The Image Deconstructed

Spotlight On Erika Schultz

Oct 15, 2011


(editor's note - all images in this interview are 
under the copyright of The Seattle Times) 


Erika, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Please 
tell us a little bit about the background of this week's 
featured image: 



Ross, thanks so much for creating The Image, Deconstructed. 
It’s an inspiring and valuable resource for the photojournalism 

Kim moved her two sons— including Jack, 9— from Chicago 
to Seattle in April 2010 after looking for work for about a year. 
Kim had heard there were good job opportunities in the 
Northwest. But the housing vouchers she had been counting 
on never materialized. They soon moved into a tent city called 
Nickelsville, and tried to establish their lives in a new city with 
very little. 

This photograph of Jack was taken as he moved from the tent 
city into the room his family was renting in the University District. 
After weeks of living without running water or electricity, Jack and 
Kim finally had a room of their own, and a kitchen and bathroom 
to share with other residents on their floor. 

The photo essay about Kim and Jack’s journey published in The 
Seattle Times in August 2010 as part of the final installment in a 
three-day, multiplatform series called “Invisible Families.” 

You can see the gallery: 
The Invisible Families project page: 

After meeting Kim and Jack at Nickelsville tent city, I soon 
realized they had a strong relationship. They constantly joked 
with one another and were very affectionate. Kim was warm, 
open and funny. Jack was curious, imaginative and gregarious. 
During their time at Nickelsville, she worried about providing 
Jack a normal childhood through this difficult transition. 

They spent the majority of their money moving across the 
country. Some evenings, dinner was made over a campfire. 
Taking a shower sometimes meant walking a couple miles 
to a community center. 


(Jack and Kim share a moment while living in the tent city. Kim read 
online that jobs would open up in Seattle at the end of the recession. 
Without lining up a job, she moved to Seattle hoping to find secretarial 
work and a fresh start.) 

I wanted to try to share a realistic and personal glimpse into a 
family that was trying to maintain a sense of normalcy while 
homeless. I also wanted to show their relationship and humor as well 
as their quirks — like Jack’s love for the paranormal and his ability 
to enlist other tent city residents to look for worms. 

TID: Since this image is part of a larger story, please talk about 
that story, and how this image fits in within the story. 


Reporter Lornet Turnbull and I started working on the project in the 
spring of 2010 and it published at the end of that summer. Journalists 
from within our community, including The Seattle Times, produced 
stories about family homelessness as part of a fellowship 
administered through Seattle University and funded by the Bill & 
Melinda Gates Foundation. 

The foundation said it sponsored the fellowship to focus attention 
on homeless families, which are the fastest-growing, yet least visible 
segment of the homeless population, both in Washington state and 
nationally. It did not stipulate how fellows should pursue their work, 
nor did it review what the fellows produced. Each fellow was granted 
a $15,000 stipend. The Times used its stipend in part to enable a 
staff member to serve as project manager of contributions from the 
paper's online news partners. Our director of photography approached 
me to work on the project after The Times received the fellowship. 

While working on the project, Lornet and I talked to dozens of 
organizations, caseworkers and families, both gathering information 
together and separately. For weeks, we returned to shelters and 
social-service organizations in search families who could share their stories. 

I kept coming back to Nickelsville because I heard it was the only 
tent city in the area that accepted families. 


(Kim kisses Jack inside their tent during bedtime at Nickelsville. 
"Our nighttime ritual is goodnight, I love you," she said. She made 
their sleeping area out of a feather bed, couch cushions and more 
than a dozen moving quilts.) 

I met Kim and Jack while they were working at the tent city’s security 
desk. Kim told me a little of their story, and I let them know about our 
project and some the parameters it would include. After parting ways, 
I was both hopeful and nervous. I thought they had a good story, and 
hoped they would be open to sharing it. 

Soon after our conversation, Kim agreed to be a part the project. We 
discussed the importance of capturing candid images that could 
communicate both big and small moments in their lives. 
Kim really embraced it. She let me know when they were 
taking showers at the community center, doing laundry at The Urban 
Rest Stop and later when they were looking for apartments. I still find 
it amazing how well she kept in touch, despite all of their stress and 


(With his flashlight and family dog close by, Jack plays with his toy 
plane before falling asleep in his tent at Nickelsville. He wears 
“Transformers” and “Star Wars” pajamas.) 

