Julio Marcial photographs the lives of six American students crammed into a tiny apartment just trying to keep afloat
Affordable renting housing is a huge problem across America. Hillary Clinton has made the issue a big part of her presidential campaign, whereas Donald Trump has avoided the subject more or less altogether. This story, about six young women crammed into a tiny space, reveals the need for a system overhaul. On November 8, people in San Francisco will be able to vote to release $260million of city money to create more affordable housing.
With three in the living room and three in the bedroom, a small one-bedroom apartment became the home of six San Francisco State students last autumn. Privacy was virtually non-existent – mattresses were strewn on the floor and clothing rails were used to try and separate the space. Photographer Julio Marcial wanted to share their story and capture their unique bond, which he says was closer than that of sisters.
They aren’t the only ones living with the consequences of soaring living costs in San Fran, where renting a single bedroom apartment will set you back $3,500 a month. This story is one of many, but the problem is often brushed under the carpet by the tech companies and start-ups that relentlessly push up house prices.
Stark neon light from laptops and fairy-lights shine in the generic, beige rooms, posters plastered over nearly every surface. In one of the shots, their heads brush together to form a star – the image is strongly reminiscent of the promo poster for the film Mustang, which also follows a group of sisters and their strong relationships. We spoke to Marcial to find out more about their lives, his shooting process and whether he sees an end to the city’s housing crisis.
How did you come to meet the students?
Julio Marcial: On my way to class at San Francisco State University, I met one of the students who was living in the one-bedroom apartment with five other students. Later on, we would meet again, and we would discuss the drastic repercussions being felt from the housing crisis the city was and still is enduring. We spoke about things such as high rent, displacement, gentrification, overcrowding, and that’s when she revealed to me her living condition, and that’s when I asked if I could document their experience.
Can you tell us more about their stories, where they came from, what they studied, etc?
Julio Marcial: Each of their individual stories began with passion. From the cornerstones of California and Mexico – Riverside, Los Angeles, Oceanside, San Diego and Tijuana – passion is what brought them under the same close-quarters roof. Passion like poetry. One student, a poetess, has had her work published and featured in magazines and recently had a reading at the SF Museum of Modern Art. Another student is fascinated by the way our minds work, calibrate. And to discover those hidden columns of our minds, she is studying psychology. And another student is searching the lengths and boundaries of communication, she believes words can heal. And the other students, who studied apparel design and literature, all had their own impetus that led them there despite the drawbacks.
What were some of the coping mechanisms/routines that the girls adopted to minimize confrontations?
Julio Marcial: Most of the coping mechanisms were as simple as respect and communication. Having no proper dining room or living room or private space, they had little next to nothing for themselves other than a place to sleep. So they would respect what space they did have, and they would communicate how they felt in order to avoid internalized aggressions against each other, of which rarely happened.
Can you tell us about how the girls would help each other with their problems?
Julio Marcial: Sometimes they would conflict – the dishes wouldn’t always get done; the bathroom wasn’t always available; privacy wasn’t expected.
Beyond that, they were like a family.
Julio Marcial: Living in such a confined space, they were almost always physically close. In that closeness, over time, they found support in one another that they did not expect. If someone had a problem or an issue, they would talk together and work it out. The eldest of the students was like a mother figure to them. She would guide them through personal concerns and encourage them to communicate what they felt.
Some of the students were financially stressed because they had no parental help or other monetary resources. And there would be times when some of the students had no money to buy food. I asked one of the students to retell her story:
“I literally didn’t have money. I remember I was just walking because I didn’t like being home. It would make me depressed. I would go out, hungry, and I remember this day, it was a weird experience. I was walking through the Castro, and I just sat there looking at the homeless people, and I was just thinking, at first glance people see me in my clothes and don’t know that I’m starving.”
So in an immediate sense, they would help each other by sharing food or money. But on an interpersonal level, simply said, they were there for each other.
“No single law, politician, demonstration, can fix this. But do I have hope? Always.”
Did the girls embrace you documenting their lives, what was your shooting process?
Julio Marcial: After introducing myself to them, explaining the project, and, possibly, what higher purpose it may serve, they accepted. But that didn’t stop them from being nervous like most people who have a huge DSLR camera pointed at them. After the first couple of visits, they were used to me and began to, thankfully, ignore me.
My goal was to become invisible and photograph the most intimate unaltered moments. But how was I supposed to do that? I would consult my professor, Sibylla Herbrich, who was teaching me in my Intro to Photojournalism class at SFSU. She told me I “needed to be there to photograph it.” What that translated into was being there before they woke up. Being there after they went to sleep. Being there on the bus on their way to work or while they were at work.
And for two months, a few days out of a week, I was an invisible bug on their shoulder, observing their individual worlds through the lens of my camera. No questions, just bodily presence, documenting the truth. Then, months later, with enough distance and new skills obtained, I was able to understand what made a photograph more significant than another. That’s how I selected the photographs you see now.
Were there many visitors, did they keep their situation quiet to others or were their other friends in similar situations?
Julio Marcial: In general, there wasn’t many visitors. It wasn’t that they were hiding it. They were not afraid to tell others because they were not ashamed of it. They understood that this was the best they could do under their circumstances, and many others were living in similar or worse situations.
What activities did the girls do together in the apartment to have fun?
Julio Marcial: In the beginning, because of their apartment’s limitations, they would go out and explore the city on the weekends. But when they were not having picnics at Dolores Park, they were out on the small balcony of their apartment listening to music. They’d watch movies on their laptops while eating dinner together; ceviche, a traditional Hispanic dish, they shared what they had.
But mostly, they would gravitate towards just hanging out and talking. After their workdays were over, in the middle of the night, this is where their communication grew and where their bond developed – the simple act of speaking.
What were the girls’ plans for the future/where are they now?
Julio Marcial: Almost all have moved out into more comfortable living spaces and are focusing on their education. One of the students, who is studying communication, wants to start a nonprofit in Tijuana to help people who survived dangerous conditions, such as survivors of sex trafficking, or those who are HIV positive. She wants to build a support group that can help them heal emotionally. The poetess, after graduating with a bachelor’s in creative writing, will hopefully work at internships in Los Angeles while beginning her own magazine, a magazine that is art and politically focused and also ethnically inclusive.
Do you see any hope in San Francisco, an end to the housing crisis? What do you think should change?
Julio Marcial: This question is the hardest to answer. Many laws, policies, restrictions, ideas, have been debated, enacted, removed, debunked, and still, after years of legislature, protests and community outcries – no one has a clear answer to ending the housing crisis. No single law, politician, demonstration, can fix this. But do I have hope? Always. How else would our passions ever dream?
Because there is something that can change, right here, right now, that does not need City Hall to authorize it – us.
People here are divided, understandably so. When you are afraid to call your home “home,” when in the past decade, nearly 8,000 Latinos have been displaced; when the teachers, who foster the knowledge in our children’s minds, leave because their pay is inadequate and their rent is too high.
The pain gets shuffled into pointing fingers, blaming people who don’t exist. Drawing lines between each other, thickening the divide out of fear. Fear that, we too, might be next. So we all hold on to our homes and anchor ourselves down, because that’s the only thing we can think of to save money on rent and ourselves. The divide ends when we recognize each other’s trials and journeys. Real change begins with us.