In a striking photo series showing the out-of-control clutter and junk in Geoff Johnson’s late mother’s Nebraska home, the photographer has his son and niece re-enact what life was like behind their always-closed doors. (Photo: Geoff Johnson Photography).
Photographer Geoff Johnson wanted to create beautiful art out of an ugly reality that he and his sister Jennifer McShea experienced as kids. So they decided to do what that they’d never done before. They let people see inside the Omaha, Nebraska home they’d fled 20 years ago as teens — because of unlivable conditions from their mother’s hoarding — with a photo series exposing what it was like to try to maintain normalcy amidst a dangerous amount of junk, debris, and mess.
“It’s easy to see Hoarders on TV and be judgmental,” says McShea, a stay-at-home mother of three in Florida. “But when you really have a sense of the burden that people are suffering in this mental illness, compassion comes out of the darkness of that secrecy.”
That insider view is exactly what Johnson wanted to depict. So after his mother, 59, passed away from breast cancer in 2013, the Omaha father snapped a collection of unflinching images of the abode — just as it was when he and his sister returned to clear it out and sell it, complete with the ceiling that caved in sometime in the 90s. Johnson then enlisted his son and niece, both then age 4, to re-enact some of his and his sister’s typical activities there, using Photoshop to put them into each image because McShea deemed it too unsafe for the preschoolers to actually enter the home for a shoot.
Photo: Geoff Johnson Photography.
“Everybody has a story to tell,” says the photography pro, 38, whose collection was completed in January has been published in American Photography and was posted on Feature Shoot last week. “For me, it’s like taking these pictures is showing what we lived through, to hopefully help other people.”
By “other people,” he means all those who remain silent in their shame about hoarding or living with a hoarder as he and his sister did for all those years. The duo’s mother, who worked in human resources, was active in the community, taking part in school clubs and organizations, says McShea, 36. “And that was great because we were out of the house a lot because of those things. But while all of that portrayed that we had it together, that wasn’t our reality.”
Photo: Geoff Johnson Photography).
The truth was, all of the things in the home that broke and weren’t replaced (including their refrigerator at one point) and all of the stuff that accumulated over the years, caused McShea to have “doorbell dread” as she describes it on her blog, Behind the Door Story.
“When there is a knock at my door today my immediate thought is how the house looks,” she writes. “Are there dishes in the sink? Laundry on the couch? Papers on the counter? Toys all over the floor? This is one of the many fears that I still have to fight regularly to overcome. And yet, I love having people in my house. Perhaps because there are years to make up for or perhaps because I long to give those memories to my kids that I never had the chance to make as a child.”
(Photo: Geoff Johnson Photography).
When they were living in the home, keeping the conditions of the inside secret was paramount for fear of judgment and of social services. That meant no friends over, no sleepovers, no opening up the door wider than a crack. (Johnson and McShea’s parents had divorced and the siblings say that their father had tried to get the family help, to no avail. “Hoarding wasn’t ‘a thing’ in the 80s,” says McShea). “There was a great sense of fear that if anyone knew how we were living, we’d be taken away,” she adds. “You lived afraid of that; and also in shame. Though it didn’t stem from us, there was embarrassment about how we lived.”
For that reason, Johnson admits, even 20 years later, “it was hard going back. The first time was pretty emotional.” McShea, for her part, found that returning to the home after so long allowed her to see the scene differently for the first time — through the eyes of a parent.
“My heart broke for my mom and the burden that she lived under,” she says of the matriarch. “I have a new perspective on her life and it gives me compassion for her situation rather than just frustration.”
The photo series, after all, isn’t about venting anger over all the ways in which living with a hoarder made them feel isolated and ashamed, nor shocking people, says Johnson. “We want to honor our mom,” he insists. “She had a problem and just couldn’t overcome it.”