The New Americans
Photographers Zachary Domes and Elle Wildhagen (a 100cameras teammate!) set out on a six-week road trip. Their goal? To tell the stories of real Americans today. How did they achieve it? By taking a moment to listen.
100c: Can you tell us a little bit about your newest project, The New Americans?
Elle: It was a project inspired by a trip Robert Frank, a photojournalist, embarked on in the 1950's after receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship. America had just won WWII and he aimed to capture a truthful portrait of America in the mid-century. With all the bad news we see on a daily basis, Zach and I began wondering what a portrait of America actually looks like today. We wanted the good news to be just as public as the bad. It was partly an investigation to find the good, hoping it was just as prevalent, as well as a chance to travel the country for 2 months, exploring and celebrating the landscape.
Taking The Leap
100c: How did you decide to go on this adventure? How did you take the leap?
Elle: Zach and I are wedding photographers throughout the year but the winter is a bit of a lull as spring and summer are the primary wedding months. So we had this big chunk of 6 weeks without work and saw it as a chance to do a personal project. After a pretty hefty wedding season, we realized the importance of personal, unpaid work and how it feeds your soul in all the necessary ways.
on the road
100c: Tell us about the road trip.
Zach: We left for our road trip November 27th with 6 weeks of travel time ahead of us. As for the route, we decided without any real reason, to do a loop by driving through the north to the east coast and back through the south. From there, we let the people we met guide our way. This endeavor necessitated a lot of organizing and a lot of drive time. Fortunately for us, the weather was really nice and the cost of fuel was low.
We did however have to spend one night at a rest stop in Iowa due bad conditions on the highway. (Our mode of transportation is a Subaru, so the conditions were really really bad.)
All together we passed through 30 states and met up with more than 30 people for stories. Considering that we also met up with friends and family and did a little sightseeing, the 6 weeks felt way too short. Regardless, our experience truly widened our understanding of this country.
On Choosing the New Americans
100c: How did you choose your subjects? What elements did you look for?
Elle: Well initially we reached out on Facebook with the question, "Who inspires you?" and were flooded with people all over the country from small coffee shop owners to 5th grade teachers to social rights activists. Our aim to discover the good was way more common than we anticipated. We learned to choose stories based on people that represented a different facet of America, trying to avoid repeating the same stories with the same sentiments. We chose people based on their lack of followers and lack of recognition, rather than caring about what social media says or what the world already thinks. We wanted to tell the stories of people who had yet to be heard.
Achieving Goals and Overcoming Fears
Q: Tell us a little bit about the development of your work. Did it evolve as you had imagined it would? Were you ever fearful of the outcome?
Zach: When we first considered doing a road trip home for the holidays we first thought we would shoot candidly across the country. We wanted to simply capture moments in a photo-journalistic sense.
As we chatted more about it we thought instead we would meet people to tell their stories through photography and sound. We sent a public message to our Facebook profiles and ended up receiving way more responses than we anticipated. We were super excited that so many people were so interested.
As we traveled and met people we didn't think to much about the final work. We focused on getting the shots and interviews. For each of us it wasn't until we were half way through editing the work that we realized it was about to be seen by everyone we knew. This was when we both felt fearful of the outcome. We were proud of the end result, but nervous about the reactions people would have. It's something that all artists probably feel at some point.
Sharing any work you create means that you have to be vulnerable. You are sharing a part of yourself, a part of your soul. Even though we tried to share people's stories in pure form, who we are as artists surrounds the work itself, and that can definitely be a scary thing.
The Power of Perspective
Q: At 100cameras, we're all about sharing unique perspectives. Why did you think it was important to include an audio component to this project?
Elle: There's something about listening, really listening. We don't do that enough. So it was a way to tell the story that called people to slow down and simply listen along to whatever the subject had to stay. Plus, it added such a rich element that couldn't possibly be conveyed solely in the images.
Q: What is the most meaningful feedback you've received?
Elle: Right after launching, we received an amazing message to our site that said:
“This is an incredible work. Just incredible. I sat and watched and read each one from beginning to end in one sitting... it was meditative and inspiring not in the usual up-growth bait-and-climb kind of way, but in the way that brings you right back to the heart of things. That old familiar center that we know, and love, and long for. It was an absolute joy to witness, in imagery, audio and prose. Thank you both for doing this work and sharing it freely with us all!”
It was a moment of being fully seen as an artist.
Q: What's next? Do you have additional plans for The New Americans?
Elle: As of right now, we're content with how it is. We like to think of it as an installation piece on the internet. Initially we were thinking of adding onto it but we feel good with the way we've represented the multi-facted characters that make up this country. Although, we know there are many, many more. Who knows, maybe we'll begin creating a library of these stories, a place people can return to remember that there is really much more good than there is bad.
Visit The New Americans to explore it all.