Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Photographer Ben Marcin found the people who live off the grid.
During the hunting season, Ben Marcin likes to hike on the edge of Baltimore's woodlands. That's where he discovered the city's secluded homeless camps; makeshift dwellings for locals who choose to live off the grid but close to roadways and shopping centers.
Marcin is no stranger to documenting solitude in the built environment. So he decided to find as many of these as possible, putting together a photo project called Camps. Similar to Last House Standing, in which the photographer captured lonely rowhouses around the Mid-Atlantic, Marcin shot the dwellings without the dwellers themselves.
While Baltimore's solitary rowhouses often symbolize neighborhood decline and the dedication of those who remain, Camps shows a different kind of loneliness - the section of Baltimore's homeless population that feels uncomfortable using city-provided shelters. Instead, these residents choose to carve out their own lives using whatever materials they can find.
The results are fascinating. As Marcin notes, no two shelters look the same, and each one reflects the user's possessions, needs, and creativity. Some are no more than a bed under a roadway, others have their own roofs with facades built entirely of old doors or milk crates. None of the shelters photographed in Camps remain today.
We caught up with Marcin to talk about his latest project, and to figure out not only how he found these secluded homes, but what happened to them and the people who once lived inside:
What inspired you to take on Camps?
I have always been interested in the unique places people live in, particularly where there exists an element of defiance or desperation, or both. In these situations, a house can often reflect the dilemma of its owner. In the case of the hobo camps, this reflection is quite pronounced for obvious reasons. A sheet of plastic laid out over a clothesline may be the last stand for somebody who has either been rejected by society or who has refused to conform to whatever rules are being imposed on them. Several camp people I talked to said they wouldn't relocate into one of the City's shelters because they were afraid of being assaulted or having belongings stolen.
Were you aware of the homeless camps before you started this project?
I came upon the first couple of camps by accident. During hunting season, I tend to stay closer to the city when I go out on my hikes. On one of these walks, I stumbled upon a surprisingly elaborate structure made up of stacked milk crates; a mini-fortress hidden in the bushes just yards from a major thoroughfare near downtown Baltimore. From that point on, I started exploring any secluded piece of property that might provide cover for somebody living off the grid. I quickly learned that places next to railroad tracks were the best place to look for hobo camps, followed by the restless areas behind Walmarts, gas stations, and liquor stores.
What about these camps stood out to you?
While most of the camps I came upon were basic tarp or tent operations, several were actually quite elaborate. One was built entirely of wooden doors; another had a bench press with weights set up in the middle of the camp.
Like your Rowhouse series, there are no people to be found. Why?
As in almost all of my photographs, I opted out of presenting portraits of the camp residents. I wanted to leave a bit of the mystery out there for viewers to ponder.
What has happened to these camps and the people that lived in them since you took these photos?
A year or so after finishing this project, I started returning to some of the camp locations and was surprised to find that all of them were gone. One had burned to the ground; several camps showed signs of bulldozer tracks. In one case, a man had been assaulted and killed outside a camp and the police had cleared the area of all tents. In other camps, soggy clothes and magazines were all that were left. In the meantime, new camps have spouted up in other areas. My guess is that these, too, will not be around for long.