New York Times - Economy

For an Assignment About Camping at Walmart, the Photographers Had to Camp Out, Too

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.

A couple of shopping carts in the corner of the lot in Walterboro, S.C. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times
A feral cat on the edge of the same lot. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

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.

George posing for a portrait in front of a rural storefront in Hickory, N.C. Credit Mike Belleme for The New York Times
Mike sitting down for dinner at a Waffle House in Walterboro, S.C. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

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.

Seagulls on St. Simons Island, Ga.. Credit Mike Belleme for The New York Times
A Walmart employee in Hickory, N.C., with shopping carts in the parking lot. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

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