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Photo Essays

Peek into the Bedrooms of Vancouver’s Millennials

Documenting the diverse homes of the pricey region’s young adults.

By Christopher Cheung 8 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

After photographing friends and friends of friends in their bedrooms, Wendel Genosa posted an ad on Craigslist to find strangers willing to invite her in to do the same.

She did worry about creeps that prowled classifieds. On the other hand, there were probably people wary of her.

But the ad worked. People wrote back. And they were more than happy to have Genosa visit their bedrooms and take their pictures.

“It’s kind of like a blind date, only you’re going into their room for the first time,” she said.

Genosa’s “Bedroom Biographies” project was for art school, but peeking into the bedrooms of other millennials satisfied her personal curiosity about how her generation is getting by and creating belonging in pricey Metro Vancouver.

Genosa was 19 when she started shooting the project in 2012, but she’s been thinking about bedrooms — what they say about people, what they mean to people — her entire life.

Growing up in Richmond, Genosa’s family of four slept in two beds in one bedroom. They were renters.

“I didn’t really have my own sanctuary,” she said. “Every time I’d go over to a friend’s house, I was like, ‘Wow, you guys get your own room!’ They had all this space to house their own items and they got to show off things on their walls. I didn’t have much authority about my own space, so I think that’s why I was fascinated with other people’s spaces.”

At 12, the family moved into a townhouse, and for the first time Genosa had her own room.

“I was able to curate this gallery of myself,” she said.

Genosa decorated it with wire sculptures, cutouts from magazines like Life and National Geographic, ticket stubs she saved from pop punk concerts and her own art, like a large monochrome painting she did of Audrey Hepburn.

“Every little part was done with intention.”

When Genosa began studying at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, she realized that the bedrooms of young adults offer new questions to explore.

How do you make home in a shared apartment? Or if you’re living with your family, like Genosa? Is it a personal refuge? Metro Vancouver’s unaffordability and cultural diversity also deepen this discussion; the region is home to a wide range of strategies to cope with costs, and different ideas of what’s the norm for a young adult.

“Bedroom Biographies” allowed her to find the answers for herself.

“In a way, it is voyeuristic,” she said, “but I wanted to create a visual census to document people at a moment of time in their space.”

Genosa knew it would be difficult asking people to let her into their bedrooms.

And even if they were willing, there was the challenge of capturing rooms in a natural state — no tidying up for her visit, no removal of items or staging of new items to appear a certain way. “Imagine if I just walked in,” she told them.

On top of that, the subject has to act natural.

“You’re forced to be in this awkward place with someone you barely know in their bedroom,” said Genosa. “But eventually, you get into deep conversations and it feels like such a safe space. That makes the photograph easier to do.”

Looking at her images, the details you spot in the bedrooms feel authentic.

A silver accordion.

A painting on an easel.

A large collection of toy ponies.

In one room, a young man is vaping.

In another, a young woman sleeps on Winnie-the-Pooh bedsheets with a Pokémon blanket.

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Messica Mae, 27. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Titiana Peng, 22. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Marco Tolentino, 21. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Hazel Cheng, 21. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.

Dorms, bachelor suites, rooms in shared houses and family homes are all represented. Bedroom by bedroom, Genosa has created an archive of young people in today’s Metro Vancouver and how this life stage manifests in their personal space.

“I had some people tell me, I’m moving, you have to take a picture of this space before I leave,” she said. “People get very attached to their spaces and want to remember themselves in that space and what it looks like in the most raw and authentic way possible.”

Sometimes there are things in a room that surprise Genosa about the person she’s getting to know, but most of the time, they help “solidify” her impression of that person.

“You get to see more of the story,” she said.

Genosa calls her subjects “almost adults,” a nod to “adulting”, a term used by millennials to describe today’s hamster wheel struggle to reach traditional Canadian milestones of adulthood — living on your own, owning a home, finding secure, permanent work.

Genosa admits some bedroom visits made her think, “I could be there, but I’m not.” But ultimately, the photographs break down notions of what might be normal and reveal the many different ways young people are making home.

