Recently, while I was working on a project, I had a bit of a surprise. In that project, Foreclosed Dreams, I am exploring the ongoing foreclosure crisis by photographing inside houses as soon as possible after the actual foreclosure and before they are cleaned up. That is when I can see and photograph what I think of as the “ghosts” of the families that used to be there. During a recent shoot, I had two surprises that got me thinking about how I work as a photographer. One lesson came out of all of that, adapt or die.
I have been working on my foreclosure project for almost three years and I have had many surprises along the way. On this particular shoot I did NOT encounter a dead body or people having sex or people shooting up in the foreclosures we went into. The Realtor I was working with (and many others I have worked with) told me stories about those kinds of surprises. To date, I have been pretty lucky, only scaring (or being scared by) living people who were legitimately in the houses I was going into.
The Realtor who helped me out on this shoot in the Bronx said a couple things that surprised me, while we were talking during and after the shoot. This particular meeting had been a bit difficult to set up in terms of scheduling and the first attempt to meet had to be canceled. When we did finally meet, one of the first things the young Realtor told me was that he was expecting someone much younger. (I am twice his age after all.) He pointed out that we did most of our communicating via text messaging, which he said was “…a young person’s thing.”
He also said that he thought I would have a bigger camera and be carrying more gear. Since I had traveled by subway to meet him in the Bronx and we agreed to meet on a specific corner at specific subway stop, I had pared my gear way back, to minimize my load, among other reasons.
Standing on the corner in the Bronx got me thinking about how I once wished I was taller (especially when I was younger.) I realized that being of average height and build probably has helped me over the years. I cannot count the times that cops, crazies and customs officers have looked past me to focus on the taller, rounder or more distinctive guy in front of me or behind me.
This led me to think about other adaptations I have made during this project. Since some of the houses I have photographed across the country are in economically depressed areas, I have whole drill I have developed. When I am going into a foreclosed house on my own, which I often do with the Realtor’s permission, I usually will not shave for a couple days before hand. I always wear jeans. I carry as few cameras possible, either in a cloth bag or in a very small back pack. And oh yes, I never carry a conventional tripod. (I have a table-top tripod or two in the bag, but not a big tripod.)
The point of all of this routine is not to stick out, to blend in. If you know your evolutionary biology, that same idea of blending in is the key to survival in the Darwinian world of the natural environment. (Pun intended.)
The Realtor I worked with that day in the Bronx had a very nice car, which I know from working with other Realtors is a kind of a tool. It tells potential buyers that the Realtor is smart, successful and by extension trustworthy. This Realtor knew the Bronx very well since it was his working territory and it was where he had grown up. It was very clear that in his own way he had followed the lesson, adapt or die.
My day in the Bronx was fascinating for many reasons. The Realtor was real character, especially for his relative youth. I learned a lot about real estate, the Bronx and the foreclosure process. I saw a side of the widely stereotyped Bronx that I had never fully appreciated. And, I made some good pictures for my project. All in all, it was a great ride. .
Adapt or die is something of a mantra for photographers trying to survive the changes reshaping the business of photography. Switching from film to digital capture is just one example of my own recent adaptations. I know that the day will come when I will no longer be able to (or willing to) adapt as needed. But until then, I will enjoy the process, and all the interesting changes I go through on that wild ride.