Photo Journal: Foreclosed Dreams

  • PHOTO JOURNAL: DAVID H. WELLS

By Jim Colton

David H. WellsWhen we think about what elements constitute the “American Dream,” high on that list would be to own a house. There is nothing more personal, in both a physical and emotional sense, than the sanctuary of one’s home. After all, as Pliny the Elder (Caius Plinius Secundus) said in the first century, “Home is where the heart is.”

But what happens when that heart is ripped out of your chest? When everything you strived for in your life is taken away from you. The turmoil and emotional damage is unfathomable.  According to several real estate tracking sources, there have been over 4 million completed foreclosures since the economic crash that started in September of 2008!

Several photographers have documented this American tragedy, but one photographer, David H. Wells turned it into a personal project that resulted in hauntingly beautiful yet terribly sad moments. He has turned the phrase “still life,” into exactly that, eerily still moments in life that exude ghost-like feelings among the remnants of the previous inhabitants. And he does so in the most unconventional of ways…without showing any people!

Wells is a seasoned photojournalist having worked for newspapers and magazines from the Los Angeles Times to National Geographic. Much of his time is devoted to personal projects which he has managed to fund through fellowship and grants from the MacArthur, Fulbright and Alicia Patterson foundations as well as the Pennsylvania Council of Arts and Nikon/NPPA. One of those projects on pesticide poisoning in California, shot for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. 

Wells is also an educator, having taught classes at the University of Pennsylvania and workshops at the International Center for Photography in New York and the Maine Media Workshops. He has been an artist-in-residence at the Visual Studies Workshop and the Light Works Photography Center. 

His ongoing project, Foreclosed Dreams, has seen limited publication in the traditional analog markets but that hasn’t deterred him from trying to get his work viewed though alternate means. As with many photographers today, he pursues other avenues including the Internet, galleries, and books to achieve broader exposure. He says it has given his stories "a greater and more diverse audience than it would have through conventional publications only.”

Jim Colton: Can you tell our readers a little about David H. Wells? How did you first get interested in photography? What newspapers and traditional publications have you worked for over the years?

David H. Wells: I was born in Albany, NY. I grew up in Southern California having gotten here when I was about 3 years old. I was fortunate enough to have a great high school photography teacher who taught me about the craft of photography. I attended Pitzer College, a small liberal arts college where I studied the history of photography…so I don’t really have a conventional newspaper or magazine photographer’s background having gone to a school for journalism. So I would occasionally imitate the style of photographers like Duane Michaels or Robert Frank to better understand the esthetics and the history of the medium.

After college I started working at a small newspaper called the Daily Signal covering everything from car accidents to local and national news stories. And then from 1980 to 1984, I worked for several small, medium and large newspapers including the LA Times, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and several newspapers in Syracuse, NY.

In 1984, I got married and we moved to Philadelphia where my wife got a job and I started to “cut my chops,” doing photo stories for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine. In 1988 I received the Nikon/NPPA sabbatical award where I worked on stories such as pesticides and their effect on the community in Central California. It was there I realized that I was not going to make my living just publishing stories in conventional outlets. So I was awarded some grants in the early 1990’s from places like the MacArthur Foundation and traveled to Israel to cover the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and their shared cultures and lifestyles. Many of the images were exhibited and published widely in galleries and museums as well as op-ed pages as I looked for other ways of getting my material seen in a broader market including non-traditional publications. I was fortunate to receive funding to cover other stories from organizations like the Alicia Patterson Foundation and Fulbright fellowships as well as the occasional magazine assignment. Throughout all this time I was working on my own photo stories which I called “light studies,” on things like the play of light on buildings and “atmosphere,” which really was the genesis of my project Foreclosed Dreams.

JC: How did you come up with the idea for Foreclosed Dreams, including what your thought process was in how to tackle such a huge endeavor? What was your game plan? And I have to ask one question that I am sure has been asked of you before about this project. Why did you choose NOT to show any human beings in the work?

DHW: In 2009 I wanted to do something on the economic crisis. So I went back to California and started photographing the people who “clean up” after a foreclosure and what struck me as the more interesting things was the stuff that was left behind…..including things like a collection of karate trophies, whose plaques were stripped off but the trophies themselves were not taken.

As far as why I chose to leave people out of my images, I feel when people are included in stories like this, the viewer looks at them as says “Oh, it’s THOSE people,”…and they keep a distance from them as opposed to connect to them. I wanted people to put themselves INTO the images and say, “Oh, that could have been MY house.” 

I felt that there was sort of a “compassion fatigue,” for the lack of a better term…so for me to really get to people, I wanted to create work that forces the viewer to look at it differently rather than saying something like, “Ok, here are those poor people,” which some might do when viewing straight forward documentary pieces.

JC: I’ve stated in this article that the “personal project,” is critical in any photographer’s arsenal. How has this project affected you including what lessons or insights you have gained from it?

DHW: This project has been really pivotal to me because it’s forced me to think outside the photojournalism box that I came from which I have believed for some time now is on its way out. For years and years I feared that what was going to destroy photojournalism as we know it was going to be a scenario where a photo editor sitting in some booth somewhere with a head set on, talking to some photographer on a street corner and whispers in the photographer’s ear, “Kneel down, stand to your right, take the picture with the dog in the foreground and the burning building in the background!” And then “frame grabs” from video came along and started undermining what we do…and now we have “user provided content,”  where publications can get the work for free from pretty much anybody. So I fear the market is seriously in trouble and that there is now a perception that “anyone,” can do that. The photographer today has to differentiate themselves by their personal project.

