Dotan Saguy, Nowhere to Go but Everywhere

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Kehrer Verlag (here). Hardcover (roughly 8×10 inches), no dust jacket, 168 pages, with 89 photographic reproductions (12 color, 77 duotone). Includes texts by Dotan Saguy and interviews with Ismael Reis. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Ismael and Greice Reis, parents of a young immigrant family of Mormons from Brazil that had come to the U.S. to pursue the American Dream, were “researching happiness” on the Internet in 2017 when they decided that the cure for their dissatisfaction was to undertake an epic road trip. Without a strict timetable, they mapped an ambitious itinerary for themselves: cross-country from Delaware to California before turning south to their home in South America.

To carry them on this route, they bought a used school bus, which they equipped with cooking, eating, and sleeping quarters. Then, in June, 2018, they set off with their three children (ages two, five, and ten) and little more than “$400 in cash, a tankful of gas, and a one-month supply of dry food.”

The photojournalist Dotan Saguy (Israeli-born, with dual French and U.S. citizenship) happened to encounter this ragtag bunch the day they arrived at the beach in Los Angeles, where he is based. After earning their trust (he never explains how), he was allowed to hang out with them for the next ten months and to document their daily family life as “vehicle dwellers” or, as others might label them, a homeless family.

The Reises were right to trust Saguy. The book that resulted from their collaboration is intimate but not snoopy or voyeuristic. His photographs describe their routines with a delicate humor and a shared conviviality—one can feel Saguy’s gratitude to the parents for granting him access—and an appreciation verging on awe for the struggles of raising three children (one of them still in diapers) in a strange country with almost no money.

Saguy’s photographs are elastic and alive. The tight confines of the bus interior, where no one is able to be far apart, are a blessing. Shooting with his 35 mm. Leica M from every conceivable angle, he produces densely layered compositions of squirming, lithe bodies tumbling over each other or against windows and roof hatches. Ismael is not usually at the heart of the action but he is the genial leader and his head or hat in the driver’s compartment is often visible at the edges. (The pictures are an improvement over those in Saguy’s previous monograph on Venice Beach, where the broad openness and persistent horizon lines of the ocean’s edge defeated his attempts to convey the energy of crowds massing along the avenues.)

The Reis children—playing with one another, or in the arms of their mother, in the bus and on L.A.’s streets—occupy most of the pages. Saguy is a co-conspirator in exalting their freedom and wildness but he does not ignore the smudges of dirt on their arms, hands, faces, and bare feet. We never hear their views about living in a school bus and having no school to attend or friends to visit. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that the oldest might soon by longing for a home that isn’t mounted on four wheels. The dark chocolate tones of the reproductions deepen the impression that daily life for the Reis family during this lengthy journey was one of permanent grime.

Saguy has dispensed with a table of contents and broken his ten months of photographing into twelve chapters that bleed into one another, each introduced by a half-page flap: one side is a photograph of a piece of colored fabric associated with the bus or the family’s clothing; on the other side are transcriptions of brief interviews with Ismael. (Greice did not believe her English was good enough to participate.)

The book title is a quotation from Kerouac’s On the Road. This would synchronize more aptly with the photos if we saw the family motoring down the highway. But the backgrounds are mainly static: the streets of L.A. or nighttime overviews of the sprawling city. In the only scene that might be regarded as dramatic, parking tickets have accumulated on the windshield and the bus is being impounded.

Many adventures are recounted rather than seen. “Our best stories start with ‘the bus broke down,’” says Ismael. He tells of crossing the prairie at the scorching height of summer, when the engine overheated and an oil hose began to leak outside a small Kansas town. Warned about the hostility of Middle-America toward dusky-skinned transients, the family instead found itself aided by a sympathetic sheriff. A priest enlisted someone to repair their busted pump and brought his entire congregation of fifteen to feed them and then fill their bus with gas—at no charge. Time and again along the way, when the Reises are prepared to give up and immediately head home, food is donated by strangers or Ismael finds temporary employ-ment that earns them enough to keep going.

The parents wanted Americans and Brazilians to know who they were: painted on the side of the bus are the words “The Reis Family” and below that “Familia Reis” and an Instagram account. (One can follow them now, where they have documented on their own later travels in color.) Despite such savviness about the wired world, their relative ferality and innocence is what captivates Saguy. Unlike most children today, they are not constantly on their phones in his pictures.

The spirit of Saguy’s project is reminiscent of many others. Ones that come immediately to mind are William Gedney’s series on the Cornett Family in rural Kentucky from the mid-‘60s; Dennis Stock’s California Trip, his record of a five-week road trip around the state in 1968; Sally Mann’s Immediate Family (1992); and Justine Kurland’s Highway Kind (2016), her record of travels over twelve years with her son in their VW van. More distantly related (and harder-hitting and more committed to the practice of long-term documentary) are Jim Goldberg’s Raised by Wolves (1995) and Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise (1988) and Tiny: Streetwise Revisited (2015).

Saguy’s project can seem underdeveloped by comparison. He is careful not to judge the actions of the parents and inevitably risks sentimentalizing poverty and homelessness. He quotes Ismael admitting that he and his wife have endured criticism for subjecting their children to such a precarious existence. These deficiencies don’t seriously detract from the vitality of the photographs. Enhanced by Hanne Feldmeier’s ingenious book design, the end result is a handsome art object, and a portrait of a funky family that remains buoyant with the expectation that everything will be OK.

Collector’s POV: Dotan Saguy does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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