“It Was Like They Were Still There But They Weren’t” - NBC 7 San Diego

“It Was Like They Were Still There But They Weren’t”

Documenting the recession photo by photo



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    Vallejo, CA-They left the sheets on the bed. They left stuffed animals on the floor.  The left war medals in a drawer. That’s right, war medals.

    Just how desperate must one family have been to leave all that behind?

    That’s just what Rhyen Coombs was asking moments after walking through the door of 522 Phillips Street in Vallejo. The two-story, stucco home is in foreclosure. It’s a rough-looking house, in the middle of a tough-looking block, at the center of a hard-living Vallejo neighborhood.

    Coombs, a graduate journalism student, had been given an assignment by her UC Berkeley photography professor: document the recession. She had read a magazine piece about what happens to foreclosed homes after the residents leaves; a piece, she thought, that could have used some pictures. So, Coombs called a company whose job it is to clean out foreclosures and asked to tag along on their next job. That is how she found herself walking into 522 Phillips just days after a family had walked out.

    “The house was full; of furniture, of clothing, personal belongings. It looked like someone had just gotten up and went on a trip.” Coombs says, like many of us, she had always assumed a foreclosed home was an empty home. Most are, yes, but they don’t start that way.

    Coombs walked around the house a few times before she ever pulled out her camera. “It was like they were still there, but they weren’t. It was like you could feel them in the house.”

    “I found war metals. I found letters. I found stuffed animals, and children’s toys; things that I couldn’t imagine someone leaving behind.”

    What quickly dawned on Coombs is that she was there to do a story about the family, not the home. A family she would never, actually meet. “I tried to capture the space and the things that were left behind in a way that illustrated who they were and what had mattered to them even if it is ultimately what they left.”

    Coombs continued taking pictures until the cleaning crew was done and all the family’s belongings were on their way to dump. She ended up taking thousands of pictures. With eight of those pictures Coombs just won Berkeley’s 2009 Dorothea Lange

    The fellowship comes with a cash prize. Coombs says she will use the money to expand her project to include an audio slideshow and a book.