To me this is what field reporting is all about. We had a concept and a vague idea of how to make it happen. One reporter and a camera, not much else.
Looking back one of the biggest mistakes we made was setting out too early. At 10am I was already thinking about lunch and a third cup of coffee, but the kids we were looking for were still snoozing in their sleeping bags – and would be for another two hours.
I was on assignment in the Little 5 Points neighborhood of Atlanta with little guidance beyond the idea of finding these “train kids” and telling their story – whatever it may be. Just finding them would be a challenge. In the end it worked out, of course, and the story pretty much tells itself, but as the sun crept further overhead on that warm-lit day I had some serious doubts we’d actually pull it off.
Now, I know what to look for. I’d even go as far to say I could spot a train kid as fast as one of their own could, but that is probably a stretch. It turns out Atlanta isn’t a hub for the vagabonds of the 21st century. Even studies from the University of Chicago concluded there wasn’t a large enough homeless youth population in Southern and Midwestern cities to produce any sort of accurate statistics.
Trash and Trees, the only long-term hobos I had the pleasure of spending some time with, both fit the geographic mold of the university study. They were both from out West – Trash from Seattle and Trees from somewhere in California, where exactly I still can’t say.
I spent two days with Trash and one day with the woodland trio (Trees, Twig and their dog Stumps). Driving home after the first day I didn’t think of “them” as “train kids” anymore. They were just like you and me. They were just living their lives.
Professionally this assignment was a bit of a challenge. It was the first solo assignment I took on where I’d be doing both the visual and written elements of the story. I learned a few valuable lessons.
It’s hard to juggle the different aspects of a fast-paced assignment. I’d find myself scribbling notes with one hand and reaching for the camera with the other. I learned that the moments you feel uncomfortable grabbing the camera are usually the moments you should have it out. This can be anything from an expression mid conversion to a yell at a stranger across the street – both of which I missed this go around.
It may be cliché, but I don’t plan to cry over spilt milk. The best thing I can do is take notes and apply the hard-learned lesson on my next assignment.
Wherever Trash, Trees, Twig, and their dogs Stumps and Daisy end up, I’m sure they’ll enjoy the ride.