When dvafoto was in New York a couple of months ago we had the chance to meet up with some old friends, a few of whom we’ve known online for years but never met in person. Bryan Derballa is one of these folks, and over a drink we got in to a discussion of what was happening in the city and what work we had seen that was getting us excited. Derballa mentioned one project, “Adrift” by Brad Vest, and once we had the chance to look at the project we were in full agreement; the work was terrific and worthy of featuring. I asked Vest about the stories behind the project and am excited share it here. See more of this project at Soul of Athens website.
How did you first meet Travis Simmons?
It was my first quarter at Ohio University and I was pretty lost. I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to pursue but absolutely no connections yet. While driving around trying to meet people in October 2009, I saw Allen, Travis’s father, working along the Ohio River in Jackson County, West Virginia and decided to pull over and introduce myself. After shooting a few photographs we got to talking about his soon to be released son and the preparations he was making to the camper next door to his that Travis, his son, could live in upon his release. When Shelia, Travis’ mother, got home later, we talked for a few hours and got to know them and their son’s situation.
A few days later, I met Travis Simmons. He had just served five months for conspiracy to commit grand larceny and broken probation. I’d planned with his parents to be there when he got home. We talked for a while, he invited me in for dinner and we talked long into the night about why I thought it was important to tell his story; a single father, two young girls and a year of mandatory isolation while attempting to right his life and stay away from old ways.
How long have you been photographing this project, how has the focus changed over time?
Travis Simmons is the first person that I’ve really photographed for a long period of time. I’ve spent the last twenty months photographing Travis, his family, friends and lovers. It’s always tough to leave for any extended period of time, hear new things but not be able to be there to photograph, to understand in a more complete way than phone conversations and text messages. At the start, the project focused on confinement, how a person deals with forced isolation and raising a family within that. As I spent more time I realized that the confinement worked counter intuitively. The loneliness it created while attempting to keep him away from old friends brought an all too common human need for connection. He pursued relationships, allowed friends to visit, he let these influences into his life just to relieve his isolation. At that point, the focus of my work shifted to look at whether or not he could leave that life behind him, a life defined by addiction, in order to be the best father that he could. What is the reaction from Simmons and his family, or the community if it has been shown there at all? Travis has seen all the photos from the project at some point in time or another. I’m always bringing out big stacks of prints for him and his family. After completing the story as it is now at Soul of Athens I brought out my laptop and he went through everything. He immersed himself in it from start to finish and when he finished up he looked up and smiled, “well, that’s everything isn’t it.” Travis really liked the story while at the same time acknowledging that he never wants to make the same mistakes that were currently blaring at him on a small screen.
It’s tough because what he saw and what I’ve been there is not the end of his story; it’s just a concentrated vignette into the past two years of his life. After he went through the project we talked long into the night; about the time we’ve spent together, everything Travis has been through, how I’ll be back and forth but not like it had been when I started school at Ohio University. Not like it’s been for the past twenty months. The freedom of being an hour away and with enough time to spend with him, enough time to learn his story and see it change on a daily basis. I look forward to visiting the Simmons whenever I find myself anywhere near West Virginia, I already miss that one-hour drive.
Where have you or hope to have this work published or seen?
Eventually I would love to have the resources to expand this project to encompass a more complete look at the prescription drug and heroin epidemic currently affecting Appalachia. Getting deeper into more homes in the area as well as exploring the justice system and community effects that are taking place due to the influx. I would love to see the work published somewhere that not only draws attention to the issue but helps to create understanding of an epidemic affecting a place in the United States that is often overlooked and too easily ignored.
Thanks again Brad and for the many people who let you in to their lives, this is a striking document of this family’s moment in time and of need. We hope that this may lead to more people coming in to contact with this story.