It was just another graffiti'd backstreet in an industrial area of Oakland. It was pure coincidence that I found the pews before they were very street worn. I was making the mural rounds with some newly-Oaklanded friends on an overcast day and was so intrigued I had to return. And return I did the next day with a bit more equipment and a rotating clan of models.
I wasn't the only one drawn to the alley, though. Pick-ups stuffed with reflective-vest-clad workers slowed as they passed, men with grocery carts full of cans stared from down the street and those going to and from work sites nearby smiled as they drove their CATs and street sweepers from one place to the next.
As I set up lighting equipment shortly before dusk, a van pulled to the side of the road with the engine idling. A woman stepped out of the passenger-side, leaving the driver behind, and she slowly ambled up to the scene and inquired what I was doing. I told her I was preparing for a shoot. She introduced herself as Theresia and told me she too was returning for the second day to witness the heap of discarded pews. She was both excited and awestruck. Her silence communicated the questions she wanted answered too: where had the pews come from? How many years of hymnal reading had happened on them? How many bored children had passed out underneath them?
Theresia was eager to revisit her childhood and instinctively reached behind the cushions. “I wonder what you can find back here?” she said, as she pulled out a crumpled up piece of notebook paper on her first try. I quietly imagined all of the surreptitious notes she might have scrawled during the services she presumably attended as a child.
She proposed having her photo taken midst the pew-pile, but then demurred. I thought it was a good idea so I gave her the encouragement -- or permission -- to step in front of the camera. We took a few pictures while she reminisced about her early days in Oakland, and how another photographer had tried to get her to model sixteen years earlier.
I handed her my card in case she ever wanted the photos. She thanked me before returning to the van with the mysterious driver, and driving out of my life, presumably forever. Before long, my next appointed model rode up on bike and we returned to our regularly scheduled program.
Words by Reaux Flagg and John Orvis