Bingo Culture

Written by // Alison Turner

Beginning in 2008, I hit the road for three years to photograph America solo; living out of a tent and bringing along my dog for the ride. While traveling in Maine, I discovered a Bingo hall and it provoked a curiosity about a subculture that I was unaware of. What I discovered was a community of dedicated players who travel to the same place, set up in the same spot, and bring along the same good luck charms with the hopes that this will be the night that they win big.

As I continued my travels across America, I also kept on my quest to find hidden or otherwise unknown bingo halls. When I found a location of one, I also found a sense of community that wasn’t expected.  Although many of the dedicated players may be aging, it’s something that they look forward to each week.  You might feel bad or sorry for some players because they come and leave alone but as I was talking to “B” in a hall in Fort Collins Colorado, she made a point to remind me that it, “beats sitting in front of the boob tube at home!” 

Each time I walked into an unknown bingo hall, I would try and find the most interesting person and introduce myself. After our initial introductions, we would start chatting away and I would listen to them talk about their family and friends throughout the night.  They would tell me about their kids, grandkids, great grandkids and sometimes, about the other players and their families.  Often, friends would come up and thank them for the “wonderful dip” or “delicious cake” that they brought to a party a week before. Early on, the topic of conversation would be about the game.  I often asked how to play, how many cards to buy, how many games will be played, etc. Since it’s something I know they already enjoy, it would be a bonding moment to gain their trust in order to take their photograph throughout the night.  Usually if I asked right away, they would be wary and say no but if I talked to them first, they would say yes. I would always get permission with the caller and people in charge first.  Most often than not, they would be flattered that I would stop to document their little corner of the country.  Sometimes, the caller would announce my name on the speaker and introduce me to the crowd. 

Towards the back of the halls, you will find one of the locals making and serving treats behind the counter at the snack shack.  Lots of hot dogs and sometimes home made deviled eggs will be for sale.  If that’s the case, I always make sure I try the deviled eggs.  If the players are not eating the food that is being served, they will come with snacks and drinks of their own choosing and place them on the table with the rows and rows of good luck charms that many bring religiously each week including photos, troll dolls, baby dolls, animals made of wood, religious trinkets, and any other thing that they feel with bring them luck that night.  Most players come to the halls an hour early to stake their claim on table space.  I’ve seen players buy so many cards for one game that it usually takes up an entire eight foot table of space. I found that this is not uncommon.  What is uncommon would be a player like me that would play with just one card each game.

Beyond the initial attraction of going to a place I’ve never been, as the case of the bingo hall in Maine, it has turned out to be much more meaningful to me. I truly care about each person I meet and I enjoy listening to their stories.  I was lucky enough to be extremely close to my grandparent growing up and now that they are gone, this experience makes me feel close to them again in a way. I may never again see or hear from the players I meet, but by taking photographs, I will always have record of the people that dedicate themselves to the game and experience. Itʼs a place where hope and despair come hand in hand throughout the course of the night. Every location I encountered brought in a true sense of community, each with their unique set of personalities and characters. As I continued my travels and visits to traditional bingo halls across America, I realized I was looking at a cultural phenomenon that will be lost in order to make way for new technologies in gaming and social interaction. Once these dedicated players pass on, so will the bingo halls as we see them today.

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