Skip to main content

Create Powerful Photo Essays & Personal Projects

Lesson 11 of 35

The Evolution of Foreclosed Dreams Part 2

David H Wells

Create Powerful Photo Essays & Personal Projects

David H Wells

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

11. The Evolution of Foreclosed Dreams Part 2

Lesson Info

The Evolution of Foreclosed Dreams Part 2

So let me keep going, because now we're probably up to about two thousand eleven, and I'm doing a pretty good job of using this network that I've talked about and the social media promotion and former students and stuff to get into the houses in different states. This is actually back in rhode island. This isn't the bronx, and I remember this clears day I had a student named daniel at a class I did in new york city, and I said, I'm looking to get into houses in new york city, and he said, oh, I'm in real estate, and I say, good, can we talk afterwards? And actually, he got me into another houses. This is in the bronx. This is also in the bronx. I grew up with that phone. I remember that phone on my house when I was a kid. This is me at work again in a place called sudden massachusetts, and a lot of what I do actually isn't a zon, a tripod, sometimes a tabletop tripod, sometimes a full sized tripod. This was a house that a real tour said, you know, it's been cleaned up, but you should s...

ee what these people did to the house before they left because they knew this was coming, so they did a lot of work. Decoration, writing whatever you wanna call it on the walls and so I went through and I photographed it and I'm doing things like changing the angle you'll sit here playing off the color of the background, the type the things that they wrote and it's all about putting a sort of a human face without showing your face on the people who used to be here. And, you know, I could have in theory contact that's family have them standing in front of the house with the foreclosure sign that's one visual language is not the language that interest me. I'm more interested in this kind of stuff. So my favorite photo actually out of sudden was this one right here? New owner's warning, please take care I mean, doesn't get any more direct than that. This is in woonsocket, rhode island, not far from where I live. This was in new jersey, you know anything about credit scores? This person's credit score was four hundred eighty six um and it actually says in big letters you are here, which is your credit's pretty bad? Also in new jersey, this was again through a student who connected me to some realtors and it's always that personal introduction cause I can't call people up and say, let me go into this house, but when somebody call somebody the person the answer is, I don't care it's fifteen minutes of my time, and they don't people who had been very gracious once I get past that sort of initial weirdness. Um, continuing forward the process now we're up to two thousand ten, a nonprofit organization or an ngo and on governmental organization nonprofit organization writes me actually out of the blue about a potential collaboration, right exactly. Now I'm getting excited, so they wrote me about this potential collaboration because they saw, um, a photo mine, which was in the new york times opinion ater piece and was on the new york times lens walk. I'll show you that just a minute, and we had this dialogue back and forth, and the group is actually called the national community reinvestment coalition, and they work in different urban neighborhoods, and one of their big missions is foreclosure prevention. And so it seemed like a natural match. And so we applied for something called the audience engagement, gramps and the mission of the audience ingredient grand up positive for second is for photographers to take an existing body of work on a social justice or human rights issue and devise an innovative, effective way of using that work for social change, and this is actually run by the open society institute in new york. Okay? And one of the interesting thing that's happened in the grant world in the last few years and the open society institutes probably the best at this is that they've realized that there are photographers out there who can create the work but they don't necessarily know how to get the work out there and so actually what they do here is they say we're going to make an organization an ngo and a photographer worked together to create a body of work both with the the mission of the body of work and with some actual way of getting it out there and so that's the idea behind the audience engagement grant so we work together and I thought in theory we were going to get this money that was my hope to do the work and then they're going to be ableto promoted, but I also thought they would help me access foreclosures to photograph via they have a nationwide network of like three hundred member group, so I was thinking I could get so closer to my thirty to fifty states uh and we made it to the final round, but we didn't actually win a naughty instead gaugin grand it was one of those heartbreaking moments because you've done all this work get to the final round remember I said before, if you're finalised, it means you're doing something close but we didn't actually get it unfortunately and now we're getting up to we're probably about two thousand seven two thousand twelve I had an exhibition at a place called art space in raleigh, north carolina, and what they did in art's face too, so helpful if they put me in touch with somebody who dealt with foreclosures in north carolina and south carolina, so I went down for a week before the show and I photographed different foreclosures in north carolina and south carolina, so I'm continuing to build up my body of work and of course, those photos become part of the exhibit because not only is it a nationwide image issue, but we have actual local images north carolina actually also north carolina this one, of course they'd yank the sink out, you find the strangest thing in these houses birth certificates? I don't know, I would have thought my take mine with me, but and this is something we almost all had these in her house is right. This is a little height marker, and I photograph four or five of these over the time I've been doing this, this is the best one for my purposes. As you might imagine, you can't have the same picture more than one time, but I've got four five different versions of it, and this one is actually if I think from virginia on one of my more recent shoots and it's just one of those things that obviously tugs at your heartstrings