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Where the Heart Is: Portraits from Vernacular American Trailer and Mobile Home Parks

Kathleen Tunnell Handel | United States

Tunnell Handel interviewing three residents of an upstate New York manufactured housing community. They each became activists by necessity when their community was sold to a private equity investment group that raised lot rents and began attempting to evict their neighbors.

Kathleen Tunnell Handel is engaged in an immersive exploration of the affordable-housing subgenre of mobile home and manufactured housing communities. Her ongoing project “Where the Heart Is: Portraits from Vernacular American Trailer and Mobile Home Parks” includes images made, to date, within Maine, Georgia, California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Arizona, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Colorado, archived and presented in the taxonomy and typologies she’s creating.

Tunnell Handel’s research, impromptu and recorded conversations and interviews with park residents and managers, and collaboration with sociologists, urban planners, and housing advocates ground her fine art aesthetic and inform her growing advocacy for affordable housing.

Earlier studies in life sciences at Cornell University, through being awarded a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, to ongoing photography related studies, have all contributed to Tunnell Handel’s deep interest in visual culture and themes of life systems and the human experience.

She lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and New York City.

As the availability of affordable housing and housing stability erodes, and eviction rates reach crisis proportions, Where the Heart Is: Portraits from Vernacular American Trailer and Mobile Home Parks investigates this deeply affected, primarily American housing form. This ongoing photographic study challenges the ingrained stereotyping of both the estimated 20 million Americans who live in manufactured housing (as stigmatized trailer and mobile homes are being rebranded) as well as of the rapidly vanishing mobile home parks themselves within which this project is focused.

Where the Heart Is is informed by immersive research into affordable housing and the American Dream, then contextualized by further research into issues strongly impacting manufactured housing and their homeowners, such as housing instability, zoning, gentrification, and land redevelopment. Conversations and collaboration with park residents, park managers, urban planners, housing advocates, and sociologists further ground my image’s fine art aesthetic within the documentary tradition to enable them to help amplify the essential conversation about the desperate need for affordable housing in the United States.

Inside parks, feelings of community are heightened by the care frequently devoted to the ornamentation and landscaping of confined yards and entryways, often despite limited resources. I delight in discovering these spaces and presenting them as portraits revealing the personalities of the unseen residents. These often whimsical or exuberant public displays are in welcome contrast to the anonymity of life within the urban high-rise where I live today.

Singular portraits of individual homes within a state are also classified and constructed into a library of, currently, thirty unique typology grids, archiving differences and commonalities across communities. This act of observing, collecting, and codifying is imbedded in my creative process and has been my lifelong way of engaging with the world.

Ongoing since 2017, Where the Heart Is currently includes locations and residents from within Maine, California, Texas, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Arizona. My intention, time, resources, and Covid-19 permitting, is to continue expanding the project’s taxonomy by further exploration within the South and the Midwest while integrating oral histories and images from park residents.

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