Fantasy clashes with reality in wonky wonderlands



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Real life gets old real quick. Work, chores, traffic jams, monotony — all the details of the daily grind infect the human body and build into a fever that only breaks when bags get packed.

The search for diversion leads to amusement parks and roadside wonders, roller coasters and stage extravaganzas. Kids can be kids, adults can be kids again, and sometimes, David Walter Banks is on hand to capture fantasy becoming reality with behind-the-scenes images that cast new light on tourist attractions.

Such moments of cognitive dissonance comprise The Fourth Wall. The entertainment industry takes in billions annually but even the most luxurious resorts and casinos provide an imperfect illusion. Visitors fill the gaps between animatronics and costumes with their own imagination, and the disconnect beats at the heart of Banks’ photo project.

“I love the idea of these places,” he says. “As adults, so many of us have lost our wonder and given up our urge to chase dreams. In a way, these places invite the adult population to chase an outlandish dream once more, even if only for a fleeting moment. Even if it’s plastic and cracked and they know it is all fake. They are still getting up, putting on their tennis shoes, and going out in search of magic.”

Over the course of two years spent exploring imaginary lands, Banks discovered his own escape from a tired approach to work. The theme park guests found a way to lose themselves and the photographer found a new path forward.

It began with flash mobs and a happy accident. Banks had been shooting the Atlanta Zombie Walk and fixated on a stray image he’d taken on his way home of two costumed kids in a diner. Their corpse paint contrasted with the restaurant’s ’50s nostalgia, two fantasies clashing in the real world. A concept was born and a list of dream locations drafted, but the reality of money couldn’t be ignored.

“Though I did spend a lot of my own money, I did save a lot by tacking the work on to assignments and other personal travel,” he says. “I normally just paid for the larger attractions since I really just wanted to experience them as any normal tourist would. For the smaller places and venues, I would normally ask permission and even often offer to share the images with the subjects.”

Two zombies ordering burgers proved doubly inspiring. The casual feeling of the photograph planted a seed in Banks, a desire to grow beyond the lessons of journalism school and the strict objectivity of newspapers.

Although this fly-on-the-wall documentation captures tourists in their natural state, the fantasy worlds remains in the background. There are no mile-long lines, extortionate concession stands, temper tantrums or meltdowns. The veneer of pretend is clearly chipped but trash-strewn concourses and screaming parents never become the focus.

“I certainly spent my time in angst and turmoil, but my aim was not to take a strictly documentarian viewpoint,” Banks says. “A lot of my work is based off the idea of escapism, and for this project I was more interested in the idea of these places than the actuality. I don’t want to show the filth and anger, but instead the fantasy of it all. Though I do like to include little hints of the cracks in the facade.”

Tromping through wonderlands wasn’t all work and no play. The camera spent time in storage lockers while Banks hit the rides, throwing himself into the experience he’d come to document. As the project progressed, editors began calling — the new photographic approach was resonating in the real world of careers, and that emboldened Banks to throw himself further into new directions.

A couple of years before starting The Fourth Wall, Banks had quit The Athens Banner-Herald to co-found LUCEO Images and work freelance. Since the project’s completion, he’s left the collective and moved from his southern hometown to Southern California to nurture the commercial photography business he created with his wife.

Vacation currently takes the form of camping instead of Disneyland, but Banks hopes to revisit the themes of The Fourth Wall. He continues picking up assignments and pursuing personal projects, striving for perpetual improvement in his trade and to continue exploring the lessons learned by watching people let go, have fun and believe in magic.

“Before this project I thought I had to function strictly as a photojournalist,” he says. “I always felt a little out of place. Through this project I realized that I could create my own narrative through documentary photographs. Now, in my personal work, I’ve moved further in the direction of creating fictional works out of nonfiction photographs. Just as an author can research a place and interview real people and base a story off real characters while taking that story to a more fantastical level.”

Photos: David Walter Banks