Small Town Texas
There was a brief period of my life when I called Houston, Texas home. Houston is an amazing city. As one of the United States’ most populous cities, it offers something for everyone. I’d moved there in 2009, when the recession was in full swing for much of the U.S., and was looking forward to making images in a different part of the country.
Everyone was doing whatever they could to survive and make the best of the situation. I was fresh off employment from my daily gig as a daily-newspaper photojournalist and I anticipated the stories and people I’d encounter as I began my new endeavor as a freelance photojournalist.
On one Houston evening, I was watching the local news; it was reported that a large car dealership in nearby Hempstead—population just under 5,000—would be closing. Even small shops and businesses closing would be disastrous for a town the size of Hempstead, but this car dealership closing seemed to be more than a small shop or business.
The next day I loaded some film into my Canon TX camera and made my way 51 miles northwest of Houston to the small town of Hempstead, just to see what I could see.
My purpose of this trip wasn’t as an investigative, immersive experience. Rather, it was to simply make images in a town that I’d never been to, that had recently been dealt an economic blow.
Stories come in all shapes in sizes. The recession of 2008 was something that affected a huge number of people. Traveling to this small town was my way of localizing a big story.
One of the first businesses I approached was a tire shop. There were two people talking outside the shop so I introduced myself and began making images. I would’ve been happy with the image of the shop and two bystanders but suddenly a third figure appeared and walked into the frame. Perfect! To me, the third gentleman entering the frame captured the small-town vibe that I was looking for.
After that, I made my way to the large car dealership that was to close. There wasn’t much to mention of it: there was still a lot full of cars, the only difference was that the gate was locked; a sobering reminder of the dealership’s status.
It’s OK to Approach Strangers for Photographs
While making some laps through town, I passed a group of men sitting outside and playing some a game near a shack of questionable structural integrity. If you’ve ever wondered how to make pictures of strangers, I’ll tell you how this early attempt went.
Questions and nervousness ran through me like a raging river: Should I approach these guys? What if they say, “No”? What if they become angry?
Finally, after too many minutes of thought, I simply said, “Fuck it.” A point arrives when you can see yourself talking yourself out of the opportunity to make pictures. The lesson to be had here is—don’t do that. I’ve had a lot of practice approaching strangers since this moment. But, this was an early attempt and I was still a bit green.
I approached the men, asked them if I could make pictures of them and explained I was photographing the town after learning of the car dealership closing. They agreed and that was it, I was making pictures.
If I’d not mustered the courage to ask the men to make their pictures, I would’ve walked away from the moment and I would’ve been disappointed in myself.
The point is: If you put a lot of work into your photography and would like to approach strangers for a type of street photography, don’t hesitate to ask. You probably won’t see your subject(s) ever again. In the end, it’s all about making the types of images you want to make, and not questioning those intentions in the moment.
Photojournalism—journalism in general, for that matter—is about telling stories accurately and as completely as possible. I wasn’t able to spend a terribly large amount of time or resources here, but I’m thankful for what I was able to document. These photos were made during two trips to the town, using two rolls of film.
It’s important to do the best we can and I’m thankful for the photos I was able to make of Hempstead during a tough time. If you feel like you won’t be able to spend enough time or money or won’t be able to do a photo idea justice, don’t let that stop you from pursuing a photo project. As long as you try for something, anything, and give it your best effort, you’ll walk away with work that you can be proud of.