We were reminded this week of the ubiquity of McDonald’s in our culture (and its place as the restaurant of impromptu heroes). But what does the average McDonald’s customer look like—or is there such a thing? While in Fast Company circles tastes can run more to artisanal burgers or Biz Stone-backed meat substitutes, McDonald’s is still a great leveler, cutting across demographic and geographic boundaries.
Photographer Nolan Conway set out recently to document the human face behind the billions served.
In late 2012, Conway became interested in the people he would find at McDonalds and started taking their pictures. What he’s come away with, a series that was recently featured in the New York Times, is a more accurate, and compelling, visual depiction of the diversity of fast food patrons than we’ve seen before.
"I was in a McDonalds in Nampa, Idaho, and a gentleman walked in with an open carry pistol strapped to his belt," Conway says. "Of course, I took his picture, and I was about to post it to Facebook when a little girl walked in wearing a blanket in place of a jacket. The moment I saw her, the project was born."
As is often the case, McDonald’s probably hopes, Conway was eager to go back again soon. Ultimately, he ended up visiting 150 locations in 22 states and taking pictures of 180 patrons. (To put things in perspective, there are 14,000 in the United States.) Rather than sneaking around to take creep shots of the most striking french fry fans, he simply asked patrons if they wouldn’t mind being in a picture. It was difficult deciding which representative diners to capture.
"I drove away from quite a few McDonald’s filled with regret at missed photo opportunities," Conway says. "I would occasionally watch someone for 15 minutes before deciding to photograph them. More than once I had to chase someone out to his or her car. There was no criteria by which I chose subjects; I just went off my gut, and my gut was not very decisive. In some cases, they were overly excited to participate, and others were a little bothered but would let me proceed out of politeness. Of course, the most interesting subjects usually declined."
Some people stop in at McDonald’s because it’s affordable, and others do it because it’s all they have time for. Some go out of habit, and others go because they truly love the taste more than all other available options. Even with the kind of plurality that such a wide range of customers provides, certain types of diners still stood apart.
"The biggest surprise came from a gentleman in Flagstaff, Arizona, Conway says. "He was dressed head to toe like the evil cowboy from an old western. The photo is one of my favorites. After him, I was immune to surprises."
Have a look through some of the images in the slide show above.
[Photos by Nolan Conway]