What it’s like riding along with a valet driver at a San Francisco strip club

Rian Dundon has been a photographer for over 20 years. He became one to be closer to people, he said. Nearly 15 years ago, he traveled to China to work as an English teacher at a small university. He also explored the culture, getting closer to people and trying to understand his surroundings. That work culminated in a book about his experiences called “Changsha,” published in 2012. Sometime after his foray into China, Dundon returned to the United States and settled in California.

Needing money, Dundon began working as a valet driver for a strip club in San Francisco. Dundon said this about his experiences:

“My job was fast-paced, but I had some time to make pictures on my rapid drives to and from the parking garage. I never photographed inside the club (only went in to use the restroom or drop money in the safe) but I saw meaning in the fleeting details of life outside, where the half-finished LinkedIn skyscraper and SFMoMa extension were vying for room with a nightly flow of vehicles and humans. And I found a hidden thrill in studying the inside of strangers’ cars for what they revealed about their owners, as well as the urban spectacle as framed through their windows. All of these things held weight for me as symbols and symptoms of the changing city. “

So, there are no photos of strippers or the club’s patrons in this project. There may be a glimpse of the exterior of the club. It mostly shows what it was like for Dundon to work, day after day, driving cars to be parked. There is something to be learned about the people that aren’t in the photos and about the city. In a way, Dundon still uses his camera to get close to people, to understand them and their circumstances. As Dundon said about his time making the work:

“Seeing the way money was spent at the club got me thinking about the influence of the tech business and all the people who make a living performing provisional labor on its fringes. ...These pictures are hastily made. Shot with a pocket camera, many are unsanctioned glimpses of people’s personal space — a view from the driver’s seat. But I’m also interested in what these spaces say about systems of labor and exploitation during a period of economic stratification in San Francisco. To the extent that they relay details from a specific nocturnal milieu, these photos are also evidence of survival.”

Dundon no longer works as a valet for the strip club, but he still takes pictures — still trying to get close to people and examine the world around him. Recently, he self-published two bodies of work, “Out Here Vol. 1” and “Out Here Vol. 2,” which he referred to as a “personal history of California in the second decade of the 21st century.” You can see more of his work on his website. Dundon is also active on Instagram @rian_dundon.

This photo essay was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project [economichardship.org].

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