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Just as Dustin Hoffman insisted in Rain Man, Australia-based Qantas Airways has never had a fatal crash. Not that Jody Sugrue needed that to convince her after she saw a map of the carrier’s around-the-world-ticket route one fateful day last July. Then 25 and vacationing in London, the Northern Virginia-based photographer had wandered into a travel agency on a whim; the next thing she knew, she was forking over her MasterCard. “I knew if I didn’t do it right then, if I thought about it any more, I never would,” she remembers.
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Having racked up the first few grand of what would become more than $10,000 in credit-card debt, Sugrue then called her boss at National Geographic, where she’d been working in public relations in the hope of catching the attention of one of the magazine’s photographers. “I just told them I wasn’t coming back,” she says. “No one there was offering to pay me to go around the world and take pictures, so I figured I’d create my own opportunity.”
Sugrue then set out alone on a 10-month tour of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia, covering more than 28,000 miles. “I had my camera practically glued to my face at all times,” she says. “But since I mailed all of my film back to the States sight-unseen, I wasn’t sure I had gotten anything at all until I came home.”
Sugrue stayed in each new place she landed for about two months at a time, sometimes making free portraits for hostel staff in exchange for board. She also worked on the road as a freelance photojournalist, illustrating a story on women in the Australian mining and brothel industries for the Kiwi Web magazine Stuff. All the while, Sugrue kept taking shots for herself. Some of the results, developed when the photographer returned to Fairfax in April, make up the 29-piece exhibition Qantas Physics: travel = plane/(people x place) world2, on display at U Street’s U-Topia Bar & Grill until Sept. 3.
Though many of the works in Qantas Physics are grounded in travel-mag convention, others offer unexpected viewpoints. In Bangkok, often celebrated for its sleazy street life, Sugrue turned her lens toward a sky full of color and movement at a kite fair. And in New Zealand—where Sugrue swam with dolphins, bungee-jumped, and sky-dived—the artist played with the modern rural landscape: For New Zealand Traffic, she perched on the back of a friend’s station wagon to snap a herd of sheep as both parties traveled down a town’s only paved road.
The show is Sugrue’s first public exhibition, and even the venue’s casual atmosphere has done little to calm her first-time jitters. “My worst fear is that people will look at these photos and say, ‘Nice snapshots. They look like something my grandmother would take on vacation,’” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. “But I look at them as a document of a global road trip—proof that you could do this, too, if you wanted to. People go into debt for things that are a lot less fun.” —Shauna Miller