Damon Casarez graduated art school in Los Angeles in the summer of 2012 with more than $100,000 in student loans. For a while, he was getting enough editorial assignments and jobs assisting other photographers to make ends meet. But after about a year, he hit a dry spell. Within a couple of months he’d drained all his resources. “After selling some equipment I had to call it quits and the last resort was to move home. I moved onto my parents’ couch in the living room because my old room was turned into an office,” he said. “After a month and a half being back home, student loans were constantly on my mind. I just started wondering, ‘What is everyone else in this situation looking like?’ ”
Casarez began reaching out to friends, and soon after that he photographed a friend’s sister in the neighborhood who had also moved home after college. After that shoot, he began looking for more boomerang kids—young adults who “choose to cohabit with their parents after a brief period of living on their own”—on Craigslist, and managed to photograph a few more.
This spring, the New York Times Magazine commissioned Casarez to continue his series across the country. He ended up photographing 15 people in 15 cities and eight states over the course of 2½ months. Finding subjects wasn’t always easy though, and Casarez had to try every means possible to find them, from asking friends to searching on social media to cold calling Starbucks employees. “I knew there were thousands of people out there like me,” he said. “But some of the people didn’t want to appear in the magazine that way because living back at home is sometimes seen as failure.”
After the magazine story was published this June (all captions are based on information gathered at that time), Casarez said, a lot of commenters confirmed the existence of such a stigma, blaming his subjects for “just chasing dreams” and “not contributing” to the economy. But Casarez said the boomerang phenomenon is increasingly common, and moving home is “a logical step to take when you’re struggling to find work,” one that can be beneficial if done “in a smart way, where you’re constantly making moves.”
As he pursued his project, Casarez felt comforted by talking to people all over the country who shared his experiences and his concerns. When he met people like Sarah Van Eck, 24, whose only job opportunity after graduating with a biology degree was as a “glorified dishwasher” at a local hospital, he realized how lucky he was to be pursuing his passion. When making his portraits, Casarez looked to show his subjects in their natural environments, and he looked for moments that visually represented “this stage of emerging adulthood where you’re between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood,” like when 29-year-old Robert Ellis sat on his bed holding a Batman toy. “He looked like a grown man, but in a childlike surrounding, hinting that he’s kind of lost in this period before he becomes a full adult,” Casarez said.
Casarez is still living at home, but he said work is picking up and he’s optimistic about his future, as well as the future of others in his situation. “Everyone’s wondering what’s going to happen with the class of 2015 that graduates. But people in Congress are noticing how big an issue the student loan burden is,” he said. “I think the trend is still going to be there that people are taking on these milestones later in life, as they have been, but I think things are looking up.”