Portrait of a 'skoolie' family: Stunning black and white images capture parents and three kids living, eating and playing in their converted school bus home on the streets of Los Angeles
Ismael Reis was working as a restaurant manager in Delaware when he and his wife, Greice, made a decision: They were going to convert an old school bus into a mobile home for their young family.
The Reises - Mormons who hail from the southern part of Brazil - bought a 1999 bus for $2,300 in 2017. After fixing up the bus, Ismael, Greice and their three children - Kal–El, Maria Flor and Anna Lua - hit the highway in the summer of 2018.
The family had become a part of the 'skoolie' movement, a subset of a larger trend called 'van life' – and both have their own hashtag. While the lure of the open road and RVs has long been a part of American lore, there has been an uptick in vehicle dwelling in the past nine years. Interest in the lifestyle has only grown during the coronavirus pandemic with its lockdowns, job losses and remote work.
By fall 2018, the family of five had made their way across the country from Delaware to Los Angeles. It was in the city that they had a chance introduction with photographer Dotan Saguy. That unexpected encounter would eventually led to a new book, Nowhere to go but Everywhere, a captivating collection of images that show the family's skoolie life and includes interviews with Ismael.
In the fall of 2018, Saguy's monograph on Venice Beach was published. He was looking for a long-term project that perhaps could be turned into another book. Saguy turned his attention to people living in vehicles. At the time, there were vans and campers parked on the city's streets. 'It was becoming a big thing. There was a lot of stigma around those people,' he explained.
In Los Angeles, San Francisco and others parts of California, the sheer amount vehicles parked on streets in expensive neighborhoods were angering some business owners and residents. They marred the landscape and some vehicle dwellers brought quality of life issues for locals that included garage, unhygienic conditions and drug dealing.
Saguy wanted to investigate why people were living in vehicles - if it was by choice or necessity - and started talking to people, building relationships and taking photographs. He discovered that there was not a big community and most people kept to themselves. Even when people were parked right next to each other, they often didn't talk, he said. In October, a vehicle dweller told him there was a new family who had come to town and that an introduction could be made, which Saguy noted was unusual.
'I was very challenged by the project,' he said. Before he met the Reises, the people he had been taking picture of were single and living in small, often dark vehicles that didn't lend itself to photographic moments.
But Ismael, Greice, Kal–El, Flor and the youngest that they called Bebe were engaging.
Saguy showed them his Venice Beach book and explained that he was looking for candid scenes. Social media savvy, the Reises were already posting about their life on Instagram. They were happy for him to chronicle their life, he said. 'It wasn't something out of the ordinary for them.'
That first meeting, he took pictures of them. A week later he sent the best images to the family and they invited him back to take more.
While Saguy noted that there was a rapport from the beginning, it took him a few months to earn what he called 'full trust' to become a fly on the wall, or in this case, school bus.
Ismael and Greice were homeschooling their children and much was going on with the young family to photograph, Saguy explained. The images show the children at play: The two young girls - Flor and Bebe - running and wearing their princess dresses as well as the eldest sonKal–El, who liked to climb, on top of the bus' roof. The pictures also detail everyday life: driving, eating, making meals and a sink full of dirty dishes.
An affectionate and close-knit family, Saguy said they were able to make it work in tight quarters. 'I was surprised they got along so well in such a small space.'
Nonetheless, he said: 'They were able to find those alone moments.'
For about ten months from October 2018 until the family left Los Angeles in mid-August in 2019, Saguy spent time shooting their life. Sometimes he was with them every day and then, at other times, he said he didn't see them for weeks.'They went through a rough patch in the winter.'
Ismael told Daguy: 'We had three hellish days in Los Angeles in February. The bus had already been unreliable; but in February, it just would not startup anymore. We used our car insurance to get the bus towed to a church parking lot.'
Both Ismael and Greice were raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil. 'Mormonism is popular there. We met in church at the age of twelve, when my family moved to her town. We grew up together with the same beliefs and the same religious practices,' Ismael recalled, according to the book.
There are over 1.4 million Mormons in Brazil, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' website.
Ismael was a missionary in Florida for two years and soon after he returned to Brazil, he and Greice got married and started having children.
The family kept their bus at the Mormon church parking lot, which with the exception of Sundays, was empty, Saguy said. The bishop knew them as they had attended services at times and allowed them to stay there. But the church's cleaning lady gave the family a hard time and reported them to Children and Family Services, according to the book. 'What hurt us the most was being suspected of mistreating our own children,' Ismael said.
Saguy said: 'That was very painful for them.'
By the time the family left Los Angeles in August 2019, they were no longer Mormons. When Saguy first met them, he said that Greice had already been questioning their faith, but that it took Ismael longer to disconnect. The couple researched their religion and ultimately decided it clashed with their values, he said.
During that difficult period in February, Greice also had an abortion. 'It had been a particularly tough decision for us, because abortion was a huge taboo for us as Mormons. We had been doubting our Mormon faith for a while, and that day we made the conscious decision to permanently leave it behind,' Ismael said.
Despite the hardships they endured at times, the 'skoolie' life is the one for the Reises.
'We often get asked if we see ourselves going back to our regular lives,' Ismael told Daguy. 'What I always tell people is that van life is a one-way road. Once you take it, there's no going back. In ten or even twenty years, I can't see myself going back to regular life with a house and a job.
My wife and I have talked about this at length: Even if we had to stop traveling for any reason, health or otherwise, we would still live the "bus life." It's a one-way road: There's no going back!'