The state of Florida is Melissa Lyttle’s home and photographic inspiration. She has photographed the diversity of Florida’s population and the tough lives of those living in motels around the state for more than 12 years. Her photos capture both the dark and colorful side of the state where countless stories take place every day. We caught up with Melissa to find out how her career has have evolved since she photographed Motel Families in 2003.
You photographed Motel Families in 2003 in Fort Lauderdale. What story were you trying to tell back then?
It started off as a quick-hit daily story about how homeless shelters were running out of room for families and they were giving them vouchers to stay in local motels. It quickly progressed into a bigger story for me after realizing that the families were being given vouchers for 3-5 day stays and then they were right back at square one. It wasn’t solving anything, it was just delaying the inevitable. I followed that family for 9 months, and watched them as they bounced from motel room to shelter to church housing to transitional housing.
Do you believe the issue of families living in motels has changed since 2003?
I think it’s gotten exponentially worse. Since the housing bubble burst and the economy tanked, more families than ever before have found themselves out of work and in foreclosure for the first time. And most counties still have ample space for homeless men, and women, but when it comes to homeless families, not nearly enough. Mom-and-pop motels are also not seeing nearly the amount of business the once did, so the vouchers are one way of helping fill their vacancies. Most have opened up their doors to the homeless as a way of simply staying open.
How did you get access?
The second time I photographed Motel Families in 2011 came about when I was in my car, listening to my radio. They were telling a story about how there were more school bus stops at motels than at residential neighborhoods. I pulled into the first motel I saw, went to the front desk and asked for the manager. When she came out I introduced myself, told her what I’d heard on the radio and asked her if that was the case there. She told me that they had about a dozen different buses stopping there for kids of all grade levels every single day, and that at any given point they had about 75-100 kids living there. I asked her if I could hang out and tell that story. Surprisingly, she said yes.
What do you think is the biggest issue for kids living in motels?
There are so many issues. The two biggest in my mind, are products of the motel life. First, the lack of adequate and healthy food as most motels have a tiny dorm-room fridge, no stove, and a microwave if they’re lucky. And second, the exposure to other residents that the motels attract, people flock to them for their anonymity, or because a background check would keep them out of regular housing or shelters.
This might be a very cliché question, but why did you photograph Motel Families in black and white and My Florida in color?
Have you ever been in a motel room? The lighting is horrible. There is always flickering fluorescent bulb in the bathroom, a bare incandescent bulb in the living/bedroom area and maybe a window that isn’t covered with some heavy drapery, if I’m lucky! I’ve always loved black and white photography for its ability to distill information down to the pure essence of the moment, but for some stories where the lighting is horrible and inconsistent, it just makes more sense. As far as the My Florida stuff being in color, that’s one thing that Florida does well. It almost seduces even the biggest cynics with its light and color, warmth and saturation.
For how long have you been photographing My Florida?
I think I was photographing it even before I realized what I was doing. My Florida came about after leaving the newspaper and going back to re-edit the last 10-15 years worth of work for a new website and portfolio. It just sort of presented itself to me as a larger body of work in the editing process. And I think as long as I live here, I’ll continue to add to it.
Do you believe diversity is a defining characteristic of people in Florida?
Absolutely. Florida’s always attracted a diverse swath of characters, it is what makes it unique. The fact that there’s an entire theme park in Orlando devoted to Jesus still blows my mind. Even more so knowing that there are six different Jesus on the payroll, including a guy named Lester who plays the “bad boy” biker Jesus.
What was one of your favorite experiences while photographing My Florida?
Getting to explore parts of the state I knew little of before, and have weirdly been drawn back to time-and-time again. There’s a place called Pahokee that I’ve done multiple stories on, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve hung out with everyone there, from sex offenders who live in old sugar cane worker housing, to football players in the projects who’ve invited me back for their graduation block parties – their aunties have given me beers straight out of their purses. There’s even a Methodist preacher who lets me stay in her parsonage every time I’m in town and need a place to crash.
As a photographer, you must grow a lot in 12 years. Do you believe you have changed since you first photographed Motel Families?
Sure, I think that’s inevitable. We get older, and wiser and more cynical and less gullible and more devoted to the cause of righting wrongs and exposing injustices. I also think in 12 years I’d found my voice as a photographer, I knew what I wanted to say and had a much bigger platform for saying it.
Article By: Laura Rodriguez Castro.