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Creative Voices

Notes from the Heartland: Photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier

By Dan Cowles

Through his pictures, award-winning photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier provides a much-needed window into the often misunderstood American heartland. Frazier documents the lives of his fellow Midwesterners—their struggles and joys, their choices and their fates—as their towns and lifestyles undergo transformation.

NOTE: The video profile below tells a story about a working documentary photographer, profiling real people in real-life situations. The video includes graphic images and situations, nudity, possibly offensive language, and in general might not be suitable for all audiences. Please review before sharing or viewing with others, including children and students.    

Frazier spends a lot of time on the road. In fact, he says his life often feels like it’s become one endless road trip. Driving through the night, balancing assignments for publications such as Harpers, National Geographic, Time, and Mother Jones with work on his long-form, long-term personal projects, he is tireless in his pursuit of images and stories.

And the stories are personal. Frazier’s first book, Driftless, documents the lives of the people of his home state of Iowa and the radical changes to the towns he grew up in and around. Frazier spent time abroad (including an extended stint in Kenya), working for various newspapers and news outlets, before realizing the story he wanted to tell was in his own backyard. Five years in the making, Driftless won the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography.

Images from Frazier's book, Driftless.

The 2016 presidential election and escalating polarization of the country has only made his work more relevant. Frazier documents the often talked about but seldom really seen rural communities of the “fly-over” states. His primary focus is the depopulation of the American heartland, driven by changing economic circumstances. But you can’t tell that story without touching on the political divide and many of the accompanying highly contentious issues. Gun ownership, immigration and migrant labor, the struggles of small businesses and farms, the shuttering of factories and loss of jobs due to corporate outsourcing and job automation, and the treatment of indigenous peoples and conditions on the reservation—his work encompasses all of it.

With his trusty Leica rangefinders, Frazier captures the images but lets the viewer draw their own conclusions. His approach is participatory in nature, and his access to his subjects is built on long-term friendships and a sincere interest in the lives of the people he covers. The resulting images are beautiful, and touching, and just as often raw, and sometimes ugly.

images from Frazier's upcoming book, Lost Nation.

Frazier let us follow him for four days in South Dakota as he wrapped work on his new book, Lost Nation. We travelled with him from Badlands National Park, down through Pine Ridge Reservation, and into small towns like Allen, Martin, and Interior. We also caught up with him at home back in Iowa City, as he went through the photos he captured on that trip.    

For more on Frazier, follow him on Instagram.