Growing up around Orlando, the first place I learned to stay away from was the Orange Blossom Trail, aka where U.S. Route 441 joins up with U.S. 17/92, a highway that runs south-north on the west side of the city. You could, and still can, find just about everything good, bad, and weird about Central Florida on the Trail.
The first draw on the south end is Gatorland, an animal park that bills itself as the "Alligator Capital of the World." Heading north from there, you get the Florida Mall, Goodwill Orlando, and more strip clubs, strip malls, adult toy stores, and by-the-hour/-day/-week motels than you can shake a stick at. Also: lots of sex workers, and the Parliament House, Orlando's most storied gay bar.
I was warned away from the place long before I could drive: the Trail was dangerous, tempting. Yet once I got my license, I couldn't stay away. I never scored drugs or sex on OBT, but I loved driving up and down, slow as I could, day and night. If you like people watching, the Trail is a feast for the eyes. That's why I was thrilled to come across photographer Bryan Soderlind's decade-spanning collection of images from the Orange Blossom Trail. I emailed him to ask about his experience photographing trail denizens. Some photos from his collection appear here with his permission. Check out his website to see the rest.
Do you remember the first picture you took on the Trail? What was that experience like?
I can't remember the first picture exactly, but I remember always wanting to stop and take pictures when I was on OBT. I think I just hit a point where I didn't want to think of the pictures I could have taken. I decided to have some confidence and start approaching people. A lot of times I was on my bicycle and felt like that gave people a better sense of security, like I was just a guy on his bike making his way through the neighborhood even if I looked out of place at times.
A lot of your subjects look happy to be having their photo taken. Or at least, not pissed off or shy.
People in general seem to enjoy having their picture taken. I've always asked my subjects and made sure they were comfortable before I started taking pictures. Usually there is a good reason why I want to shoot someone, whether it was their cool bike, shirt, look, or whatever and I've usually made it known. Everyone appreciates being noticed so I think at times people were flattered, I think deep down most people know the importance of pictures and like being a part of them.
It sounds like as you spent more time taking photos on OBT, you've gotten more comfortable. How has your perception of the place has changed?
OBT was described to me early on by friends as a place where prostitutes and drug dealers hang out, not a place you'd want to stop for gas or even leave the windows down at a stop light.
In reality, it's a very diverse area (besides maybe income level). All sorts of cultures are represented and the amount of people walking and riding bikes makes the area seem "alive." People are way more approachable in scenarios like these. I feel comfortable walking up to most people, sometimes I ask early on for a picture and other times I'm sincerely interested in what they have going on and may wait on taking the picture.
OBT gets a bad rap for probably good reason due to the high amount of prostitution and drug busts, but you can't write off the whole place. A lot of people are just passing through and have some amazing stories to tell. Seedy hangout corners and sketchy gas stations line the trail, but it wasn't always that way. There is a lot of history on OBT and I would say the majority of people you see on the trail are good people just trying to get by.
Have you ever been scared to ask someone for a picture?
A lot of times I feel scared approaching people but it has more to do with not getting a great photo than it does with feeling unsafe. I know my intentions when taking a photo and I'd like to think the subjects understand those intentions.
How long have you been taking photos on the Trail?
I've been taking photos since I was 21, so about 9 years now. I can't remember the first picture I took on the trail but I do remember driving down the road for the first time and just thinking that the place was a gold mine of characters.
What's your favorite picture that you've taken on the Trail?
I can't really pick a favorite but I can tell you that photographing and meeting the people in this area as a whole has been one of the best photographic experiences in my life.