Photos

How to Photograph a Bankrupt City

Kirk Crippens has been taking pictures of Stockton, California, since its housing bubble famously burst.

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Kirk Krippens

When a city files for bankruptcy, can you show it in a photograph?

San Francisco-based photographer Kirk Crippens isn't sure, but he's been more than willing to make the hour-and-a-half drive to Stockton, California, in an attempt to document the city's struggles visually.

Crippens started visiting Stockton, a city of nearly 300,000, in early 2009, shortly after its housing crisis become national news. He then returned when the city government filed for bankruptcy in 2012, its debt estimated at over $240 million.

While stark images of unfinished developments and empty homes clearly conveyed Stockton's housing crisis, showing a city's bankruptcy in images proved more challenging. "Bankruptcy is an idea," as Crippens says.

What his photographs do show us is a place where something has truly gone wrong. Now Crippens is trying to find the happier side of the story, the one where a bankrupt city's residents move on from a crippling municipal crisis.

What was your personal connection or history with Stockton before you started photographing it?

I had only been to Stockton, California, a few times before driving there in January 2009 to begin my project, Foreclosure, USA. The housing crisis had taken hold. The small publishing company I work for had cut my hours and laid off many of my coworkers. It was a difficult time.

Stockton's City Council chambers. Image from Bank Rupture

Inspired by the photography of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans from the Great Depression, I looked for a way to create photographs of the economic crisis of my lifetime. I didn't know it would come to be known as The Great Recession, I only knew I had time on my hands and 60 Minutes had called Stockton the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis. It was very important to form as many relationships as possible during that first year.

Besides abandoned buildings, what are the visual clues you find around the city that tell you as a photographer, or just a visitor, "something really bad happened here"?

In 2009, Stockton was full of visual clues that the former All-American city had fallen on hard times. Neighborhoods were riddled with 'For Sale' signs from all of the foreclosures. Housing developments stopped in their tracks, leaving unfinished neighborhoods with street signs but no homes.

In 2012 I'd have to point to the massive homeless population. People are living in every nook of the city, building shanties that they live in for years before the city tries to move them along.

Makeshift housing in Stockton. Image from: Bank Rupture 

There are clichés that can come with photographing places of distress and we see that in a lot of photographs that accompany stories of Detroit's struggles. In the case of Stockton, are there visual clichés you've tried to avoid or are there any at all since the city's collapse is so recent?

I've tried to avoid clichés by constantly varying my subject matter. In 2009, the initial subject was obvious: foreclosed homes. But how many photos of foreclosed homes do you need? It wasn't long before I decided to include home auctions, bankrupt housing developments, and businesses affected by the economic shift.

Former offices for Pacific State Bank. It was shut down by the FDIC in 2010. Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA

When I returned to Stockton in 2012 to photograph during the bankruptcy, the subject was not so obvious. Bankruptcy is an idea, you can't photograph a bankruptcy. However you can photograph the mayor who was at the helm during the decision, the city council chambers after the vote for bankruptcy, the inordinately large homeless population within the city, and the memorials that went up during a year with more murders than ever before.

More importantly, it's important to note that Stockton is full of wonderful, kind, concerned people, many of whom I'm now lucky to call my friends. At this point, as the bankruptcy drags on into it's second year, I'm trying to create as balanced a project as possible. Life goes on, even for a city in bankruptcy, and that will be reflected in the photographs I'm making in 2013.

Stockton residents. Images from Bank Rupture  

Of all of the photographs you've taken so far, is there one you think represents post-bankruptcy Stockton, or even post-'08 America, the best?

No, the work is meant to be taken as a whole and it is not complete yet. Ask me again after the bankruptcy is over and I've had time to sort through everything.

Image from: Bank Rupture
Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA
Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA
Image from: Bank Rupture  
Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA
An unfinished housing development. Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA
Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA
Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA
Road along an unfinished housing development. Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA
 
Image from: The Great Recession: Foreclosure, USA

All images courtesy Kirk Crippens

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Kirk Crippen's last name. 

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