by Kirsten Rian

Published on 03/29/ 2013

U.S. Highway 192 is the east-west route through central Florida, and is a main tourist strip around Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Motels – with names like The Ambassador, Garden Link, Chalet, Magic Castle, and Magic Tree – were built originally to cater to families immersing themselves for a few days in fairytale and magic. Now, it’s estimated that close to 70 of these motels are housing 500 homeless kids and their families: school buses these mornings have designated stops along this stretch of highway.

When you wish
upon a star

Makes no difference
who you are

Anything your
heart desires

Will come to you

The U.S. Census reported that before the recent economic recession, 14 million American kids were living in poverty. In just two years, that number rose another 2 million – the fastest recorded poverty incline on record.

In school, they’re called ‘hotel kids.’ The U.S. Department of Education estimates there are about 47,000 across the country, and 2,000 in central Florida.

Alec Soth is a documenter of American life, photographing the corners, the back roads, the murmured stories. . .

Alec Soth is a documenter of American life, photographing the corners, the back roads – sometimes more the murmured stories than those shouted. The detailed, reflective quality of his work relinquishes drama for essence, and the resulting images reveal wonder, honesty, and testimony. Past projects like his iconic Sleeping by the Mississippi or NIAGARA have translated his findings through large-scale, large-format color images, lush and bountiful hymns of lyricism.

Less pastoral than his sensibilities in earlier work, the photographs in Orlando are stark and urban, textured with an undercurrent of trauma and struggle. Soth is known for his gift of narrative and ability to visually unfold mythologies of the American experience, and these images look at the line between the American Dream and surrender. These families are still holding on, but in the absence of luck or income, tangible realities of mere daily life are gripped with what feels like white knuckles.

. . .the line between the American Dream and surrender. . .

Orlando, a brand new body of work, looks at life for some of the homeless families living in these motels just outside Walt Disney World’s majestic gates, and the images maintain the same voice and commitment to resonating encounters with people and place. Consistent with his previous projects, Soth’s gift for recording the journey and the time and space of findings is evident.

In one photo, a young girl wearing a princess backpack walks into room 135. Her curly hair is pulled back neatly in a ponytail, she is wearing a skirt and short sleeved shirt, clean white socks, smart black shoes. She could be any well-kept youngster in any neighborhood returning from a day at school.

The window of room 134 next door is badly smudged, weeds and grass grow up along the walkway curb in front of the room, fluid leaks from the air conditioner unit to the right side of the room, and to the left side the wall is stained with driplines from some unknown splatter. The contextualizing details in Soth’s aesthetic are his vocabulary.

A full Magnum Photos member since 2008, Orlando came out of Soth’s contribution to Magnum’s Postcards from America series. The project is representative of his current working methodologies focusing on specific communities and geographic locations in the U.S. to reflect bigger stories.

Soth’s images harbor toys and pets, beds and holiday decorations, kids tumbling around — the trappings of family and home, yet in Orlando these scenes are held between cheap sheetrock and metal motel stairs, scarred and dinged walls, drained swimming pools, and indoor/outdoor carpeting on balconies and walkways between rows of rooms. If these images had been presented in color, the narrative metaphor transcending the literalness of black and white, would have been lost.

If your heart is
in your dream

No request is
too extreme

When you wish
upon a star

As dreamers do

“When You Wish Upon a Star” was written by Academy Award winning composers Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for Disney’s 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio. The song became the signature theme song for the Disney empire.

Pigeons’ remarkable navigation skills have been traced to smell, an olfactory positioning system, in essence — odor mapping.

The homing instinct is quantifiable in animals, magnetic cells in the brains of cats, birds, even snails, have been found and named by scientists throughout the world. Pigeons’ remarkable navigation skills have been traced to smell, an olfactory positioning system, in essence — odor mapping. Theories attempting to nail down bird migration have ranged from star charting to an animal’s innate ability to follow lines along the earth’s magnetic field.

In humans, evidence of such physiological tools has been scientifically inconclusive. But the enmeshment of essential survival needs (shelter) with the emotional draw to some sort of grounding (home) is as instinctual as any salmon’s impulse to journey thousands of miles each year returning to the stream of their birth.

Homing instinct is defined as the inherent ability of an animal to navigate towards its original location through unfamiliar areas.

In recent years, the economy-driven migration of the middle and lower class has resulted in intensified homelessness. These motels Soth studies are a reckoning of circumstance, bad luck, escape and finding, at least for a little while, some kind of home.

Many animals, including humans, keep track of where they are by a method known as dead reckoning

“Many animals, including humans, keep track of where they are (and hence the direction to home) by a method known as dead reckoning: as they move about, they keep track of each individual movement, adding these up to derive their net change in position,” Randy Gallistel, co-director of the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science, stated in Scientific American. “Dead reckoning is no help, however, when people or animals are displaced under conditions in which it is impossible for them to determine the speed and direction in which they are moving.”

The families in Soth’s images sit tight. Week to week, until dead reckoning can kick in. . .

So, for the families in Soth’s images, they sit tight. Week to week, until dead reckoning can kick in; or the magnetic fields deep in the mantle of the earth shift; or the foreclosure sign on their house comes down; or a job offer comes along.