Danny Wilcox Frazier’s Ode to the American Heartland

“I get on the road and follow the photography … wherever I end up is where I’m supposed to be. I love living like that.”—Danny Wilcox Frazier

Wanderlust and a keen sense of wanting to make a difference: practical prerequisites for anyone dedicating their lives to photojournalism. As soon as he had the chance, Danny Wilcox Frazier left his hometown of LeClaire, Iowa and headed to Kenya to live the life of an international photojournalist. But it was back in Iowa where he found his voice.

It was the fall of 2002, and the impact of a steady exodus of single, well-educated adults from rural areas, mainly in the Midwest, was being felt as towns were left to wither in their wake. During what was meant to be a temporary pause in a life lived abroad, Frazier was on assignment for Mother Jones in Rockwell City, Iowa.

“I remember having walked around the town square, and almost all the storefronts were boarded up. I went into this café and it just felt like slow death inside the place. But then I was also thinking about my short time in Kenya and the fact that every time I was out, I was working in a pack of photographers. I very much enjoyed that, but I also thought, ‘These stories are being covered.’ That thought was really strong when I was sitting there—the reality that no one was covering these small towns and the issues of rural America. Instead of just having this desire of getting the hell out of Iowa, I all of a sudden started to realize how great of a place it was, but, at the same time, how much people were struggling.”

Over the next decade, this exploration has resulted in a number of projects, reaching from communities in Iowa, to the Badlands of South Dakota, to the abandoned neighborhoods of Detroit.

Frazier spoke with Proof about his journey, and what happens when wanderlust combines with a deep-rooted sense of place.

ALEXA KEEFE: You didn’t start out with the intention of these places connecting but now you have a body of work spanning the American heartland. How has one place led to another?

DANNY WILCOX FRAZIER: Honestly, when I get to a place, the reason for connecting or not is so by chance. It’s just these connections I have to people, and then a feeling for the place, that kind of overtakes me. The Badlands has been that. I did a few trips to Detroit and it was the same. I kept getting pulled back.

My work is about the emotional landscape, but the physical landscape is important, too, because in rural America, in rural societies at large, there is a deep connection to [the] land.

ALEXA: How do you decide where to photograph? Do you just chose a place you’re interested in going and see what happens?

DANNY: It’s a total road trip. I pack up my Toyota 4Runner. I got a nice Therm-a-Rest now, but what I used to do is put down a futon, so the whole back had a futon mattress, and then I would have food, water, beer, sometimes tequila. I take my mountain bike sometimes. There’s so much gear it’s obnoxious, because of all the different [camera] formats. A massive bag of film. All kinds of cold-weather gear, different boots. That thing is an apartment on wheels, because I live in it.

I know where I’m going, loosely, but even friends, subjects that I’m going to see, they know that if say, “I’m going to be there probably Wednesday,” they know that might mean Friday. I get on the road and I just follow the photography, and wherever I end up is where I’m supposed to be. I love living like that.

ALEXA: What is it like for you when you approach a new community?

DANNY: Every time I leave, I’m petrified. What I love about photography is it has me out of my comfort zone at all times. I am scared to death that I’m not going to meet anyone and I’m not going to make any work, and that comes out of the fact that I’m actually, outside of photography, a very shy person. So photography forces me to go and interact with people. I wouldn’t be the person I am without photography.

ALEXA: Your photography conveys a really amazing ability to be a fly on the wall.

DANNY: Honestly, I really feel that subjects that I work with for a long time become active participants in the storytelling process. Now, that does not mean that they’re acting. Quite the opposite. It’s that they have accepted my presence to the point where they have taken their masks off and they are allowing me a glimpse into exactly who they are.

ALEXA: How do your subjects feel about your photographs of them?

DANNY: The one thing I can share with my subjects are the photographs. I’m not saying at all times people love what they see, but I’ve never had anyone who has rejected the work.