After we first met, they stayed in Nickeleville for about two weeks before 
Kim found several agencies to help them secure a deposit and first 
month’s rent for a room in the University District. 

When the big day came for them to move, I knew when it was happening 
and that I was invited to be there. Because we had developed trust and 
understanding, I knew I could focus on the moments of the day through 


(The day of the move, Jack marches through Nickelsville with a 
bamboo stick given to him by a fellow resident.) 


Ok, now onto the image itself. Tell us what led up to the moment 
at hand, and also what was going on while you made the image. 


This image of Jack was taken while they were moving from Nickelsville 
in South Seattle to their rented room in the University District. 


Once their bed was brought up a long staircase and into their room, 
Jack immediately jumped on the bed. He wriggled around for a bit, 
stretched out for a few moments (This is when I took the photograph) 
and then reached for a soda. We talked about how he was feeling in 
the new place. He played with a bamboo stick and his dog, Gracie. 
Then he returned to moving. 

Early on, while working with Jack, I realized that sometimes I could be 
a fly on the wall. But other times, he wanted to talk and interact. Did 
you see that spider? Guess what my brother is doing? Can I play with 
your camera? Do you know there are werewolves hiding in the bushes? 

I sometimes photographed Jack during these conversations. I'm not 
a fly on the wall when I photograph people. I want to listen to Jack's 
frustrations and achievements. Have lunch with him. Tag along when he 
looks for worms and bugs. Photograph him as his mom tucks him in for the night. 

I feel the more time you spend with people the better. It helps develop 
a better understanding of who they are, and more times than not, 
it can lead to a photograph. 



Was there any point of conflict during the making of this picture, or 
during the story, and if so, how did you manage it? 


Homelessness and poverty are complex topics. I think one of the 
challenges our reporter, editors and some of the multimedia storytellers 
faced with the project was to how to share multiple perspectives of 


(Most of their goods were stored in bags when moving. Kim, Jack, their friends 
and Jack’s older brother Tom — who was around for only part of the time 
during the story — took turns hauling up clothes and other items.) 

Through a variety of mediums we tried to touch on issues involving a 
lack of affordable housing in our region, the plight of refugee families, 
single fathers, the working poor, programs in schools and workings of 
the homeless support system. Even though we covered a lot of ground, 
I think it’s challenging to concisely package the causes and solutions of 
family homelessness in a three-day series. I think it takes continued 

While working with other families in the series (not with Kim and Jack) 
I learned that homeless parents sometimes grapple with a variety of 
issues. They can be stressed, scared, depressed and have drama in their 
lives. Sometimes they don’t take opportunities to help themselves. 
Sometimes they may not know all of the resources available. 

And not all of their decisions make sense to someone outside their 
situation. At times, I wondered if one family was telling the truth. It was 
difficult to keep track of another. Other families had histories of substance 
abuse. At points, I received phone calls and texts during all hours of the 
day and night. So, I often leaned on my colleagues and editors to help 
me to navigate these interactions. My purpose is to be with families as 
a journalist, not a social worker. So during parts of the project I struggled 
with guilt and frustration because I hadn’t been in some of these situations 

There were a lot of considerations while working on Kim and Jack’s story, 
as well as other families' featured in the series. 

We realized that caseworkers are sometimes protective of their clients, 
because the families may be stressed or dealing with trauma. They may 
want to refer you to a family who was previously homeless, versus a family 
who is currently homeless. 

Some parents feel fine discussing their struggles. But if their child or 
one of the siblings does not want their friends to know at school, we 
then knew they shouldn’t be involved in the project. 

Other families may not want to be labeled as homeless. One of our 
families in the series had second thoughts because they were nervous 
about being the public face of homelessness. They were embarrassed 
about their situation. They saw it as only temporary. 

How much help we could provide to families while reporting 
was also another important consideration. 

Is it okay to purchase a meal for a family? Should we tell a family 
about service providers that could help them in their area? Would 
it alter the course of a family’s path by sharing certain resources? 
Can we intervene in a story if a family is looking for a safe place to 
spend the night? Can we help them after the story publishes? 


(One of the first things Jack finds at their University District 
apartment is a spider. Jack is seen through a small window 
next to the front door. "They [the bugs] are amazing," Jack said.) 