because we've all had this we've all been through that and that's what happens when people are foreclosed upon? Unfortunately, a more recent still this's in uh, massachusetts and somebody asked me, have you ever had any problems with law enforcement? And I was four years into this project I never had a single problem with law enforcement, so I'm in this house in massachusetts and a cop rolls up and pounds on the door and they started shouting stuff because I think what they're trying to do is make sure there's not anybody in their homeless doing anything wrong and I come out and say hi our you why you here put the realtors card everything's fine, he calls everybody has a nice day. It is the only time in almost five years working on this project that I had any problems knock on wood, same house actually in a massachusetts apologies against something you think my god, what exactly? This was a perfectly distressing one but a good one. The question that the person online was asking about is, how do you keep going? Well, unfortunately, walk in the house and you say they actually had to leave behind wedding photos or this person actually had worked in the mortgage industry in their previous life and they left behind old it means, like sort of piling one level of craziness upon another but yes so this was in massachusetts so let me go back into some of the minutia of how I do all this so that's the path we're almost a date but not quite. I try to have all of my actions v e mail and I do that because a the clarity in terms of we understand each other perfectly. Um I like to keep a paper trail and for lack of better term I like to control the dialogue. Okay, when you talk a lot about working with clients it's this whole thing, as I said before about you want to give them something so they can say, oh, yeah that's how it's going to solve my problem? So my e mails to people tend to be not very open and they tend to be very directed this is what I'm doing. This is where I am and nine times out of ten they could just say yes if you give him too many choices give people too many choices, they're not sure what to do on their nights are you going to do the choice you want? So I do as much as I can by email for all of these reasons the other thing that I do is I keep incredibly detailed records of all the people who helped me access houses and then I keep that in line from introduction to the access to me sending them actual fine art prince because I send people prints when they help me so if you help me out and you ask me can you photograph this other house even though it's not a foreclosure as a realtor I do that a lot that's the sort of trade but a lot of times I'm getting help through students and other people I know people groups like this where they say well I'm happy to help you but they don't need photographs of a house so I send them a fine art print from the project so I'm always trying to give people something of value back because they've gone out of the way it does a bunch of things number one they're very loyal to you number two you're doing the right thing morally and number three the next time you come back to them they may be able to help you with something they maybe introduce you to somebody else many time ask people from one state do you know somebody else another state one thing leads to another to another so I keep all this incredible records I encourage you to do the same and just thesis um frame grabs off of my computer this is the contact list by state so this is how I can keep track of who I worked with in a given state this is a pretty recent shoot right out of a function of a student who was in my class and I said this exact thing and she said oh yeah I know a realtor in portland, maine let me introduce you to realtor important mean so I got into three houses in portland made this is one of them and I've seen many, many foreclosures where the walls were punched that it's just that somebody was kind enough to give a little narrative at the same time this person life loved vanilla coke this was in virginia in um phoenix actually also in phoenix also threw a former workshop student las vegas and so now to continue the actual evolution of this project here's some images from the project on the website of different photo agencies that I work with this for example is on the getty images web site this is one of my very early foreclosure photographs on the getty site which was then used by forbes for web article and a print article on the foreclosure crisis and I'm not saying you're necessarily going to do that but this thing of fitting in the larger discussion that's going on there it is so important that's what's gonna difference a year project from the next person's project is that this thing about your father unfortunately something a lot of people are talking about so if you khun put those two together you're able to get it a lot more dissemination, it kind of goes off because I know you're saying that you like to you like to own your work, you know, no matter what you do, you like the only network afterwards because I noticed that you had a couple of images that were, I guess I'm getting site, do you steal? Was that, like, stock photography that you did so that they could actually go back and get that later? Or was this something that get he came to you about or you put it out there? Stock photography? I mean, my particular arrangement with getty is I used to be a regular contributor of theirs. I don't contribute as much, which doesn't mean anything it's just the way the market's changed, but I did contribute stuff to get to getty or through aurora, the other agency and basically it's still all work that I own, it gets posted I aurora side of the getty site, and then somebody like forbes goes in and looks around, and one of the things they want to see is how many times is this photo been used and since that hadn't been used by many people, that's one of the reasons that they're more likely to license it? Royalty free and all these other kinds where you can get any photos for pennies. One of the downside is that the end users a lot of times you say I don't want something that everybody else's had I want that I can't get many places and so I'm still with getty and with corvis and stuff it's not as big a part of the market is used to but I still am with him and I still own the work it's not like they on the work and that was part of an ongoing relationship okay and the point being not necessarily that you will or will not fire your images with the stock agency because that's not necessarily something we're talking