In a previous life I was a backyard mechanic of sorts. I picked up skills from the various jobs and experiences I had. It’s been years since I’ve done any major repair work but I can still perform an engine swap, replace a clutch, build a wire harness, and more. I’ve owned this little mid 80’s Nissan since those days. For nearly 8 years it sat in pieces and I’ve stored it in the open and in a shed. It’s not pretty: dings and dents, maybe a spot of rust, and smells like grease but over all it’s in excellent condition. I began working on it off and on this spring, and over the past two weeks I’ve put a great deal of time into it, piecing it all back together again. And just like years ago, my tools have become scattered all over the house. Since today’s forecast calls for temperatures in the low 90’s and thunderstorms, I’ve decided to spend today cleaning up the mess and reorganizing the tools. If all goes well, I should have the car started for the first time by the weekend.
Algoma is a city of about 3,000 people on Wisconsin’s shore of Lake Michigan. The area was first inhabited and named by Algonquin speaking people. The city is located on a natural harbor about 25 miles east of the city of Green Bay. Historically, Algoma played a key role in the origin of the Christmas Tree tradition now observed in the United States. In Fred Neuschel’s book about the early Christmas tree shipping industry, Lives and Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships, the description of Algoma is that of a town that relied heavily on the resources and transportation routes Lake Michigan provided. The lake continues to be an essential asset to the city as it draws people from as far away as South Dakota to fish her cool waters for many varieties of salmon and trout. This is in part due to Algoma being home to one of the largest sport fishing fleets on all of the Great Lakes. Besides sport fishing, Algoma is also a hub for vernacular art from the region, and home to Wisconsin’s oldest continuously running winery.
Blurb, 2011 – Currently out of print
“For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back.” ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Some of the earliest memories I have are of riding in the backseat of my mom’s car. Short as I was, my legs stuck straight out – feet kicking the back of my mom’s seat, street lights twinkled through rain drop covered windows, the drops slipped past as the car moved forward. I seem to have always been on the go, traveling around and meeting people along the way. When I was growing up I made a “nature trail” for myself. It was stamped down through the woods and reeds along the side of a lake near my parents cottage in Northern Wisconsin. I spent a lot of time roaming through the trees and rowing around the lakes up there, getting lost and discovering new things. As an adult, I regretfully have not yet left the country, not even to Canada. However, I have driven through and spent time in 25 of the 50 states, including both peninsulas of Michigan.
Traveling is generally a joy for me and the destinations stay semi-fluid, unless I am returning home. When I’m driving, I’m the guy you pass driving 55 in a 65. lately, I have been feeling the itch to get going. Just to go do something to witness and photograph something. I think this may be when I am most motivated.
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“Getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.”
― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Lately, it seems as thought is has been raining for an entire week. Tonight was different, it was warm and dry and with about an hour of daylight left I decided to sit outside and page through a book I’ve been meaning to look at. Within moments I was covered in feral kittens. I put my book down and went back inside the house to get my camera. I set it up on a tripod and set the interval timer to see if it would happen again, but by this time, everyone had run off. Within 15 minutes they were back – climbing up my legs and arms, chewing on the corners of my book, and falling on top of each other in the chair beside me.
When Kayla and I moved here about three years ago, a lone black cat climbed up the stairs to our porch to investigate the new people. At the time, we had two male cats, Ansel and Tiger.
Disclaimer: Both are neutered.
We put a little food out for her and named her Blackie. Over the course of a few months, she would return to eat and eventually brought with her three kittens. The kittens stayed through the winter and I built a small insulated shelter for them. By spring, the kittens had all left and so did Blackie. Or so we thought. About two weeks after the last kitten had left, the one Kayla had named Little Buddy returned with a wounded paw. We took him to the vet, who prescribed some medicine and said to keep him inside for a while. After a couple of weeks, we decided he made a good addition to our family and after another brief visit with the vet, we set him free to join the boys for good.
Over the course of time, our porch and the little shelter has been home to several cat families, and with the exception of Little buddy, all leave never to come back. That is until we met Ernie. Last winter, a kitten we named Ernie lived in the shelter with her brother Agnes. No, We weren’t sure of their genders before naming them. Agnes left in spring, however Ernie did not. When she was a few months old, she had suffered an eye injury and instead of running away like everyone before her, she instead decided to settle down and start a family right there on our porch. One afternoon gave birth to five healthy kittens: Shelly, Martin, Benedict, Diane and Margaret. Today they are about two months old, and apparently enjoy climbing all over me.
