Share

The New Americans: A Photographic Exploration

By Charles Purdy

Inspired in part by legendary photographer Robert Frank, whose 1958 book The Americans presented portraits of everyday Americans and changed the way we saw our country, photographers Elle Wildhagen and Zachary Domes set out on a six-week road trip. Their goal was to present today’s Americans as they saw them: inspiring, hopeful, and “full of so much good.”

Both individually and together, Elle and Zach work as wedding photographers—which means they have an “off season” during winter months. This year, they came up with a passion project that would nurture their creativity during that season: paying homage to Frank’s The Americans while also, in a way, re-creating it. The New Americans is the result: a web-based multimedia installation featuring 20 photo slide shows, accompanied by audio interviews and text.

In the age of Instagram, a photographic record of “regular” people might seem superfluous, but Elle and Zach approached their project with a goal and a point of view they wanted to share. In the 1950s, when Frank’s book came out, many Americans were feeling quite optimistic about the state of the nation, despite a raft of societal ills that were somewhat hidden from view; Frank’s goal was in part to shine a light on these troubling issues. Today, Elle and Zach see the opposite happening—they see a country and a news media focused on bad news and negativity, ignoring the many things (and people) we can feel hopeful about. 

“We were feeling really depressed,” says Elle, “and the darker side of humanity was feeling very obvious. So from there, we thought, ‘Let’s do the opposite of what Frank did and share the more inspiring side. Let’s do something intentionally inspiring and hopeful.’” 

Elle says that the Noreen and Susan piece is a good example of the work in the New Americans project and represents something they saw in a lot of their stories: “One of the main questions we asked each person was about what motivated them. And they were all people who were motivated by something greater than themselves. Noreen and Susan really saw themselves in a larger social context, a larger political context—and that is what encouraged them or gave them vision.” (Click on the image to watch.)

Elle and Zach are vegetarians, so the inclusion of Iowa hog farmers in their installation might come as a surprise—and they acknowledge that this shoot was their most challenging. Zach says, “They don’t have an operation that I would morally agree with, but who they are as people, I do agree with. And I really enjoyed getting to know them and the time we spent with them.” (Click on the image to watch.)

CHARTING A COURSE

The pair began by asking friends if they knew someone—a teacher or neighbor or friend—who was inspiring: “someone who is a light in some way.” The responses poured in from all over the country—and from there, Elle and Zach let the stories inform their route.

Zach explains, “Traveling across the country, you have to be planning ahead of time. We allotted ourselves six weeks, so we kind of let the stories guide us along our journey. That took us on a general route…but there were some stories we couldn’t do because they were just too far out of the way.”

Elle adds, “The last thing I wanted to do was come back with only stories of people just like me. Really, the only requirement for these stories at their most basic level was that the subjects were human. That was enough for us to want to meet with them and discover the inspiring. And the inspiring was always there.”

Photographers Elle Wildhagen and Zachary Domes.

This openness led them to a hog farm, for instance—despite their vegetarianism. Elle says, “We didn’t want to dismiss anyone. We met this family through one of my good friends. And she said how inspiring they were, so it was kind of a process of removing myself from what inspiring means, allowing it to be a term that others also own…. And they did inspire us. They were incredibly kind and inclusive people.”

In the end, they photographed more than 30 subjects, using 20 in the final installation.

A picture of the road, from the road.

COMING INTO VIEW

They arrived at the idea of an online installation as they worked on the project. When the pair started out, they knew they wanted to create multimedia pieces: photo slide shows accompanied by audio interviews. They thought the series might take the shape of a blog, but they also knew the series would be self-contained—there was a baked-in end date. They considered a Vimeo page, but when the pair returned home, Zach still had more he wanted to say, so they added a text component.

A division of labor developed naturally as they worked: Elle took more of the photos; Zach handled the audio. Zach did most of the driving and created the website; Elle built the slide shows. They both conducted interviews, and they tried to keep that process fairly fluid. Elle says, “We arrived not knowing any of these people, and then we’d spend two days with them in their home, with their families—so it was very immersive in that way. We tried not to have any strict roles, so we could stay as open as possible to the story and make them feel as comfortable as possible.”  

A portrait of Berta, one of the subjects of The New Americans.

For the same reason, they didn’t approach the subjects with a predetermined shot list; rather, they let the conversations and the photo shoots develop naturally. The message the pair wanted to convey was the message their subjects had to tell. The project became a learning experience, both in what they uncovered and in how they worked.

“In terms of our shot list, I think a lot of the planning happened when we were making arrangements to visit,” says Elle. “Just making sure we were meeting them at a good time of the day, that we’d have good light, that we’d have plenty of time to shoot them, that the places we were shooting them really fit them in some way—when we did the story on the dancer, for instance, making sure that we’d be able to shoot her dancing in a studio…. Then we could just let that person do whatever they did.”

A portrait of Courtney, one of the subjects of The New Americans.

As the trip went on, they did learn that it was better to conduct the interview first, so they could then capture images that supported what had been discussed.

The proof of their methods is in the resulting multimedia portraits, which are intimate, honest, and engaging—and truly uplifting. Elle and Zach say their goal was to counteract media negativity and sensationalism—to showcase good in the world. And in that they’ve definitely succeeded.

Jacob made a strong impression on the pair: “It wasn’t just about Jacob and him expressing himself,” says Elle. “It was really about allowing anyone, however they want to express themselves, to feel comfortable and confident.” (Click on the image to watch.)

Zach says one standout experience from the road trip was their visit to a wolf sanctuary: “That was my favorite—in terms of the work that they’re doing to help the wolves and the fact that they’re letting people meet full-blooded wolves…it was really kind of amazing to me. When you meet a wolf, you have to look straight into their eyes and let them lick your teeth. It was surreal. Meeting a group of humans getting on this level with animals was just so primordial in the best way." (Click on the image to watch.)

CELEBRATING EVERYDAY LIVES

Together, the 20 slide shows form a picture of our nation today, as Zach and Elle see it. The project was an investigation into who Americans are as a people, and the photographers feel that what they’ve created with their subjects goes far deeper than what they’d conceived at the project’s outset.

One thing they say they’ve learned: There’s a lot of good news out there. “Too much good,” says Elle. “So much. Every single person fed us; every single person gave us food and gave us a place to stay if we needed one. Every single person gave us hours and hours of their time. So many selfless, wonderful people.”

A portrait of Jason, one of the subjects of The New Americans.

And they hope that they’ve given something back to those subjects. Zach and Elle intentionally focused on people without huge Twitter followings or popular blogs. Giving someone a platform for the first time can be transformative. Elle says, “In some ways, it allows people to see themselves. I think whenever someone sees professional photos or hears a recording with this nice, rich audio, it changes perception, even of oneself. We did this with people who had never been professionally photographed before and who maybe felt like they didn’t have a lot to say…. I wanted people to feel like we were celebrating their lives, their ‘normal, everyday’ lives. And we saw that in the responses we got. Anyone we did this for was reminded of who they were as people and was able to celebrate that. They saw themselves as the unique characters that they are."

Zach and Elle hope that other people see their project and, likewise, see themselves as individuals whose lives have the power to inspire others.

Visit The New Americans to explore the entire series.