JC: Traditional analog markets, especially editorial ones, are getting much more difficult to find as far as commitment to “outside” stories. As someone who has transited the analog to digital market, how do you go about searching for these alternate markets for broader visibility for your work?

DHW: The seed for this project actually came from a photo agency I worked with called Aurora in 2008. It was based on an idea by owner Jose Azel to do a book and possibly gallery exhibitions on a project he called the new Farm Security Administration project, focusing on the economic problems the new Obama administration was facing. I responded with the more specific idea of the people who do the clean out work after foreclosures which I had already started working on. So I wrote a pitch letter to friends, strangers, just about anyone who might be able to get me access to those foreclosed homes. I had some success with the cleanup crews and realtors…sometimes just by trading some prints for the access.

In December of 2009, I saw this website called SocialDocumentary.net where they were running a competition on the theme of the global recession. I won the “People’s Choice Award,” for the exhibit receiving the most number of visits. The cash award was only $75 but the visibility was of greater value for me. It was also featured on the ICP website and I included the work in my newsletter and also featured the images on my own website. All of this led to inquiries from other realtors and potential clients as well as calls from PDN (Photo District News) who was working on a story on foreclosure photography, an NGO for a possible collaboration and a feature on the New York Times Lens Blog. And as the subject matter was “topical,” I was also able to get stock image sales through various photography agency websites. So in answer to your question, getting your material out there to as many sources as you can will help to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

One of the other alternate markets I have found is a quarterly magazine called Witness, published by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Technically, it’s a literary journal…some people call it a poetry magazine. They approached me after seeing my New York Times piece asking me if they could publish a portfolio of my images.  There was also the blog Small Camera, Big Picture that featured my work.

So any time I can get my work publicized though web sites and even social media like Facebook and Twitter, I get that “third party validation,” when someone else likes my work. I also do a lot of what I call “resume trolling.” When someone has won something or gotten a grant, I go to that site and see if it’s somewhere I can also apply in the future.

And where I was fortunate that Foreclosed Dreams was a topical subject matter, some other project may not do as well as they don’t fit into what I call the larger social milieu...so it’s important to be able to tie your subject matter into something that is current and more in the news. This way you’re not just one photographer barking at the moon in the wilderness but rather someone who is sharing something that is set in a larger context of what people are talking about. 

JC: Have these changes in our industry dampened your enthusiasm? How do you stay upbeat and optimistic when contemplating a story that you know you will be incurring out of pocket costs?

DHW: Has it dampened my enthusiasm? Unfortunately, yes. I often ask myself, “What would I do if I was a 25-year-old today?” I think it would be a lot harder and I would need a totally different skill set. Subject expertise remains critical and language expertise is extremely helpful. As someone who has been self-employed for 30 years, I look for way to gain benefits from combining things like a workshop, an assignment and a personal project…and I have been keenly aware of knowing when to cut my losses and not go overboard on a personal project. 

JC: I see from your bio that you also conduct workshops and teach photography classes at various institutes of higher education. Can you tell us a little about them and how you find the time to balance all of those endeavors?

DHW: I’m a compulsive planner. It’s the summer of 2013 and I am well into emailing people for plans for the summer of 2014. I’ve learned to not do a lot of last minute deadline stuff anymore and focused more of my attention on my family and I am always looking for ancillary benefits for the work I do. I’m pretty ruthless about self-promotion…when I do a workshop, I’m always talking about the next workshop. I love the sharing aspect of workshops and working with students…especially when that light bulb goes off when someone finally grasps a concept or an idea that I am teaching.

JC: Besides this ongoing project, are there any other stories in the works that you are at liberty to talk about at this time? What’s on the horizon for David H. Wells? 

DHW: I’ve recently started a project in India where people’s houses have been cut in half to build roads. And they cut them only to the point where they need for the road but leave the rest intact...some of them still have people living in them! I’ll be using all the tools I used for the Foreclosed Dreams story and utilize the publicity and promotion aspects I learned as well, to see if I can gain some steam for this project. I am also learning more and more multimedia.  For example, I’m doing what I call “geo-tagged maps” where I shoot short videos and they are tagged on a magazine’s website so when you click it, it gives you a sense of the atmosphere as well as show you the actual place.

JC: Lastly, what words of encouragement or advice can you offer the up-and-coming photojournalist in today’s changing times?

DHW: The ability to take pictures is probably the least important thing. I know that’s probably horrifying to hear, but trust me, it’s true! Your ability to work quickly and inexpensively will be important as well as your ability to market yourself, to network, to make people comfortable, to be able to work with people of different socio-economic backgrounds….those are the skills that will help you a lot more. The hard skills of photography---learning how to meter, set exposures, how to use flashes---those are technical skills that are pretty precise. Unfortunately, digital photography has pretty much vaporized the value that is put on that skill set.  The soft skills are going to be the ones that matter more. Women tend to be better at this as they are more social, more group oriented, more collaborative…and less “macho” driven. So I think they will be more likely to have the soft skills that will differentiate the photojournalist of the future.

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Do you have a story you think is a good candidate for Photo Journal? Email your suggestion to: jimcolton@aol.com.