about today but just the idea is how fast can you get it out there? Can you get it in front of people? Can you make it part of this larger discussion? Um this was from the abc news website. They did a little portfolio of the work from the abc news website this is actually photo from michigan here's the rabbit photo from california also on the bbc news website from florida and also from florida and one of the things that I want to stop here about this is that tug of war which I think you were alluding to is that I learned to use the learned to utilize the editing choices of the various publications and the sites to adjust how I shoot and edit the work. In other words, abc news about ten photos for their website that tells me that another one of these third party validator somebody I don't know out of the blue I went through it all this stuff looked at six year seven picks, seventy pictures and picked out ten those ten worked for them that tells me something about them. Okay, so when you start putting your work out there, you really have this tug of war between it's mine, mine, mine. I love it the way it is, and how do I listen to those people who were out there, which ones work for them, and you have to kind of balance that remember the beginning? I said, you've got to believe in your own stuff, but as time goes on, you kind of have to say, well, I believe in my own stuff, but I kind of also want to hear what other people have to say, so the connection being that some of the ones that were in this we're not favorito might initially, but if they made it past abc news, and they had seventy to choose from, it tells me that they're working for them. These are some of the more recent ones think we're in virginia also, I think virginia now one of the things you need to understand I've hinted at this before but this is like a really aggressive way of putting it you have to look for other projects that are similar to yours to see what others have already done on the business to business and your end user will know all that stuff it's less so on the retail and where you may be making portrait for people but if you if you successfully make work that works for publishers, editors, magazines, stuff like that it will also work on the retail and justus well um you need to figure out how did they who did the work before you and it may be different but it's ideally similar define execute, disseminate in position their project so you want to be looking at all the other work that's out there it's not that you're stealing ideas from them that you are still a little bit of ideas, but you're just trying to understand how did they place in the market how do they define it? What were the things they used to disseminate it? Okay, and you need to keep in mind that many of your potential outlets will already know this exact thing they'll know what your peers and competitors have done so that's one of the things when I was sort of picking on you're talking about what you're trying to do and one of the downsides of sports photography is there's so much out there it's a real problem I think you probably already shaking your head you're running up against so you need to be looking at a lot of sports photography and finding the way describe it is it you'll see this and you'll see that you'll see that you'll see that it does help there's a spot there it's still kind of who I am it plays on my strength your background but it's not these other places okay and the foreclosure thing many people are already done that sign on top of the real estate sign said foreclosure unarmed people had done photographs of people standing in front of their house is holding so those are languages those were approaches I could not use I actually had not seen the approach that I took there's been a bunch of people who've done for closure related projects but nobody's actually done just go in there and see what's left behind there are actually a couple people who've done gone into focus houses and set up new scenarios there's a lot of people whose photographed outside of foreclosed houses but nobody has just gone in and said this is in arizona by the way these people left this house and they rubbed across every time they left so much that they erase the faith uh las vegas this didn't work out too well and this is the last one and this was a foreclosure in connecticut and the cleanup crews right behind me. I remember walking into the bathroom and people say you set this up I'm not smart enough to care on american flag and stuff a towel rack in a foreclosed house in connecticut, so no, I didn't set it up. The only problem is how fast can I work? Cause I know that this guy is going to come in in a minute with a big plastic bag and sweep all this stuff and I'm going to lose the moment so my newspaper training working fast actually pays off but that's sort of the last photo in this project and I know I went into a lot of detail, but I hope you understand the things like how do you access your subjects which will apply to all your projects? How do you promote it? How do you get other people interested in it? How do you tell people help me mme or how do you use all this third party validation that you're building? So for me I was very lucky this stuff has been exhibited a lot of places it was exhibited it uh the torpedo factory in virginia, the art space in north carolina in a gallery called yellow peril in rhode island, where I live portfolios the worker published on the abc news website in photo techniques magazine which just went out of business, sadly, and they do spell it lower case, um, and then a magazine called witness, which is the journal of the black mountain institute in las vegas. It was featured in the new york times, opinionated in the new york times lens blawg, and it was profiled on a bunch of different websites, including lend, scratch, art, name and small camera, big picture, and, of course, it is won that award from social documented dot net a few years ago, and then last year, one a small award, but every little bit helps from the forward thinking museum. So this is the one that was in the new york times, ran a siri's on the lens, blawg in twenty ten on foreclosure photography, and I had one photo out of ten that was in there, but it's, the one you saw before of the trophies and stuff, and this has been really pivotal, because a lot of people see this and it's, another one of those third party validations, so I'm going on hears this, and examples of the profile on the art mean blawg profiles in two different magazines, and, again, I'm not tryingto break, I'm trying to