About the 2009 fellow

As the economy started to spiral downward in 2008, the cause and results of home foreclosures — and the stories of the people affected by them — were spotlighted in the media. But what can the vacated structures themselves tell us about the people who lived in them? Rhyen Coombs began photographing the interiors of empty houses to see what happens to a property after it has been foreclosed.

“This is a hard subject to cover,” she says. “I worry that we’ve seen so many headlines about it that we’ve stop noticing.”

The photographs Coombs took of abandoned possessions in a Vallejo, Calif., home following foreclosure have earned her the 2009 Dorothea Lange Fellowship. Coombs, a 27-year-old graduate student pursuing a master’s degree at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, plans to use the fellowship’s $4,000 grant to purchase a digital camera and other photographic tools to continue her project, “Foreclosed.”

With the aid of the Lange Fellowship, Coombs will continue the project after graduate school and document the story over a longer time. “I didn’t have the resources to do that,” she says, adding that the staff at the journalism school has been generous in lending her equipment.

Her winning photographs represent a portion of her master’s project — Coombs has also collected sounds of clean-up crews as they gather and dispose of left-behind items from foreclosed houses. By coupling the sound and photography in audio slide shows, she hopes to bring alive the aftermath of foreclosure.

“There’s a lot of noise associated with the process,” she explains, noting that only a narrow timeframe exists between the residents’ departure and the arrival of a bank’s clean-up teams at a vacated home.

Coombs’ search for foreclosed houses also took her to Stockton, Calif., which Forbes magazine named as one of America’s 10 most miserable cities in 2009. “I drove through entire neighborhoods that were completely abandoned,” she recalls.

Coombs grew up in south Texas in McAllen, a city near the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley. She earned a B.A. at UC Davis, where she worked as a copyeditor for the school newspaper and majored in anthropology. After graduation, she moved to Portland, Ore., where she lived for four years, working as associate editor for World Pulse, a local magazine, before coming to Berkeley.

She only began taking photographs in graduate school. When she was learning to report stories, she found herself first responding to visual and aural details. “Photography lets me express the way I perceive a story on a very intuitive level,” explains Coombs, who considers herself a multimedia journalist. “I can communicate better that way, and often photographs resonate more with people than words do.

“Photography feels like a more natural way of communicating what I see,” she says.