A unique perspective of Midwestern life and politics told through the lens of Danny Wilcox Frazier
The heartland landscape is not an intriguing one to many people. Iowa doesn’t have the towering mountains of Colorado, the bustling cityscape of New York, or the redwood forests of California. Iowa has rural communities and farmland, and few are now left behind to tend to it. Depopulation has been drastically affecting the Midwest for the past century, and one local photographer has realized that. Danny Wilcox Frazier (BA ‘93/MA ’04) has dedicated the past 15 years of his life to documenting depopulation of the Great Plains in order to give these forgotten people and places a voice.
Picking up the Camera
Frazier has always called these rural communities and farmlands home. Born and raised in LeClaire, Iowa—a town with a population of under 4,000 people—Frazier now calls Iowa City home. There, he advises photographers for The Daily Iowan, taught for the University, and is going on 25 years of pursuing his photography.
Frazier, proudly boasting the title of professional photographer, was always drawn to pictures. From an early age, he discovered they were the most effective way for him to learn.
“I always did great on essay tests, especially in history class, because I would write about the photographs in the textbooks. I could write about them in great detail because I could just see the photo,” he says.
This passion for images didn’t immediately draw him to pick up a camera. At first, Frazier focused on athletics, but after being plagued by injury, he decided to put all the passion and energy he had put into track toward a new hobby: photography. “I took a couple photography classes and decided this is what I want to do,” he says. “In an instant, I was all in.”
Finding the Shot
With photography as his new career choice, Frazier started working at The Daily Iowan. Through this student experience, he realized the change that photography can make.
Frazier did a story at the Emergency Housing Project (EPH)in Iowa City, where he compiled one of the first photo essays The Daily Iowan had run in years. The essay was about a homeless family with young children who spent their nights at EPH.
“Danny has a long history of taking photos that make you think,” The Daily Iowan Publisher Bill Casey says. “He looks for parts of society that we don’t always see and because of that, he makes us think about it.”
After the story ran, he visited the family with copies of the paper. When he arrived, he saw the family packing up their belongings. He learned that someone had called and offered them a rent-free house until they were able to get back on their feet.
“I saw the power of photography,” Frazier says. “We got these people a house. It was incredible.”
With this newfound realization, Frazier finished his bachelor’s degree and began work as a professional photographer. He started with an internship in Pittsburgh, then moved back to Iowa City where his then girlfriend, now wife, Lydia Wilcox Fraizer (BA ’94/MA ’00/MSW ’00) was finishing her undergraduate degree. He worked part time at the Iowa City Press-Citizen as a staff photographer.
Setting the Shutter Speed
Frazier’s newspaper career did not last long. After marrying Lydia, the couple moved to Kenya, where he started work as a freelancer with the mentality to make it work at any cost. He pursued assignments for The New York Times and was a stringer for The Associated Press. However, Frazier knew this wasn’t the photography he wanted to do.
“When I wasn’t on assignment, I was going to fishing villages and taking the same pictures that I did back in Iowa—fisherman just like in Princeton, Iowa, when I was photographing my uncle—just on different continents,” he says.
Back in Iowa, Frazier began his depopulation work. He visited rural farming communities and photographed their fading way of life. The number of people living in rural communities has dropped from 72 to 16 percent in the last century.
“If we don’t start paying attention to populations that are in trouble, the chaos we’re seeing is going to continue,” he says.
Frazier’s first book, Driftless, is composed entirely of pictures from Iowa. Winner of the third biennial Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize, it documents a portrait of contemporary rural Iowa.
"Danny has a long history of taking photos that make you think."
- DI Publisher Bill Casey
Posing the Subject
A unique part of Iowa is its politics. Since Iowa is a hotspot for presidential candidates during election season, it provided Frazier with a unique opportunity. Starting in 2006, Frazier’s political photography career began when he covered the groundwork for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
For the 2008 presidential election, Time hired Frazier to photograph the Romney campaign. Frazier became embedded within the campaign, obtaining access that is now unheard of.
“The access was real; it wasn’t controlled or manipulated,” Frazier says. “It got to the point where they trusted me.”
Frazier shared many intimate moments with the Romneys because he built a level of trust that exceeded a press pass. He recalls a night where Governor Romney and his wife, Ann, had a private dinner in Davenport, Iowa. The only people in the room were the couple, the waiting staff, and Frazier. There were no campaign managers or press secretaries because they knew Frazier would not abuse his access. It’s this level of trust among his subjects that brings him his success.
Frazier has taken this philosophy of how to approach an assignment and taught it to his students at Iowa. Former visual arts director at The Daily Iowan, Margaret Kispert, has taken this to heart and practices it in her DI assignments.
“Danny has taught me that the connection you make with your subjects and the people around them is what will make or break your photos,” Kispert says. “Getting to know your subject and understanding their story and why you’re there is something you do before even picking up a camera.”
This level of access did not transfer to every campaign. Through each one, he worked to build relationships to get the shots he wanted. Some campaigns are not as cooperative as others, using what are called pens to restrict photographer’s access. These pens are a quarantined area either set up so photographers can only get glamor shots of the subject, or so that they can hardly see the subject. This was a practice regularly used in the 2016 Trump campaign.
Frazier faced many challenges during the 2016 presidential election, on both a face and philosophical level. Every time he was restricted to the photographer pens, he would either not work or figure out a way to escape. To him, the story of the campaign couldn’t be told from this small, roped off area. The story was in the crowd, and that’s where he got his shots.
Publishing the Picture
Almost all of Frazier’s work comes back to the people. His depopulation work isn’t about the masses leaving rural America; it’s about the people still there. His political work isn’t just about the candidate; it’s about the people that the candidate is influencing. His teaching isn’t just to better himself; it’s to help aspiring photographers find their voice.
Frazier finds a voice can be easily lost in the Midwest. It’s hard for a voice to carry through the miles of fields between the rural, dwindling towns. When voices aren’t heard, then people are forgotten. That’s what is transpiring in the heartland of America, and Frazier is still working to prevent it.
“There are people who have been struggling economically for a long time, who feel that they don’t have a voice, who have been ignored by politicians and media,” Frazier says. “These are the regions and the populations I’ve been working with since 2002, and it’s where I’m from.”