say there's all these incredible opportunities other, some of which pay witness paid very well I was actually stunned when they called me up and said yes we'll buy your photos will pay a lot of money and we'll do a portfolio land scratch doesn't pay but it builds his ability but all of these things are opportunities that the web has created in the old days it was one sunday magazine for every city and if you couldn't get in there you're kind of stuck now if you do a lot of promotion this stuff there's all these opportunities and the flip side of this is understand that all of these sites are hungry for new projects okay if you go to any of these sites and you say I want to do something for closure frankly they're probably way did that well sky company but if you come with something new um this was an interview in an exhibition review in the providence phoenix a weekly newspaper just talking about an exhibition in all of these events a small award any of them are opportunities through social media that I can promote me and the project so this was this wass the forward thinking museum award this one here wass the yellow peril exhibition this was a friend of mine and all the stuff we know about social media friend ofmine repost it right so I'm getting more valid this's the exhibition opening and you can't see it because it's still but I made a time lapse of all the people coming in seeing my photographs and all leaving and made a movie and posted it on the web so it's another event that I can promote on social media and so this is one of those great quotes that came from a review um rhode island monthly is a magazine and they did this this review of my show and I stop on this one because I thought it was a great quote but number two this kind of quote is something you could then incorporate in your own project proposal and your own explanation of the work. So those reviews and that kind of feedback you get from people just unbelievably helpful so this actually has become part of my project proposal that quote so I'm going to show you now it's about three minutes it's what I call an audio collage as I was doing this project I and was in still him continually kind of experimenting with how do I tell that story? Okay, and so what I did was I created an audio collage where I've interviewed people on the foreclosure crisis and I've used photos as well yeah, my house, my home is sacred and it is for most people to a stranger can't just walk in it's not allowed people can't take it or touch your things or rearrange your life or dump you outside on the sidewalk like a piece of trash I like going home. I like walking in that familiar door. And I like hearing those familiar sounds and knowing exactly which closet door's gonna creak and the familiar timing of the clock. You know, I like visiting the ghosts of my past. It's very comforting. I like having that there. I know what those people were giving up because see, I still have it. And so I looked at it and I was like, god, they don't have that anymore a person always misses their childhood home. It's a place of great memories is part of their identity and I just really like a place that feels like a respite from the rest of the world. I do worry about my parents, my father's family home it's been in my family for the night generation to live there. I worry about losing that from my family. When I was a teenager, I lived in a house and it was a fabulous hasker that hell, it sorts of nooks and crannies and it was old on dh. We left that home because we got poorer and poorer and we kept moving into smaller and smaller house. As my parents were divorced, I worked all my life to build up fabulous credit, and now I came to look at the numbers there must be in the minuses what people who left clutter behind them like that were doing was saying screw you to the bank clean up my mess you know you wouldn't let me clean it up, so I'm gonna let you clean it out looking at the foreclosure photos, the heartbreaking part of it was it was a ziff thes homes were tourney open and these people's lives were torn open and you could see straight into things that you shouldn't be allowed to see so that's the audio collage piece that I show a lot when I'm presenting the work it's another way of coming at this narrative that we've been talking about the earlier stuff was about things here I kind of personalized to be noticed I didn't show faces and also is using the people talking against the dark on purpose, not saying to do that for save it it's another way of creating the narrative. So when you see this exhibition you go through, this is actually one of my next question when you see the exhibition, you see those still photographs and typically someone the space that audio pieces playing either this version, which is three minutes and I have a longer version, which is six minutes you'll notice I was also a varying gender in the people interviewed and also varying regional accents on purpose to try to give you a sense of the sort of nationwide scope of this so that's my question this is a question to some of you is also questioned to the online audience can you help me access foreclosures across the usa each person who introduces who produces a contact that gets me in a house to photograph in a state where I have yet to work wins a prize I'm the self employed person I've been self employed a long times right? They get to accompany me on the shoot if they want and I will review their portfolio before or after the shoot and another question I have is would you want to work to exhibit or publish the foreclosed dreams work in any case in any of these? Contact me through the website david h wells dot com and I'm quite serious by the way I'm always looking for new places to get into always looking for people who might exhibit or publish it and this is part of something that you actually wanted to take ford saying yeah, I guess I really have to become a little more for promotion for motor sales person so if you're thinking about it, the great out states where I have already worked so the question would be do you know anybody kind of in the middle who might be able to help me? And if so I'd love to talk to you afterwards or by email both for you guys here and then for the online audience and I'm doing this part because I have a huge audience, but also it's, really part of our process. The web has given us all these incredible new ways to two seminar work share work. It's made the market more competitive, but you have new networks, new opportunities, and you really should seize them. And so I just seized an opportunity.

