Driftless: Stories from Iowa, a webdoc about the crisis in rural America, is one of our favourite webdocs here at the GDP project.
It is the work of Danny Wilcox Frazier, who first conceived the project as a book of photos while he was an grad student at the University of Iowa. The book won the 2007 Honickman First Book Prize in Photography, judged by the preeminent documentary photographer Robert Frank. Wilcox Frazier later expanded the project into a web-documentary, working with the NYC-based multimedia studio MediaStorm.
Check out his eye-opening webdoc – and read an account of our conversation with its creator.
GDP: What was the impetus behind Driftless?
DWF: I grew up in Leclaire, Iowa — a small blue-collar town on the Mississippi River, where my father still owns a small insurance agency. I came of age during the farm crisis, which has devastated that whole area. The Quad Cities area lost about 30,000 manufacturing jobs in a few years – union-wage jobs with John Deere, Caterpillar and other agricultural businesses. The foreclosure rate went through the roof. It was an extremely difficult time that had a profound impact on me.
Later, when I finished undergrad studies, I moved to Nairobi and worked as freelance photographer for a year. It was a life changing experience. I started looking at the world around me and the plight of others, so when my wife and I moved back to Iowa, it seemed natural to do a project in my own backyard. I started doing little photo essays about issues throughout rural Iowa. One was about a high school near Iowa City, where only one kid in the graduating class was planning on going into farming.
I got more and more interested in the crisis in the rural economy. When I ennrolled in grad school – in the Journalism and Mass Communication program at the University of Iowa – it became my main area of research. Driftless started as my graduate research project. Iâ€™d originally planned on teaching right out of grad school, but freelance work allowed me to continue the project for two more years. Then I won the Honickman First Book Prize. Robert Frank, who was the judge for the award, ended up writing the intro to the book, which was pretty humbling.
Even as I was completing the book, I was thinking of doing a documentary that advanced the same issues. While in grad school I had the chance to study with the experimental videomaker Leighton Pierce and all these amazing filmmakers, and the impact on my still photography was incredible. It got me thinking about how I put images together, how I photograph scenes in the field. By this point, I had spent four years on my topic, and knew the subject inside-out.
I met Brian Storm in Perpignan, France, at the first major showing of the Driftless photographs, and he expressed interest in working together on a multimedia production. At first I wasnâ€™t interested: I didnâ€™t want to make a slideshow with audio – I wanted to make a documentary. But we realized we were on the same path, and Driftless wouldn’t have got made without the collaboration with MediaStorm. By then I was covering the presidential campaign as part of Time Magazineâ€™s team, so there was no way I could have finished the project on my own.
GDP: What distinguishes web-docs from film documentaries?
DWF: Online platforms are one of the best things that happened to documentary photography and filmmaking. The potential to reach people is incredible. The last time I checked, weâ€™d had a quarter million views of Driftless and thatâ€™s incredible.
In terms of format, I just wanted to make a documentary. If I compare traditional docs to what I did â€“the foundation of Driftless is still images and thatâ€™s not a traditional approach in documentary film. For me, I guess, itâ€™s all about the story. Whatever tools you use to convey that story are good, and photographers like me are now realizing they have other tools at hand.
GDP: Is photo-journalism enjoying a renaissance on the web?
DWF: Absolutely. There are hardly any traditional magazines or papers still running true photo-essays. So the internet has become a key outlet â€“ not only for single photographs but also essays, images that play off each other, where you take the reader through a visual journey.
Moving images have a peak or plateau and then come back down. Youâ€™re moving past it, and on to the next. But a still image has the ability to cauterize itself in our collective memory â€“ itâ€™s burned there. Youâ€™re able to consider the moment â€“ and all the meaning surrounding that moment. And itâ€™s amazing when theyâ€™re composed well into series. Iâ€™m still on a learning curve myself, but itâ€™s a fun challenge.
When I was teaching at Iowa, working with students at the College newspaper, it was amazing to see how many photos someone was willing to look at online. At the beginning students would create essays of 12 or 15 shots, but then started pushing it to 30 or 40 images â€“ and readers would still view the whole essay. People are embracing digital communication as the technology improves. So itâ€™s an incredible time right now for documentary photography.
GDP: Does the crisis present an opportunity to rethink how the US economy is structured?
DWF: Well thatâ€™s the focus on my next project. Wealth consolidation is our number one problem in the USA. Yes â€“ the downturn was linked to housing and the risky behaviour of financial firms, but in my opinion, it was the concentration of wealth that lead to a point where it crumbled.
When you have the top 0.1 percent owning 20 percent of the nationâ€™s wealth â€“ at some point things just arenâ€™t going to work anymore. The middle class in the USA has been losing money for decades now. In 1968, the average CEO made 25 times what the average worker made â€“ but in 2008 it was 250 times what the average worker made.
Consolidation is at the same point right now as it was during the Great Depression â€“ before Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath of office. The parallels are blinding. Thatâ€™s what we have to deal with.
This interview was conducted by writer-researcher Philip Lewis