Daniel Seth Kraus’ work combines historical research and photography to create nuanced representations of people and locations, emphasizing how they merge to form culture. By incorporating found negatives, interviews, portraiture and documentary photography, his intricate, multi-layered project Plain Ordinary Working People explores the profound and lasting impact of a Wal-Mart store on a small town in rural Kentucky.
Through the microcosm of just one of the thousands of stores that the American multinational retailer has across the country, Kraus illustrates the complex interdependence between small towns and the corporations that colonize them, promising jobs and an enhanced standard of living. By focusing on the human faces behind the quintessentially faceless company, Kraus considers the financial, political, and ideological ramifications of corporate control in an intimate and empathetic way. A touch of nostalgia for the company that once felt more personable runs through the work, as well as the tension surrounding the potential devastation for the town should Wal-Mart ever leave.
In this interview for LensCulture, Kraus speaks about his interest in the history of Wal-Mart and its employees, how lives have been affected by changes in its structure, and how pursuing this project affected his own perspective on the massive corporation.
Kate Kaluzny: How did this project come about?
Daniel Seth Kraus: During the summer of 2012, I was working in Williamsburg, Kentucky as a camp counselor, taking church youth groups out into rural parts of the county for service work. Over the course of the summer I developed a relationship with an elderly couple named Martha and Arnold, who lived in a windowless cabin in relative isolation. While I helped clean up the cabin, I found some negatives lying on the floor. I asked Arnold if he knew what they were from. I distinctly remember the way he held the negatives up to the sunlight to see what was on them.
After peering hard at them, he said, “I sure don’t, Buddy. You can keep them.” Several weeks later I was able to scan them, and through the deteriorated film stock I realized that they were a rather odd find. The pictures were Wal-Mart employee headshots from the 1980s. I tried to make work with them over the course of a few years, never really taking them to their full potential. After arriving at Tyler School of Art for graduate school, I showed them during my second critique, and from that point on I tried a new approach with them. I was challenged by my colleagues and faculty to find out more about the photographs, who was in them, where they came from, and why they were made.
KK: Walk me through some of the research you did for this project to locate the employees from the negatives. Was it a difficult feat? How long did the process take you?
DSK: Over the next two years, I made phone calls, wrote letters, drove a few thousand miles, and read up on Wal-Mart’s history. I was ultimately able to find, photograph, and interview five of the fourteen employees from the sleeve of negatives. It was during this time and research that I really honed my ideas for the project and settled on the fact that my interests were situated in the stories of the people shown in the negatives. In total, I think the project, from start to finish, culminated in three years of persistent photographing and traveling.
KK: Tell me about your initial correspondence with the people you were able to locate. Did you have any difficulty convincing them to speak with you? Were they open to participating in the project?
DSK: From the very start, I had relative difficulty just trying to get someone on the phone. I wanted to start with the Wal-Mart store closest to where I found the negatives, hoping to get in touch with an HR or personnel manager. It’s actually very hard to call a specific store like that and get past the customer service representative. After being bounced around and disconnected after several calls, the right person heard me out and seemed interested. I asked if I could send some copies of the portraits to see if she or other employees remembered the faces and could help me identify the people.
Once I shipped the package off it was another few weeks of apprehension and waiting to hear back. She had received the pictures, passed them around at a meeting, and several employees knew almost every individual in the picture. Once I got this news I was excited, relieved, and eager to get there and make some photographs. I also had some help from the mayor’s office and his secretary, who seemed to know everyone in the town.
KK: It’s always a gamble with this kind of project to anticipate what will happen on first encounter. What were your expectations before visiting the town and meeting some of the people from the negatives?
DSK: When I arrived at the Wal-Mart store after leaving Philadelphia that morning, I sat in the car feeling bewildered. I was there in Williamsburg, where all the answers were, and had just driven for hours and hours in the hopes of finding the subjects and convincing them to let me interview them and make new portraits. More than that, I wanted to show them I was interested in their stories and experiences, and not looking to make a political statement that exploited them or their kindness. Had I not driven so far, I think it would have been easy to not go in and avoid the challenge, but I walked in with my camera in hand and, before I knew it, I was guided to the back of the store to the employee break-room. The personnel manager I spoke with on the phone, as well as the employees I met, were welcoming of my peculiar story and generous with their time.
KK: What did they have to say about working for Wal-Mart? It looks like at least a couple of the individuals still do, actually.
DSK: The personal histories of the employees hit home for me. I looked at these people’s portraits for years, erroneously thinking I knew them because I was familiar with their faces. I assumed their lives could be summed up as living in a small town, working in a big box store. Needless to say, these assumptions were unfair. I was quickly humbled when I met the individuals: Tina, Janice, Chet, Audrey, Bob and Jim. Some started working there in order to cover their college costs, and some saw it as a way to move up the economic ladder, and did so successfully. Several of the employees went on to hold other professional jobs, or started their own companies. A few still worked at the Wal-Mart and had nuanced opinions and suspicions of the store’s role in the growth of the town.
KK: I’m curious to know more about how they spoke about Wal-Mart’s impact on their town. Did you find they were more positive or negative, or a combination of the two?
DSK: Their opinions of Wal-Mart were pretty nuanced and diverse. As a result, my own understanding of Wal-Mart’s history, way of doing things, and policies became more complex. I have friends with families who live in very rural parts of the country, and when Wal-Mart came to their town, or even a nearby one, they were able to afford more groceries. However, a big box store like Wal-Mart suddenly generates the majority of economy and jobs in dozens of small towns, so the town becomes beholden to it.
