Catching his neighbors on film

Joe Claus
Joe Claus has been working on a project called My Neighbors since last year, documenting with photographs the small business owners who make San Jose’s downtown unique.

Joe started his project because he’s a San Jose native, from a family that’s been in the area since the 1820’s. In 2007, he was completing an SJSU degree in industrial design and photography, and he decided to use his skills to give something back to his hometown. He felt that “Big business really tears up small businesses” and that if the community doesn’t support its small businesses, it loses a vital element.

He began taking portraits of small business owners at the entrances of their businesses. His camera is a Hasselblad medium-format camera, the kind traditionally used by portrait photographers for the incredibly sharp prints that can be made from its relatively large negatives. He loves the hands-on process of film photography, and he started out developing and printing the photos himself, but he now uses a professional lab for printing.

Joe says that at first he was turned down by as many as 80% of the business owners he approached, but now he’s usually able to make contact with a potential subject through another person he’s already photographed, and he now has much better success in convincing the business owners to participate. He says that his early efforts to convince people to be photographed, including a 45 minute conversation with one particular owner, also helped him to understand his own motivations and goals for the project.

The project is now just over 100 photos of local business owners. Joe took about 80 of these pictures in the past 6 months, despite having only one free day per week to devote to his project. He had originally planned to move away from San Jose after graduating from SJSU, but he’s stayed here, living near downtown and commuting to Santa Cruz for work, to be able to continue the My Neighbors project. He has no plans to wrap up the project in the near future: “I just want to keep going,” he says.

At first he “didn’t really think about exhibitions and showing it publicly,” he says, but last year he showed the beginnings of the project at Kaleid Gallery, and he’s now planning an upcoming display at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Library. He’s also arranging a donation to the permanent collection of History San Jose, to be a record of San Jose’s current small business owners.

Joe gives each of his subjects a print of his or her portrait, but he’s “not trying to sell them somethiing,” so he’s paid all of his costs himself, rather than by selling prints. He’s seeking funding through grants, but hasn’t yet been successful with any of his applications.

Joe’s portraits are displayed on his website,, and on

Phuong of Azuki by Joe Claus on Flickr John of San Jose Tattoo by Joe Claus on Flickr

2 Comments so far

  1. SOOZ (sooz) on August 1st, 2008 @ 10:55 am

    Great article. Welcome to metblogs! I think the big trend now is to support local communities in order to keep the money in the local economy. Have you heard of IndieBound? It was started with just bookstores in mind but is spreading to other retailers. I went to their presentation last week in SF, and thought it was a great idea. Visit their website: to sign their declaration and find out how you help out when you support local businesses.

  2. Matt Bruensteiner (thephoton) on August 4th, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

    Thanks, Sooz.

    I checked to make sure Indiebound lists Willow Glen Books, which is the best independent bookstore I know around here. Check out their section on local history!

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