I am writing this just as I am about to leave the house to attend a meeting with the City of Green Bay’s homeless task force. I have been photographing Kayla for nearly as long as I have known her. An active photographer and textile artist herself, she works as the Photo Lab Assistant at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, which is how I met her four years ago. At that time we were both students, and now she and I continue to help in the darkrooms. She’s there to help the students and keep the labs clean, neat, and I help to keep it functional and offer advice.
As I reported in my brief update, things had changed considerably in the week between my first visit and my return to the camp this past week. When I last saw Kim’s family camping, a hard-hitting storm was pulling their tent apart. The days following my departure, more storms came through the area and destroyed their tent. An altercation between Kim’s family and another homeless man took place leading a park ranger to conveniently evict all homeless campers just before the 4th of July weekend. Jacqulyn and I were able to track down Kim’s family staying at a nearby hotel. Kim and Grandma Betty were planning to leave Madison on Monday any way they could in order to get to Kim’s brother’s house in Milwaukee. Kim’s brother has been storing many of their father’s belongings including trumpets he once gave lessons with and his ashes. Her brother was planning to throw everything out so Kim was determined to find a way to save those precious memories. We only spent one night in the hotel across the hall from Kim’s family and returned the next day to the campgrounds.
Upon our arrival, we discovered new homeless folks had moved in overnight. Some were from Occupy Madison and were working on housing for the homeless in a nearby workshop. Occupy Madison changed quite early on from a group of Occupy Wall Street sympathizers to a band of homeless working to establish a Green, self-sustaining housing community for those homeless who are interested. The concept has changed several times as the city and county changed ordinances to combat their efforts to settle. Right now, they’re building Tiny Houses on wheels, similar to these from Oregon: Tiny House Blog.
Among the new faces were two people I had not been able to photograph, Dale and Joanne. Dale was once a teacher, the head of housekeeping at the Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, a CNA for a nursing home, and most recently a massage therapist. This year he has been living in various camps because he lost many of his clients and their referrals after he had to take the past year off due to a massive heart attack. His brother also found himself in a similar situation: currently, he is living in a friend’s garage in California. Until recently, he had worked as in various financial markets. One client required him to reinvest his $1M+ portfolio with them and then mismanaged the funds. This of course resulted in disaster as he lost his entire life’s savings at the age of 60. Another camper, Joanne, was “just camping” for the past month or so until she found a home. She was originally from the area but had lived in Mississippi for a number of years. Two months ago, she returned to Madison to start a new career with Catholic Charities. This left me begging to know, at what point does “just camping” or “just a rough spot in my life” turn into asking one’s self “am I homeless?”
Why did I choose Madison to begin documenting homelessness? About 12 years ago, I too was homeless in Madison. I had lost my full-time position due to the company I worked with downsizing and moving locations. I still had a part-time position at an auto parts store but could no longer afford my rent. So, I lived in my van in the back lot of my employer. I spent about a month or two living this way until a friend from work invited me to live on his couch until one of his roommates moved out.
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One of my ongoing projects is documenting poverty and homelessness across the U.S. I aim to make a record over the next decade of how the economy has changed the demographic and the number of people who are impoverished and are homeless. Recently, I was fortunate to locate and spend a day with these homeless families in Madison, WI. I met them in a campground near the outskirts of the city. While I was researching, a recent article named a man, Koua Vang, who allowed a homeless village to set up camp on his property after it had been revoked permission to stay on city property. However, the city of Madison’s zoning commission ruled against him and the village was forced to disband. I corresponded with Mr. Vang and he suggested some of the homeless had been living at the campgrounds. So I planned a trip in conjunction with a friend, Jacqulyn Jahnke, who wanted to visit the Solidarity Singers at the state capitol. We arranged for me to spend a night in the campground with my old surplus tent, and upon arriving we were both immediately welcomed with hospitality from the people camping next to me. The matron of this family is Kim (not pictured), she and her two sons, and one son’s pregnant fiance were camped with a woman they took in and called grandma, an adopted Vietnam Vet, and the most recent addition was Shea with her two young children who are originally from Chicago. Nearby were additional families: two brothers and their friends and a couple from Illinois who sold everything they had and biked with their two dogs to Madison.