I have had people, like Courtney Beechum, who is on the cover of Driftless. I remember when I took the family the book. They knew that Courtney was going to be on the cover. I showed up at their trailer and everyone was inside, and Courtney was sitting alone on the couch with her brother and sister and mom and dad behind the couch. I walked up and I handed her the book, and her family was going crazy—”That’s amazing”—and Courtney wasn’t saying anything. Everyone else had gotten really quiet, and her mom asked her, “Are you okay?” Then I asked her, “What do you think?” and she looked up at me and she said, “It makes us look poor.” That was hard. I was crying. Everyone was silent.

You know, it’s taken her years. She’s now a high school student and she and I talked about this. She understands that photo now. All the hope in that photo, she understands it. But the reality is the photos are, at times, hard.

ALEXA: And what do you feel is your responsibility to the people who open themselves up to you?

DANNY: My subjects who I’ve worked with for a long period of time know as much about me and my family. They know all the positive things about me, but they also know the negative things about me. It really becomes a deep friendship, and I share as much of myself as they share with me. I feel that’s mandatory. If I’m not going to be open and honest with them, then who am I to sit around and document all the highs and all the lows of their lives?

ALEXA: You grew up during the farm crisis of the 1980’s. How does the Midwest you are photographing echo the Midwest you grew up in?

DANNY: I think the farm crisis had a profound impact on my social conscience. It was a really difficult time, not just for all the farmers but anyone who had a business [related to the farming industry]. My father owned a small insurance agency in my hometown of LeClaire, and the mid 1980’s, ’84 and ’85, were the worst years. The Quad Cities, over the course of those two years, lost 20,000 manufacturing jobs.

And then you had the foreclosures on the farms, and it just was really, really tough, economically, and it was tough on our family. My father was able to make it through that period—he didn’t lose his business—but it affected our family life, and that has always stuck with me, the economic insecurity, the difficulty that people faced everywhere.

ALEXA: Do you feel like because you have a personal connection with the places you photograph that people take it more personally when they see your depiction of their life?

DANNY: It’s not that rural America is a closed society or anything, but people are apprehensive about outsiders. They can be very standoffish. But in their eyes I’m just a country boy, who still lives in rural Iowa, even though I tell everyone who I work for, where the work will go. I’m not hiding any of that, of course. But I do think it helps with access.

ALEXA: You are working on a book which will bring together all the places you’ve been photographing over the past decade. Tell me about it.

DANNY: After Driftless was published [in 2007], I just started working further west, which is where depopulation is happening—the Great Plains, western Nebraska, the Dakotas. These are the counties that are hardest hit by depopulation. Again, the part of the conversation where I see myself fitting in is showing all that is still life in these places, so, yes, the struggle. There’s that emotional tone to my work, that dark tone, but also the beauty, back to what I think, culturally, is so important.

There is this rural sensibility that is very much about part of what America is, and where we’ve come from. When you think, 100 years ago, 72 percent of the population lived in rural America, and 100 years later … it’s down to 16 percent.

I want the book to continue that conversation of why these places matter. I’m a small piece in this huge puzzle. It takes me, it takes other artists, it takes academics, it takes historians, it takes everyone focusing attention, and then the public will react and put pressure on, and we’ll see some kind of change. There are pockets of it all over the country, and food is a big part of that. If you look at communities where they are paying close attention to sustainability in agriculture, if they’re paying close attention to the quality of their food, if they’re paying close attention to the quality of their groundwater, those are communities where we are seeing local economies grow, we’re seeing the health of the population improve, and that’s the hope. That’s what we need, and we need other photographers and writers to highlight. We need publications to highlight that.

Danny Wilcox Frazier is lives in Iowa City with his wife and two children. He is a member of Facing Change, a non-profit collective of photojournalists documenting critical issues facing America. Visit facingchange.org to see more photographs from his projects Badlands, Driftless, and a Detroit Requiem. You can also follow Frazier on Instagram.

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