Rich Villacres

Story by Miles King

Dreams are one of the most unique parts of the human experience. Some dreams exist on a small scale; others have the influence to enact real change in a person’s life. For Rich Villacres, a CWU photographer for nearly two decades, his dream of travelling throughout the west coast capturing portraits of the homeless could change his life forever.

How He Got Here    

Born in Torrance, Calif., Villacres moved to Wenatchee, Wash. when he was eight years old. Having enjoyed art in high school, he created technical renderings and realistic paintings of cars and considered pursuing a career as an industrial designer.

Villacres bounced around a variety of jobs after high school including a security guard, stereo salesman, bank teller, hardware store worker, busser and waiter. Nothing stuck out as a potential career.

“Over the course of three years I worked a lot of different kinds of jobs, enough to realize that after I’d been somewhere for three months at an entry level job, I was bored as f**k,” says Villacres. “It started to dawn on me that I really want a profession—I want something that would grow with me.”

Throughout his time working miscellaneous jobs, Villacres continued creating his technical renditions and paintings, but he lacked source material. While working at the Union Carbide plant in Moses Lake, Wash. in 1986, he was inspired by the details of the cranes, trucks and other vehicles on site. However, since he could not take the time while on the job to sketch the vehicles, he did something that made everything click—he bought a camera.

“A month after I got the camera, I just started taking off with this. I stopped drawing altogether,” he says. “I found that because I was so good, I had that gift for pre-visualization that all artists do. All of the sudden it was like this radical shortcut. All I had to learn was technique.”

A year later, Villacres had moved to Seattle and was working at Tower Records. Another artist who worked there painted one-off album art to be put up on the side of the building. The artist was attending the Art Institute of Seattle at the time and told Villacres about the school. Villacres enrolled into the commercial photography program six months later. After graduation in 1989, Villacres found freelance work and assisted other photographers.

After a year of freelancing in Seattle, Villacres decided to move back to Wenatchee because he was tired of the rain, and a little tired of photography. He took a job fueling airplanes at the airport in Wenatchee. During the year he worked there, he took a hiatus from photography. Villacres thought about becoming a pilot, but ultimately reconsidered the decision.

“I’d been up flying enough with them [pilots] to know some of that’s scary and maybe it’s not what I want to do, and it’s expensive,” he says. He decided to commit to photography and started his business in Wenatchee in 1992. Looking to expand business, he rented office space in Yakima, Wash. and split time pursuing clients in Yakima and the Tri-Cities. Making the trips back and forth, Villacres always noticed the signs for CWU.

“I’d never been in Ellensburg beyond fast food row, like so many people,” says Villacres. “I was blown away that this was here and it was cool looking.”

He introduced himself to Rob Lowery in CWU Public Affairs and asked if he could photograph the campus. Lowery liked the images he was sharing and introduced him to the graphics team. For the next few years, Villacres shot freelance assignments for the alumni magazine. When the former photographer retired after about 35 years, the graphics team and Public Affairs encouraged Villacres to apply. Other applicants included a fellow Washingtonian, a man from the east coast and another from Israel. Villacres landed the job.

“He had quite a bit of background in commercial work, which was attractive to us. His portfolio and his experience was quite diverse,” says Bret Bleggi, lead graphic designer for CWU Public Affairs. Bleggi has been at CWU for more than 30 years and helped hire Villacres.

His Career

After a career in photography freelancing, assisting and working for CWU, Villacres says the most fun thing he's done is aerial work. Before drones, photographers had to fly in helicopters to get the shots they desired.

“It was always a major kick in the ass to fly in a helicopter in a harness with the door off and your feet on the skit, camera leaning out,” says Villacres. “That is just so fun, you feel like this commando.”

The most meaningful work in his career was the first family portraits he had done free of charge for a women’s shelter in 1998. It was his wife’s idea; she knew someone in the shelter. Villacres continued to do free family portraiture in Ellensburg afterwards.

According to Villacres, the best part about working at Central has been the students. He appreciates the younger perspective and energy the students provide. When his office was moved to Barge Hall from the studio last summer, Villacres says he missed the students tremendously. He leaves his Barge Hall office a few times per day to go to the SURC or elsewhere on campus.

“That’s just been crushing for me, because I had that vibe all the time of the students,” he says. “There’s an energy to a college campus that’s just so cool.”

One of the most memorable stories from Villacres’ time at CWU was his experience with the ghost of Lola in Kamola, a legendary apparition who is said to have hung herself in her wedding gown in the upper floor of Kamola Hall when she discovered her husband had died in World War II. Villacres went up to the second floor before it was refinished to do a photoshoot with a model dressed in a wedding gown. The idea was to recreate Lola for the shoot.

“He shot these photos. This film we'd used before lots of different times—always works—came back and they started to process and develop it," says Bleggi. “There wasn’t anything on the film except these really weird scratches. They were going the wrong direction.”

Perhaps the most ominous image from the photoshoot that day was a photo of the model standing against a wall. The photo was blurred throughout the image expect for the gown, leaving the model unidentifiable. This had to be the work of Lola.

Although Villacres will miss his job at CWU, the students and Ellensburg, he is moving onto a much more noble, generous and meaningful cause: family portraiture free of charge for those who cannot afford it. Villacres has already notified CWU of his departure. He is excited to see a new photographer replace him.