Was there any concern about you taking this picture at the 
time, and if so, how did you handle it? (You mentioned the concept 
of photographing children.) 


While working on this project, we realized that kids would 
likely be placed in the most sensitive position during our coverage. 

With some of the families, we discussed scenarios that could occur 
after the story published. We listened to their concerns, and tried to 
address those issues the best we could before starting to work with them. 


(Kim takes a break while moving into her new apartment with her dog Gracie.) 

There were a handful of families who decided they didn’t want to 
be a part of the project after learning more about it. We acknowledged 
that school aged children could be teased by their peers after the 
story published. 

But we also discussed possible positive outcomes of sharing 
their stories. Media coverage can increase the public’s awareness 
of family homelessness, encourage community dialog and possibly 
help others in a similar situation. 

After the project published, I learned one of the families wished to have 
their last names removed from the online stories. Overall, they had a good 
experience with the project. But they didn't want the names to always 
be linked to story and to the fact they were homelessness during one point in their life. 

One of the effects of online reporting is that subjects with sensitive stories 
may be linked to these articles for perpetuity. 


What lessons did you learn from making this image? 



I think this photo was created more by relationships than by 
mechanics. Over a period of a couple weeks, Kim, Jack and I 
had spent a lot of time together. By moving day, they both 
seemed to be unguarded and open to my presence in their 
lives. But I think our relationship worked twofold. Because 
we developed trust, I felt like I could work without any major 
insecurities or doubts. I felt like I had permission, a purpose 
and an understanding of who they were. 


What lessons did you learn from the overall story, and with this, 
how did you change during this experience? 


As of last year, I worked at The Seattle Times for about four 
years, which isn’t all that long as a professional journalist. 
Through this project, I learned to have more trust in my voice 
and ideas as a storyteller, but also to rely on the support and 
experience of my editors and colleagues. I believe that because 
we worked together, and told stories through a wide variety of 
mediums in print and online, we were able to give depth and 
multiple perspectives to a very complex problem. I think there 
is a lot of power in collaboration. 

I also think my love for community journalism, and my belief in 
the power of it, grew after this project. 


In conclusion, what advice (think mentally) do you have for 
photographers to gain access to these type of situations? 


It’s important for photographers to be active in the reporting 
and researching process. Photographers should initiate meetings 
with sources and compile their own research while working with 
a reporter. By being proactive as a visual storyteller, you can 
put yourself on the path to telling more informed and visual stories. 

Through this process, I’ve learned stories will inevitably fall through 
and hit snags. It happened frequently during the series. But it’s 
important to try to keep positive and realize that better stories and 
situations will come if you keep searching. 

Often the most difficult work wasn’t taking the photographs, but 
putting myself in the physical or mental space to make them. I learned 
it’s important to trust my instincts about people. Try to set boundaries. 
And, in hindsight, I realized it’s good to take mental breaks from the 

Also, I think it’s important to have a conversation with the subjects 
in your stories about what it would be like for them to take part in a 
documentary project. I think it’s helpful to let them know the purpose 
of the story, how much time you’d like spend time with them, when 
you’d like to spend time with them, where you’d like to see the photos 
published (web or in print) and the possible outcomes/reactions to the 

And I think it’s super valuable to bounce off ideas and share images 
with an editor and peers you trust while working on a project. During 
difficult days, I often got strength and rejuvenation from my colleagues, 
which I am extremely grateful for. 

A year later, Kim and Jack are doing really well. Kim found full-time 
work and Jack’s elementary school is helping him both academically 
and emotionally. They found permanent housing. 


You can view the multimedia project, edited by Danny Gawlowski: 


Erika Schultz was born and raised in central Wyoming. She attended college at Northern Arizona University, and works as a Seattle Times staff photographer. She loves the American West, Spanglish, well told tales and to travel. 

Her work has been recognized by the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism, National Edward R. Murrow Awards, The Alexia Foundation for World Peace, Society of Professional Journalists and was a finalist for the 2010 ASNE Community Service Photojournalism award. She also was part of The Seattle Times’ 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning team for Breaking News Reporting. 

Invisible Families: 

You can view more of her work here: 


Next week we'll feature this surprising image by Gerry McCarthy: 


As always, if you have a suggestion of someone, or an image you 
want to know more about, contact Ross Taylor or Logan Mock-Bunting: 

[email protected] 
[email protected] 

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