly gives out to homeless veterans.”

It’s clear that Allison’s project says as much about the society the preppers live in, as it does about the individuals themselves. In a world where social media can spread panic and fear within seconds, and climate change brings natural disasters much closer to home, our attitude to the preppers tells us something about ourselves.

“Many preppers are the people you were taught as a child to run to when there is a disaster: teachers, soldiers, security guards, pilots,” Allison says. “They might have different religious backgrounds or political ideologies, but they share the philosophy of being strong for others as a part of their worldview.”

Words by Alex Kahl.

Sam's radios
Sam's radios