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Facing the Downturn

Andy Cook documents the people behind the grim economic statistics

Andy Cook
Blake Sims

By Lee Gardner | Posted 4/15/2009

Faces of the Recession

Watch an audio slideshow interview with Andy Cook; Go to facesoftherecession.blogspot.com

Photographer Andy Cook recently found himself in the same position as a growing number of Americans--unexpectedly out of a job. After being laid off from a local media company in October 2008, the 26-year-old Towson native says, "I kind of went through a mini-crisis about what to do with myself." After a short stint trying to freelance in an ever-tightening market, he turned his predicament on its head and "decided it was a good time to try and do an independent [photography] project, really take the time that I had to get into something kind of deeply." The result is Faces of the Recession, a work-in-progress documentary project on the way America's steep economic downturn is affecting individual Americans.

The genesis of the project came not only from his own experience, but from the news media's reporting of the en masse human collateral damage of the recession. "Every morning [on the news] I was hearing about the numbers--the unemployment numbers, so many thousands of people losing their jobs, so many thousands of people on unemployment," he says. "My goal was to try and find personal stories about it, to put a face to the numbers we're hearing." A loose plan to drive across the country soon combined with the idea of seeking out and documenting the lives of people who were somehow affected by the new and precarious economic reality.

He began work close to home, here in Baltimore. "I knew more and more people who were losing their jobs. I could see it happening all around me," he says. From friends, friends of friends, and word of mouth, he expanded his search with a classified ad in City Paper and notices on Craigslist and Facebook. After shooting a dozen or so subjects locally, he began plotting his trip with an itinerary based first on cities he wanted to visit or where he had friends he could stay with.

"A coupla days before I ended up in a city, I would put an ad on Craigslist and inevitably get five or six responses, and then just through scheduling I'd actually meet three or four people," he says. As he headed south from Baltimore in February, his month-long trip took on a course of its own. A response to his Facebook posting led him to a woman in Cape Coral, Fla., "which was sort of the epicenter of the housing crash," he says. He wound up in tiny Old Fort, N.C., by reading in a Richmond, Va., newspaper that an Ethan Allen furniture plant had just closed there: "Old Fort was really near Asheville, which is where I was going, just a little extra drive."

As he drove through the South and then up to the Upper Midwest, Cook says, he found to his surprise "that the recession had kind of a different look everywhere I went." In Florida, for example, people's troubles tended to be related to the crashed-and-burned housing market while in Austin, Texas, the collapse of the service industry was the big story. He found Madison, Wisc., relatively untouched thanks to the local economy's roots in the still-booming health-care field.

Then there was the Big Easy. "I was expecting New Orleans to be even more bleak than the last time I was down there [in May 2008]," Cook recalls, "but actually it seemed kind of immune in certain ways. From talking to people there, there's still a lot of federal money coming in, and this is just anecdotal, but several people told me that the banks down there were so behind the times that they didn't even get in on the mortgage crisis, so they didn't have that to worry about."

Certain things were the same wherever he went, though. "The first thing that I noticed was that people were looking at it--not everybody, but as a whole--people were trying to look at it as an opportunity to change direction or get involved creatively [in a way] that they didn't have time to do before. And I think that's to be expected--people try to make the most out of their situation--but it was kind of inspiring."

Most of the people who populate his photographs, on these pages and on his blog for the project, facesoftherecession.blogspot.com, were self-selecting--they usually got in touch with him, rather than the other way around--and some of the stories he found were upbeat, such as Texas-based entrepreneur Brad Kittel and the suddenly hot market for his tiny, recession-scaled houses, which are built from salvaged materials. But even when dealing with subjects who found their situation somewhat humiliating or faced an especially dire outlook, Cook found hope. "Those people who seemed in the worst way were most passionate about telling their story and about getting the word out about how exactly people are being affected," he says. "They see hope in the federal government stepping in and doing what they're doing, they see hope in any possible solutions for job creation, and they want people to know what happened to them in hopes that help will find a way."

Cook's own outlook is no more certain than any of his subjects. Having raised money for his trip by painting sets for the Annapolis Opera, Cook is now applying for grants to try to continue his project "in a more focused way." He initially thought of collecting his photos into a book, but he is also pondering shooting video for a documentary or online series. Like many people these days, he hopes to just be able to keep working.

"I have no idea," he says, when asked when he'll know that the project's finished. He adds, with an uncertain note: "Hopefully when the economy gets better?"

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