Class Description

The most powerful way to establish your voice and distinguish yourself as a photographer is to conceptualize and shoot a photo essay. Photo essays are compelling, dynamic, vivid mission statements of your work — every photographer should have a working knowledge of this narrative art form. Join David Wells to learn how to create a captivating photo essay from start to finish.

This course shatters the myth that photo essays are only for photojournalists; you’ll learn how all photographers can use photo essays to tell the story of any subject, in any style. You’ll learn how to present your unique point of view and communicate a coherent aesthetic through a compelling photographic essay. You’ll build strategies for tackling the complex task of assembling, editing and presenting a large photo project that speaks to its viewers. You’ll also learn about the techniques that are essential for keeping yourself inspired and organized while maintaining an effective workflow.

By the end of this course, you’ll have the skills it takes to stand out in a crowded marketplace and create a compelling project that showcases your skills, communicates your style, and helps others understand your personality, passion, and talents.



First off, I was a photo assistant for a few years to a photographer who did numerous multi-day workshops. This was my first time as a student sitting in on a webinar that actually kept me interested. Sometimes I'm turned off by the pace of the teacher, his or her voice, or the manner in which they disseminate the information. But this was truly fantastic. David showed lots of his work in a way that was NOT egotistical in any sense (something that does happen quite often). I was utterly impressed by the quality of his work, the wealth of knowledge he has on the world, culture and politics, and how he shoots "on the go". All of those qualities are essential parts to creating a great photo essay/story. I came into this seminar needing inspiration and in the end I have more ideas than I know what to do with. David's work is truly magnificent; his photo stories pertain to people and their struggles, which really could be something any one of us could go through at any point, but he shows it in a way that is beautiful - either beautifully desperate or beautifully destructive - instead of in an exploitative way. On a side note, he also offered up a lot of great information having to do with funding, exposure, workflow, time efficiency, income streams, releases... you won't find this a lot with other photographers. You will find the "go find the info yourself" attitude. This has been my problem as of late with photography - we don't work together as artists, we work against each other competing for what, I'm not sure. David's seminar seemed to embrace photography as the art form it is, and shared with us the tools that we as artists need to really understand and utilize in order to get our story out there. A story it seems he really wants to see/hear. Just an amazing "Thank You"!!!!

a Creativelive Student

I have purchased a number of classes on Creative Live. This class taught by David Wells is one of the best. David is a thorough teacher, personal and connects with his students. Along with his superb and inspiring imagery David talked about his experiences in getting funding, his workflow, developing his stories and distributing his work. David is talented, generous and an excellent teacher. Highly recommended class.

Anjani Millet

Just completed the course. Fantastic, practical information on everything from grant writing, finding foundations, proposal development, even how to shake hands overseas. I am not sure where else I would have found this information for photographers. So appreciate it. One friend asked if this would be worth watching for anyone outside the US and the answer is a definitive yes. Very happy I purchased, and already starting to implement.