Dorothea Lange Fellowship

ABOUT THE 2011 FELLOW

Vanessa Carr

Slide show of Vanessa Carr's photos

The notion of journalist as "fly on the wall" — taking everything in while remaining unseen — is "a little bit of a fiction," graduate student Vanessa Carr believes. Even if one's subject becomes less self-conscious with time, "you're never completely invisible. Sometimes events unfold because of your presence with a camera," she says.

A relative newcomer to photojournalism, Carr took a crash course in the nuances of seeing and being seen while documenting the daily life of "Tree," a 49-year old woman living in San Francisco's Mission Hotel. "There are a lot of hotels here," Carr says of the Mission District, where she herself has lived for six years. "I never knew what they were or who lived there."

An image from Vanessa Carr's photo seriesVanessa Carr photo

Four months' immersion in the cramped hallways and rooms of the city's largest single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel changed all that.

A former casting director and the mother of two grown children, Tree had landed in the Mission Hotel after quitting her psychiatric medication and becoming homeless. "We had a rapport," Carr says of their initial encounter during a week-long School of Journalism project focusing on San Francisco SROs. The two agreed to collaborate to document Tree's sometimes precarious existence at the hotel — a place animated by unfulfilled dreams and a lively trade in food, drugs, sex, companionship and cigarettes.

Carr recalls that a photography teacher at Berkeley had urged her to experiment with working exclusively with a wide-angle lens. That way, "I couldn't zoom in," she says, "but would have to literally get close to people." When she did, the results were striking: "It broke down my shyness and not wanting to bother people."

Documenting Tree's life, Carr navigated interpersonal relations and technical challenges as she sought to gather not just still photos but video and audio. Later she would add bits of music and short explanatory text and captions to help tell the story.

"Tree's round blue eyes, blonde pixie haircut, and taste for scarves, floppy hats, and the occasional rabbit fur make her look younger than her 49 years," Carr wrote. "The daughter of a preacher, Tree was raised in the Church of Christ during her childhood in Idaho. She incorporates many crosses into her bohemian style…."

Carr has been interested in visual media since high school, when she watched documentary films at art-house theaters in Cambridge, Mass. In approaching journalistic projects, she is aware of the temptation to use her camera as a "passport" to get close to others’ suffering or poverty, she says. "I'm influenced by Susan Sontag, who wrote about the photographer as class tourist."

The 27-year-old journalist is "still figuring out" how to be conscious and respectful while bearing witness to others’ lives. Carr is drawn to "getting more in-depth, getting more specific" through longer-term projects. And to "offering people the opportunity to tell a story in their own voice," with audio — as Tree does intermittently in Carr's seven-minute multimedia piece "Queen of Hearts: Tree’s Story."

"I want the light to break through," Tree says in the piece. "But right now I believe it’s the dark before the dawn…. This is the Mission Hotel. We’re invisible; we're disposable."

Seven color prints from that project caught the attention of the Dorothea Lange judges and garnered Carr the 2011 Lange fellowship.

With the prize money, she plans to do documentary work among the Burmese refugee community in Buffalo, N.Y., for inclusion in a visual trilogy on post-industrial American cities. (Carr's other two locations are Richmond, Calif. — where she has been a reporter and senior producer with the J School's Richmond Confidential project — and Detroit, Mich.)

Carr decided to turn her lens on Buffalo after witnessing a foreclosure auction in that once-bustling industrial city, now blighted by more than 20,000 vacant homes. Buffalo has a large population of refugees and immigrants from Burma, Africa and the Middle East. Many of them were there that day, bidding on properties in need of a lot of TLC, and going for as little as $500, she recalls.

"A lot of refugees are being resettled in post-industrial cities," Carr notes, where "it's hard enough for Americans to find work."

In anticipation of that project, she is educating herself about Buffalo and its Burmese community, and developing contacts with photographers there. "I would love to collaborate," she says, "with one of the Burmese refugee photojournalists living in Buffalo."