These days, the parallels between the Great Depression and today’s housing crisis are constantly in the headlines as statistics, jobs numbers, and political posturing. Too often the human lives most affected by it are lost in a sea of info-graphics. Olympus Visionary and documentary photographer, David H. Wells uses the ghosts of dream homes past to capture the human element. Small Camera, Big Picture recently met up with Wells to talk about his most recent documentary “Foreclosed Dreams” and how he uses his micro four-thirds set up to capture the “ghosts” before they’re gone forever.
Small Camera, Big Picture (SCBP) met up with Wells in New York City, where we talked about the process of capturing these ghosts.
SCBP: Hi David, thanks for taking some time to chat with us. How do you gain access to these homes in the first place?
David H. Wells: Sure thing. I get access to the homes either through the real-estate agent managing a property, the clean-up crew contracted to clean out a foreclosed home, or the investor groups that manage the properties. Sometimes, they’ll give me the addresses and alarm box codes and it’s really helping them out, because I’ll go see homes A, B, and C and get back to them and tell them house A looks like someone is still in there, house B looks clear, and so on.
SCBP: Have you ever come across that?
DHW: Sometimes you do, whether there are homeless people living there or a previous owner coming back even though they’re not supposed to be there; but usually the homes are empty.
So the first thing I do is pound on the door; once inside I’ll typically walk through the entire house. I’m usually fighting against a finite amount of time – if I’m working with a clean-up crew, they’re literally right behind me, clearing up as soon as I finish shooting a room. So within an hour, once they’re done clearing up all the ghosts are gone. You’re always working with tight time constraints and rarely have an opportunity to go back.
As I walk through, I have to note which rooms I want to shoot and prioritize based on my initial walkthrough.
SCBP: You noted on your blog (sign-up required) that you only work with a table top tripod, are there any restrictions/challenges that this particular setup presents?
DHW: The one thing that’s problematic is photographing from the dead middle of a room. But it’s not really a problem since I hardly ever photograph from the middle of a room; we’ll take pictures of corners, walls, and if I need to shoot from the middle of a room, I can just pull up a chair or some other object and shoot that way.
The reason why I use a tabletop [tripod] is, number 1, because I travel so much; and, number 2, because in some of the neighborhoods I go into, I don’t want to make it obvious that I’m a photographer. Don’t get me wrong, [the houses] I photograph cover the full socioeconomic spectrum. But I don’t carry a camera bag, I usually am dressed like this (editor’s note: David was wearing khaki shorts and a button down short-sleeved shirt – very nondescript- during our interview) and have my camera and tripod in a cloth shopping bag. I look more like a housing contractor.
I also carry around a flashlight.
SCBP: Right, I imagine that the homes don’t have any power running to them.
DHW: There’s never any power and the places are usually boarded up. So in order to take some of these photos I do a little light painting, though not like the artsy light painting, so I can do a two to three minute exposure without the flashlight or a five or ten second exposure with the Flashlight. I use the tabletop tripod in either case to keep the ISO at the default of 200.
SCBP: As you know, we here at SCBP are all about mirrorless compact systems, did you shoot the entire “Foreclosed Dreams” project using micro four-thirds cameras?
DHW: Yes. I shot 90% of the images on (Olympus) PEN system cameras; from the E-P1 through the E-P3, upgrading along the way. I’m currently using the Olympus OM-D E-M5.
SCBP: Home is most commonly associated with our own barrier from the outside world; the most private place we have, your work feels almost as if the viewer is intruding into a deep recessed part of someone’s life where everything is in a constant state of turmoil. Was this what you originally had hoped to capture?
DHW: The short answer is, “yes.” I wanted you to see that moment, that train wreck. And that’s exactly what it is, a train wreck; you see this looming disaster and you just can’t avoid it.
SCBP: Noticeably absent in your work is the lack of people. What made you decide to capture the point in the foreclosure process where the people are gone and before a home is cleared out completely?
DHW: My concern is, if I were to photograph [a family] actually going through the process of foreclosure, you’ll end up with images that say here’s a family we’re watching slowly spiraling down. Although those are very compelling, the problem with those pictures is that you know, and I know that people will look at them and say, “Wow that ONE family is going through a drag of a situation. That’s too bad,” and [the larger issue] goes completely over their heads.
So I was trying to come up with a strategy where I can still bring you into the foreclosure crisis, still get you into the experience of the situation without giving you the opportunity for you to blow right by. The other thing that I was trying to avoid is the clichéd newspaper photograph of a real-estate agent with a “Foreclosed” sign.
SCBP: Yeah, it does seem like that is the “safe” way to visualize a foreclosure.
DHW: I was trying to find a balance between something that doesn’t really bring you the human experience, which would be the real-estate sign, and something that is so much about the human experience that you push back and don’t internalize it. The other thing I aspire to is for you to think, at least for a minute, that that could’ve been you.
SCBP: Have you ever come across something that took you aback or made you pause?
DHW: Sure, a lot of them make me pause. One that I think you saw was the one of the grilled cheese sandwich. I was there the morning after the eviction. The very next day; the guy that was supervising the eviction said he had been telling [the family] for months that this was coming, but they just kept pushing back. Nobody was dragged out, everybody left kindly; everyone just drove away. The sandwich was just left right there on the counter.
SCBP: That’s really what makes these pictures so haunting; it gives the impression that if you were there just 5 seconds ago, you would’ve walked in on a family having breakfast.
DHW: In Louisiana, and I was going through a closet and I noticed the clip-on ties that cops wear, on the other side of the closet you see a depiction of the patron saint of police officers. When I go downstairs, I noticed wine glasses with the FBI seal on them. It turns out that the couple that lived there were a sheriff and an FBI agent.
This was once clearly a middle-class home with a family that no one would expect to be foreclosed on. It doesn’t fit the stereotype [of foreclosures].
Much like the Great Depression rattled the psyche of the nation, our current foreclosure crisis continues to affect millions of Americans. It has been reported that in 2010, there were a total of 3.8 million homes that were foreclosed on. Wells’ work covering the foreclosure crisis will help leave a permanent record of the lives affected and not just the numbers. UPDATE: Wells’ work will be on exhibited from September through October at Artspace in Raleigh, NC. For more info hit the link: http://artspacenc.org/
Wells will be working alongside Annu Palakunnathu Matthews in India over the next 6-7 months; we look forward to bringing you those updates in the near future.
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