When it came to assigning a story about the culture of camping in Walmart parking lots, I knew from firsthand experience that sending two photographers would be better than sending someone out solo.
I spent much of 2013 driving around the country with my then-partner in a Honda Element we had outfitted into a camper. That year, more nights than not, we camped in Walmart parking lots.
The constant proximity required that the photographers I assigned be real-life friends. The aesthetic I was looking for required that they each possess a photographic style that would complement the other’s. The ask — spend four days sleeping in the back of a rental van in parking lots throughout the South — required that they both be willing to tolerate discomfort, ranging from slight inconveniences to full-blown back pain.
I knew George Etheredge and Mike Belleme would be game.
Last week, I asked the photographers a few questions about their experience.
How did you two meet, originally?
Mike Belleme: We met through skateboarding. George showed up in Asheville, N.C., where the skate scene was somewhat insular, and we skated together a few times. At some point, George posted that he was thinking about quitting skateboarding because he didn’t have anyone to skate with, and I responded, saying, “You should come out with us more.” Eventually we adopted him into our little skate crew, and then he took over and got better than everyone else. Then the same thing happened with photography.
How did you decide what to pack?
MB: We met up in Asheville the day before we left, to plan. I’m a notorious under-packer in general, but over-packer when it comes to photo gear. I pretty much just brought bedding, clothes and camera stuff. I bought a ton of different types of LED lights from Lowes, then a couple more from Walmart, and then I got some white pantyhose for diffusion (super high tech). Then we went food shopping together on our way out of town.
Did you have a route mapped out ahead of time?
MB: We were trying to decide between going west along I-40, to get cross-country travelers, or north to south. I figured Florida was the belly of the beast when it comes to R.V.s, so we headed south.
There’s an app that tells you which Walmarts allow overnight parking. At first we were looking for areas that had a lot of Walmarts, but then we switched tactics and tried sparse areas where travelers stopping for the night might be more concentrated. I’m not sure if it was a flaw in our logic or just the time of year, but we didn’t find as many people as we had hoped.
Did you run into any trouble on the trip?
MB: There was a whole lot of downtime as we got into the wee hours of the night in Savannah, Ga., just hoping for someone to pull into the parking lot. We tried to figure out creative ways to shoot the same scenes. I came up with the idea of setting up two LEDs on a stand, getting the light dialed in and then moving them around to shoot lit portraits of the R.V.s themselves. I decided I would try to get each one in a single frame so that I wouldn’t have to keep popping off flashes while people were trying to sleep. I fired off one test shot and it caught the attention of the security guard.
Right after that, I noticed a young man emerging from a car. (I had had my eye on the car for hours, knowing someone was in there, but I hadn’t felt comfortable approaching without knowing if they were sleeping or what.) I went over and asked him if I could shoot a portrait of him sitting in his car. He said yes. Just as I was about to start, the security guard came up and said that we weren’t allowed to shoot there. I argued a bit, but she insisted. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, though, since it was the only one I had that night. So I shot the portrait anyway.
A little while later the police showed up. We waited for what seemed like an hour (it was about 4 a.m. at this point) and they gave us a citation saying that we were permanently banned from this Walmart in Savannah. The officers were unclear on the legality of not allowing us to shoot there, but said that the Walmart security team had the right to tell us to leave. Fortunately, there was another Walmart the next exit down.
Did you develop any food rituals? I used to put instant breakfast powder in my McDonald’s coffee in the morning on the road. I hear you spent a fair amount of time at Waffle House.
George Etheredge: We did have a lot of Waffle House: two eggs sunny side up, hash browns and toast. And orange juice. And peanut butter and jellies that we made in our laps while driving down the road.
MB: The PB&J-with-banana sandwiches were pretty clutch. I packed lots of cold coffee drinks and muffins for my breakfasts, too.
Did the trip get either of you ruminating on travel and adventure and the siren call of the open road?
GE: It was kind of exciting to just be in a van together with our cameras — exploring, winging it, seeing what you find. Not really knowing what to expect is a freeing feeling. Kind of nice. I’d do it again if I had the chance.
MB: I feel that a bit in retrospect, but at the time it was a hustle mentality. George and I both really wanted to do a good job on this, and started to really feel the pressure when we were having trouble finding people. In the end, because we had the luxury of several days, it all came together, but those first couple of nights we were in full stress mode. By the last night I’d say we were just having fun and enjoying ourselves because we were starting to feel better about what we had.
We’ve talked about doing it again this spring, maybe up north. It’s funny because I’d never really related to the idea of being an R.V. owner before, but this trip got me thinking that it could be a really fun way to see the country, especially when I’m older.