“I think I’ve run my time,” says Villacres “I’m ready to do something new.”

Where He Is Going

Starting August 1, 2018, Villacres is returning to Seattle to begin the final chapter of his life. For the next couple years, he plans to help his 18-year-old son start his adult life, help his elderly mother in Olympia and develop his free family portraiture project: Jackdaw. The purpose of the project is to provide family portraits free of charge to those who otherwise could not afford it.

“At the point that my mom is not a factor anymore, I’ll start up north,” says Villacres. “I’ll go up north for a summer to Alaska as far as I can go and then start working my way down in the fall.” He has supporters in Canada and plans to travel through the country on his way down south. Beyond Alaska and Canada, he plans to continue south into the Northwest and along the west coast. After the United States, it's into Mexico, Central America and South America. Eventually, Villacres would like to make it to Cape Horn.

“It’s just a matter of how long am I going to live,” he says. “I’ll probably be two, three places a month at the most. I’m going to move slow.”

Villacres recognizes that some of the places he plans to travel may not be the safest. He has heard horror stories from overlanding friends who have ran into trouble in places such as Central America.

“Those will be the really interesting, super third-world [spots in] Central America ... that are kind of rogue to travel through,” he says. “The vintage nature of this [truck] is going to be a major pass in certain situations, at border crossings and such.”

His method of transportation: a 1954 Dodge M152 military truck. Villacres has remodeled the rear of the former military truck into livable quarters where he will sleep. The interior is detailed with personal scriptures and motivational words from the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien. He has made the truck his own and even named it Hella.

However, Villacres has had his fair share of troubles with the truck. On his way back from a trip to Sea-Tac, the truck began making a strange sound. Not knowing what was wrong, he decided to take it easy for the remainder of the trip going no more than 40 MPH. Upon arriving home, he posted a video of the noise to a M37 Facebook page. Within minutes he got a diagnosis of the truck’s issue: the generator bearing.

“The interesting thing on that trip was I had anxiety driving home over the pass with it making that sound, but I didn’t doubt—I didn’t have the fear that I used to—when I’d go,” he says. “I’ve gained some confidence, I know it so well now.”

Before that trip, Villacres was scheduled to present his truck at the Northwest Overland Rally last July. It was the first time he had taken it out of Ellensburg, and he fell about 20 miles short of the rally before it had to be towed.

“That was so brutal for me because they promoted me being there with the truck,” he says. “I’m on for this year. I’ll make it. I have no doubt this year, it's road-proven.” Villacres has replaced nearly everything that needed rebuilding. The drivetrain for the truck is fairly common, but his radio variant is rare. Villacres estimates there may only be about 20 left that are running.

“It’s going to break down on me just because it’s an older machine. I’m prepared for it,” he says. “I got all the tools on board. I carry spare parts for the things that are most likely to happen.”

Why He Is Doing This

Villacres has decided to pursue this project for many reasons, including events that have transpired in his life over the last few years, his desire for meaningful work, an undying wanderlust and, most importantly, his dreams.

A few years ago, Villacres and his wife separated after nearly 20 years. He and his wife had discussed attending Burning Man, which Villacres had been interested in attending after seeing photos of it. However, they never went. Again a single man, he decided to attend Burning Man the summer after the separation.

Villacres spent most of his time as a volunteer in the temple, processing his own grief and helping others worship in whatever way they felt was right.

“It was pretty crazy-transformational. It’s not like any temple or church or anything I’d ever been in before,” he says. “It’s this place where there is just no expectation of how you’re going to worship or how you should look or how you deal with your sh*t.”

Out on the playa at Burning Man, social norms are nonexistent. Everything is free; there is no bartering. Villacres was making burritos one day and a man walked up wearing traditionally-feminine clothing. Villacres offered him a burrito and now has earned a friend from Sweden.

“One of the big principles is gifting, which has influenced a lot of this,” he says. Fellow Burning Man attendees played a role in Villacres acquiring the truck.

Shortly after returning from his second Burning Man in 2015, Villacres had a vivid dream in which he was editing photos on a laptop in the back of an old military truck. Spanish-speaking children were playing and running around the truck. Later that same day, a Facebook friend shared a Craigslist ad for a truck similar to that in his dream. He couldn’t miss the opportunity.

“I sent the guy an email, telling him the dream and everything,” says Villacres. “That was an affirmation that from that point on there was never a doubt.” At the time of purchase, he did not have the funds to buy the truck outright. Villacres asked the seller to allow monthly payments. The seller had friends who attended Burning Man who convinced the him to help out Villacres.

No longer focused on the life he and his wife had planned, Villacres was free to choose a new path. He knew he wanted to do something meaningful.

“I was tired of just always having to make a buck and always having to have my images sell something,” he says. “I was reminded of the portraits I do for Aspen for the families here in town.”

For Villacres, there is no project beyond Jackdaw—this is his endgame.

“This is what I’m going to do with the rest of my time,” he says. “I would rather die doing this as an old man than wrap it up somewhere and be sitting in a chair and pass away.”


If you would like to help Rich and contribute to Jackdaw, visit his website: