On Donald Trump’s inauguration day, a limited edition magazine, Great Old Days, was distributed for free in Washington DC. We at LensCulture were happy to get a copy, because it seemed like a respectful way to document the uncertain way of life in struggling middle America. It offered an intimate portrait of the people who had lost their jobs there and voted for Donald Trump.
Brendan Hoffman, the photographer behind the magazine, is an American photojournalist usually covering global conflicts, and currently based in Kiev, Ukraine. We contacted him there, to ask him about the Great Old Days project. Here is an edited version of our interview:
LC: You published this project at a timely moment in history. Can you talk a bit about your idea behind the magazine, and its timing, and who you hope to reach as an audience?
BH: I went with a magazine format because it was inexpensive to produce and decidedly not a polished photo book, which hopefully made it more familiar and accessible for people who are not photography aficionados. By handing it out at the inauguration, I wanted to connect with two audiences. First, I hoped to reach ordinary Trump voters, who might recognize elements of their own lives in the work but see themselves from a different perspective. My second target was the Republican power structure—funders, lobbyists, staffers, and officials—who now have a job to do.
Trump was elected by people with real concerns. There can be debate about whether his planned policies will work, but the concerns are real and it’s incumbent on him and all in positions of power to take those problems seriously and implement real solutions.
I hoped the magazine would also remind them of the responsibility they have. Timing it around the inauguration itself was a simple way to reach those people and draw a clear line between the content and the political moment.
LC: You say the the pictures are from a larger body of work—can you talk more about the larger project?
BH: This project, which I began in 2011, took on an unexpected relevance with the rise and eventual victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election. I’m a photojournalist by profession but this was a much more personal exploration of a place. The work is premised on a news hook; I began photographing in Webster City shortly after the local Electrolux factory closed down, as I was curious how people would be affected. The work was sustained, however, through my own curiosity about the gap between the lives of Webster City residents and my own. I didn’t chase down key players in the Electrolux story or spend time only with people who got laid off. Instead, I simply spent my time as if I lived in Webster City, hanging out and doing whatever seemed fun and interesting, trying to understand how and why people felt connected to the place and each other. It took a while for me to realize that I was basically exploring the much-discussed divide between middle America and the coastal elites, which probably describes me whether I feel elite or not.
The magazine is meant, on some level, to advocate for Webster City and its people, and the demographic it represents. The larger project might be a bit more skeptical and judgmental. It’s also not finished — I’d like to return and spend more time with the local Hispanic community, as well as other segments of the local population I’ve not depicted.
LC: Can you tell us about your current work, outside the US?
BH: I live in Kiev, where much of my time over the past several years has been spent covering the revolution and subsequent (and ongoing) war in eastern Ukraine, as well as other stories in the region. I’m now looking a bit further afield for stories and trying to work more thematically as opposed to geographically. As time permits I’m also trying to experiment with additional ways of telling stories beyond straight documentary photography, including collage and screenwriting.
Here is more background information on this project:
In March 2011, Webster City’s main employer, Electrolux, shut down and moved to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The company and its predecessors had made washing machines in the small Iowa town of 8,000 under various brand names since 1937, and then it was gone. Nearly all of a workforce that once topped 2,000 was laid off. It’s not the first community to end up in a tough spot, and it won’t be the last - though to a large degree, these workers were forgotten.
This is a story we’ve heard before. Yet the lack of novelty in the primary storyline has allowed me to direct my gaze elsewhere, beyond a simple chronicling of events. Webster City isn’t unique, but as an anecdotal emblem of contemporary small-town Midwestern life, it’s fascinating. Over the past several years, through some dozen trips, I’ve embedded myself in daily life in Webster City, striving to capture the character-driven drama and vague sense of anxiety common to such places. It’s a middle-class town slowly losing that distinction. This project is in part an attempt to understand the changes taking place among the middle class in America today, as the Great Recession fades while few feel confidence in their economic future.
On November 8, 2016, people in communities like Webster City, spread throughout the Rust Belt, finally made their message heard when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.
The uncertainty dominating these towns undermines the quality of life we all seek. Many of my pictures depict longstanding routines and daily activities with an implied or inherent transience, highlighting the fact that any comfort in the present suggests no assurance of the future.
Yet despite my efforts, that may not be what is really reflected in my photographs. If I’m honest with myself, what kept drawing me back was the chance to live in an alternate reality. What I see in my own pictures is an outsider’s view, the perspective of someone who enters the town like putting on a costume as I attempt to become a local for a week or two at a time, all the while knowing I will leave again. My affection for Webster City is real, but very different, from what would be felt by someone who lived there all his life. At heart, this project is a complicated way of asking “what if?” What if I had been raised in such a place—a small rural town in the Midwest, instead of an East Coast suburb—with no plan or desire to leave? What would I have missed? Or gained?