Jacqulyn and I will be returning to these families tomorrow to spend a week with them.
—-Update 28/06/13 12:36 AM—-
Jacqulyn and I arrived Thursday afternoon and returned to the camp only to find not one soul left. We speculated recent heavy rains drove them out, however as we later discovered, a combination of events unfolded leaving to the entire camp being cleared by the game wardens in charge at the campground. We were able to track down Kim’s family to a nearby hotel and we have been spending time with them off and on all evening.
A few days ago, Kim was admitted into the emergency room because she was shaking, feeling sick and has lost 20 lbs in the past two months. She had not slept in days, stressing over the troubles the family has had with other families and the heavy rain destroying their tent. While in the emergency room, doctors began to run blood tests (she is still waiting to hear the results), as they suspect she has a bacterial infection in her aortic valve and possibly lung cancer as well. Next Monday, Kim and Grandma Betty will be going to Milwaukee to move some belongings, including the ashes of Kim’s father, that have been stored in a storage locker of another family member to a better site. They hope to give Kim’s father’s a proper burial as soon as it becomes possible to do so.
As of this moment, Jacqulyn and I are spending the night across the hall in the same hotel. Tomorrow we plan to attempt tracking down others that relocated as well.
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Seeds of Hope began in 2010 as a joint project of the Green Bay Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, United Way, and several other organizations.
Seeds of Hope has two iterations, in the first was started in 2010 when people who were homeless and live in poverty in the great Green Bay, Wisconsin area were given cameras to photograph their perspective on poverty. The show opened near the end of 2010 at the Neville Public Museum and has since become a traveling exhibition. I came on-board during the second iteration of the project in 2012. In this version the photographers were area youth ranging in age from about 8 years of age to 18. They were selected to share their perspectives – either because they come from impoverished families or are close to those who are. My role was to act as an adviser to the youth, to photograph their portraits and record some of their personal stories.
Occupy Chicago was part of the Occupy Movement that swept the country in 2011 after Occupy Wall Street began in New York City. Protests focused on corporate greed and self-interested corporate influence within Government. Occupy Chicago positioned themselves in the heart of Chicago’ financial center, on the corner beside Bank of America (formerly the Continental Illinois building, origin of the term “Too big to fail”), and across the street from the Federal Reserve and Chicago Board of Trade. Protestors occupied this corner day and night, no matter the weather and marches/demonstrations happened regularly. Just prior to a NATO and G8 summit in the city in 2012, Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, passed an ordinance that restricted the rights of protestors which became widely viewed as an attack on the right to peacefully assemble guaranteed in the federal Bill of Rights. This spurred further protests and the notion that the very foundation of our government had become under attack by politicians trying to cling to seemingly unlimited power.
Who are the Children of Solidarity? These are children who were present during the 2011 Wisconsin Worker’s Rights Protests that took place at the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. During this time, Wisconsin Republicans, lead by Governor Scott Walker, proposed a very unpopular “Budget Repair Bill” that would also diminish collective bargaining rights for public workers. In an attempt to prevent the vote, 14 Democrat Senators fled the state. Meanwhile tens-of-thousands of people physically occupied the capitol building in protest. In response, state Republicans attempted to have these Senators arrested and returned to the state. Inspired by these 14 Democrats and the protestors, protests erupted in many other states where similar bills had been proposed. Ultimately Republicans opted to alter the conditions within the bill in order to cast their votes without the Democrats present and passed the bill with little trouble. This lead to several lawsuits filed against Gov. Walker and a recall election for the Governor and Republican Senators as well. Walker was successful in keeping his position as head of the state and eventually attempted to expand his influence with a presidential bid in 2016. So who are the Children of Solidarity? These are the people who must live the longest with the consequences of the new economy and environment created by the actions taken by Wisconsin Republicans in 2011.
This work was made during the 2009 celebration of Sukkot for the Lubavitch in Crown Heights, NY. Sukkot is an annual jubilee that celebrates harvests and the 40 years that were spent wandering the desert with Moses, living in temporary shelters. Every year at this time, families build their own temporary shelters to eat and drink in and to entertain their guests within. L’Chaim comes from a common toast “to life” made during this time.