Two employees in particular, Tina and Janice, spent more than 30 years working for Wal-Mart, transitioning with the company as it relocated from a small strip mall into a brand new super-center. It’s also worth noting that they saw Wal-Mart during the early 1990s, when it became ubiquitous and set market standards for livable wages and retirement plans.
Tina’s opinion was generally positive, sharing how she was able to move into management positions through several departments within the store. She began working there when she was 23 years old, so she’s had a whole career with Wal-Mart, and remembered the times when the founder Sam Walton actually came to stores for potluck picnics with employees.
Janice noted the advantages of working there, but also mentioned how much the company and her employment had changed since Sam died. She noted Wal-Mart was a big help to the community because it brought jobs to their rural town and gave people a living. However, as the company grew and Wal-Mart’s board became more professionalized, they cut profit sharing with employees (one of Sam Walton’s largest incentives for employees), sliced leave time in half, and took away time and a half pay. She worked for Wal-Mart for 30 years, but was less senior than a freshly-hired college graduate.
I think nearly all the employees I met held the belief that Wal-Mart was a great company to grow with in the eighties and nineties, with dependable pay and benefits to support families. But throughout my research, I found out that nearly all of this stopped when the board of directors became more professionalized after Sam, his brother, and his old friends retired or died.
KK: There’s a specific image that sticks with me that I want to ask you about: the one of a wall of employee photos with Sam Walton’s large portrait framed in the center. The combination of Wal-Mart’s trademark bright yellow and blue on the wall is so jarring, deflecting attention away from the individual employee photos in a way that I think really speaks to how the corporate philosophy has changed substantially over the years. How did this photo come about?
DSK: Oh yes, that photo is a pretty important one to me, and is also important to this series in general. I made that picture within a few minutes of walking into Wal-Mart after following the personnel manager, Christine, through the store, back into the stock room and finally into the manager’s office. Walking around a Wal-Mart store with a large DSLR camera hanging around my neck felt odd, but walking with the manager gave me this strange security blanket. I had nearly free reign to photograph inside the bowels of the store.
Christine walked me back to her office and I was sitting at her desk when I saw all the charts, photographs, and histories on the wall. There was a family tree and timeline of Sam Walton alongside the company’s milestones. I saw the portrait of Sam beside the contemporary versions of the found Wal-Mart negatives, which were photographs used so employees would know who their manager or contact person was for certain things. Essentially, it was a new group of people for the same purpose. But that portrait of Sam seemed so odd, dominating the wall in comparison to the other employees. Since I made that picture, I tend to think of it as a Mao Zedong official portrait, or a portrait of Jesus at a YMCA. It’s a portrait that is loaded, saying, “This is what we’re centered on, and this is who we have to thank for what we’re doing.” There’s certainly a myth that surrounds Sam Walton, which is complex and fascinating.
KK: Is this project ongoing, or do you feel like you’ve taken it as far as you’d like to? Would you like it to take on a new form in the future?
DSK: That’s a great question, and for the sake of closure and satisfaction, I think the Wal-Mart aspect of this project is complete. There is one more employee who still lives in Williamsburg who I could potentially photograph, and another who declined. But I feel like I’ve pursued all the avenues. This project’s first form was as an exhibition, designed to be more than photographs on a wall. I wanted it to inspire the feeling of discovery and an unraveling storyline, which was how the project felt to me while I was making it. There were massive 3x13 prints, important ephemera on display, framed photographs, scans, a lenticular or accordion-shaped form that came off the wall, just about as many forms that I could translate a photograph into. There have been several new developments since that exhibition, and I took a whole other trip there to make pictures, so I’d love to exhibit the project again to wrestle with those new developments.
Another great benefit to a project being completed, at least in the picture-making sense, is that I can now consider other forms the project might take. Now that I have all the visual matter, my next approach will be a book, which is a form I’m familiar and comfortable working with. I’ve also been reading about scroll structures, and I think there’s a great deal of potential in how these images can slowly scroll into and out of sight. There can be a slow reveal that doesn’t have the solid page-turn or page-spread quality that traditionally-bound photo-books excel in. There’s also important written facets to this project, including a narrative I wrote that includes my journaling, note-taking and employee interviews.
KK: What are you hoping the viewer takes away from Plain Ordinary Working People? How does your use of found objects, documentary photography and narrative components reify your concept and help you achieve this goal?
DSK: My hope is that viewers will have a similar experience to mine when I met these people, traveling to Kentucky to find my answers. My goal is to unbraid discoveries before the viewer so that they can put the pieces together and have the satisfaction of making those connections. For me, the most exciting part of the project was being able to throw myself into a seemingly useless object, only to find something interesting and complex, challenging my own ideas about the world. I hope that the viewer has some of that experience, or at least notices that’s what the project did for me.
I happened upon a collection of negatives and made this project, but I think you could make a similar project with just about anything if you put in the leg work and keep asking questions. The diverse material, including found objects, documentary photographs and writings, had their own specific reasons for inclusion, but I can say that each piece is there to give more substance to the idea. I love photography, but photography has a narrow skill set and it can’t do everything well. Sometimes an artist has to show the thing itself, or use text to provide elaboration and context that a photograph cannot. I think forcing photography to be too specific or carry too much weight can spoil its strength. John Szarkowski described this strength very well with a paradox, saying, “A photograph describes everything, but explains nothing.” All the facts are there in a photograph, but they still have to be interpreted.