A quick survey of the names and faces reveals ethnocultural diversity representative of the region’s demographics, a refreshing thing to see considering how it’s often missing in local news or lifestyle media. Genosa herself is a Canadian-born Filipina. But at the same time, she was wary of demographics defining assumptions.

For example, a Statistics Canada report in 2016 found that 52 per cent of “visible minorities” between 20 and 29 live at home with their parents, compared with 40 per cent of white Canadians of the same age.

“I knew I wanted to cover all grounds of people, but I didn’t want to say this person is Asian and they’re living at home, because you see some of them break those stereotypes,” she said.

Instead, Genosa is interested in journeys and choices.

“How did you end up in this space? What did it take for you to get here?”

Looking at the portraits, you can imagine stats like those on baseball cards that would describe the subjects and their homes: name, age, length of residence, square footage of room, employment status, cultural background, etc. But including them would seem reductive.

Instead, you need to spend time with these photographs to learn about the people in them. Some bedrooms overwhelm with information, brimming to the edges with a lifetime of artifacts that leave you combing through them for meaning. Other rooms have you guessing the meaning of the few objects they contain — what does it mean if one room has no décor except for a generic painting of Venice?

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JC Tee, 21. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Amanda Fielding, 19. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2014.
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Aidan Williamson, 18. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Kiely Landrigan, 21. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Tania Pardisi, 23. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2014.
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Bradley Warren, 23. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Kayla Topham, 21. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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David Jhinku, 21. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2014.

Genosa needed to crawl under tables and squeeze herself into closets to capture some of the rooms. She didn’t use a lens wider than 18 millimetre; it would’ve felt more unnatural and less intimate. Yet we see the wider worlds to which these rooms belong peep into the frames. “The unseen parts of a photograph make you lean in,” she said.

In the corner of one shot, we can see the foot of a staircase. In another, the three walls that border a bed tell us we’re looking at a nook in a bachelor suite. In some the windows are open, revealing whether the rooms are in suburbia, downtown or on a university campus; a narrow horizontal window with the view of a fence by the ceiling of one room tells us it’s a basement.

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Scion Sasaki, 22. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Jaclyn Eng, 24. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2015.
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Kiely Landrigan, 25. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2019.

The details leave Genosa wondering what styles and symbols will one day scream Metro Vancouver in the 2010s.

Two of her photographic inspirations were Adrienne Salinger and Larry Sultan. Salinger photographed teenagers in their bedrooms in the 1990s, and Sultan photographed his parents around the family home in the 1980s, everyday scenes of American suburbia like practising a golf swing and untangling the cord of a vacuum cleaner.

Looking back now, their work heavily evokes time and place; everything from posters to hairdos holds potential for study.

“It’s a different way of looking at history,” Genosa said. “Logos or whatever’s on TV are all cultural signifiers that speak to the time.”

In true adulting fashion, “Bedroom Biographies” has become a passion project that Genosa adds to on the side of her day job. Since graduating from art school in 2015 and moving out of the family home, she works with teenagers with development and physical disabilities at a Richmond non-profit.

As well as adding new subjects to the collection, Genosa has shot her first couple, some of her old subjects in new bedrooms and expanded the collection from Metro Vancouver to other cities when she travels. She’s hoping to capture more ways that people “improvise” their living space to get by, whether that’s a room that’s not a formal bedroom or sharing. At the extreme end, one of her subjects told her that they were once homeless.

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Jeffrey Yau, 24, and Carmen Tran, 25. Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2018.

One of Genosa’s recent photographs is of her cousin in the Philippines who shares a bedroom with his grandparents. “I think it’s one of my favourites just because you can see another bed there and you wonder what’s on the other side,” she said.

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Mark Fegarido, 18. (Genosa’s cousin.) Photo by Wendel Genosa, 2018.

Genosa says her friends sometimes tell her, “I’m not sure if I’m adulting right.”

Her pictures show that there are many ways to do it.

You can visit Wendel Genosa’s website at wendelgenosa.com and follow “Bedroom Biographies” on Instagram here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing, Photo Essays

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