Abandoned homes and broken dreams: Lauren Greenfield on her photo essay “Foreclosure Alley”

In the three short years between 2004 and 2007, more than 360,000 homes were purchased in the area known as the Inland Empire, about two hours’ drives from Los Angeles. By November 2008, property values had plummeted and almost a third of the home owners there had defaulted on their mortgages, resulting in a landscape scarred with abandoned homes and littered with the remains of many an American family’s life. Lauren Greenfield has been documenting the Inland Empire in photographs and doing video interviews with area residents. Her photo essay, “Foreclosure Alley”, ties into her ongoing interest in the vagaries of wealth, as explored in her 1997 book Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood and award-winning 2007 short film kids + money. Recently, we called her up and asked her about the project.

What inspired you to photograph the Inland Empire?

It started as an assignment for GQ magazine. All of my books, especially Girl Culture but also Fast Forward, grew through editorial assignments. The economic crisis that we’re in now kind of brings together my work from the past 15 years. The foreclosure story is specifically about foreclosure in the Inland Empire, but for me it’s a case study of the American dream and American values. I was so excited to have the opportunity to shoot in Foreclosure Alley that after the assignment was completed, I continued to go out. It’s still an ongoing project.

The photo essay introduces us to people like David and Wendy, who had always paid their mortgage on time but decided to abandon their home after they discovered they still owed $200,000 more than the house was currently worth. How did you meet the people featured in the essay?

The GQ assignment was kind of short on people. At first, it was more about the houses and the stuff that people left behind. The people were pretty hard to find. My producer, Anna Malsberger, and I used Craigslist. We also found people through word of mouth and through realtors in the area.

The mortgage crisis has created a sort of “us vs. them” dynamic between borrowers and lenders, and certainly has engendered a great deal of resentment among and embarrassment homeowners facing foreclosure.

There’s definitely a lot of shame that goes with foreclosure. I think for somebody like David, he’s not the kind of person that ever expected to walk away from an obligation or took that lightly. He said he was trying to talk to his lawyer to find a solution, and his lawyer said, “I can’t tell you to walk away, but you’re a smart guy-figure it out.” I think a smart guy like him who’s under water and only a few years away from retirement just felt like he didn’t have any good choices except to walk away. One of the things with him and Wendy was they took great care with their house. Their great pride was their backyard and their fountain. When they left the house, they moved the fountain to their daughter’s backyard, and I photographed it there. Backyards were one of my obsessions. People would buy, like, a $200,000 house that would appreciate to $400,000, then they would take out a $200,000 loan. They would have these modest houses with yards that were, for example, Hawaiian inspired and had tiki bars.

Generally speaking, your work prior to “Foreclosure Alley” has been largely figurative-the images in photo essays such as “Girl Culture” and “Kids + Money” usually center on a person or a number of people. But in “Foreclosure Alley,” there are many landscapes and environmental photographs. Abandoned houses, neglected pools, and vandalized property are as much the subjects of this essay as the homeowners themselves, it seems. How do you feel this project is different from your previous work?

Even though I have always been a people photographer, I’ve also always had a strain of still life in my work-informational accents that kind of comment on the people in the pictures. For this project, I started doing a lot of still lifes and pictures without people because it was really about spaces and what was left behind. That was the thing that really hooked me on the project-they call it “life left behind.” There was one house where the family left all their personal effects: family photographs, kids’ soccer trophies, paperwork for 401k plans, couches, keys, food. It’s just so shocking, in a way, and sad to see the loss and dislocation. That was the only time that I almost cried, even though a lot of the people had sad stories.

What do you want people to take away from this project?

I really want people to delve into or question our expectations and values around the American dream and what that means. I think there is a national sense of looking in the mirror and understand how we got here, and I think that’s something that’s not limited to rich people or people who are living beyond their means. It’s kind of like we were all living beyond our means. I think everyone feels a little complicit.

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