“Four Questions on Photography: Ilvy Njiokiktjien in Conversation With…” is a series of events where well-known photographers discuss with Ilvy their response to the four questions below.
– What is your most important photograph, how did you make it, and what impact do you think it had?
– What is your biggest photo failure; an image you wanted or needed but you messed up somehow?
– What is your dream image or story?
– What advice would you give to your younger self?
For this event and in this episode, Ilvy is in conversation with Danny Wilcox Frazier.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So thanks again, everyone for being here. There’s quite a lot of people here. Danny, thanks for being here as well. And I’m going to ask you four questions. But I’m pretty sure by looking at the chat already, I think there will be people asking some questions to you as well. But let’s start with my first question to you. What, yeah, it’s always a bit of a weird question. I think all four of them are a bit, they can go in so many directions, but what is your most important image so far in your career to you?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I think I’ll start sharing here so I can bring it up. Let’s see.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I love how you made a whole fancy presentation.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Not very fancy whatsoever. Fancy is not what I am. Okay. So a lot of people know this photo and are probably not surprised that this image is you know, what I have up first and I want to talk about. And you know, a lot know the history of the photo and then also the recent tragic history of this image. But this is a photo of John Newman underneath his pickup truck on his ranch. It’s near Cactus Flat, South Dakota. So just outside of the Badlands National Park, actually. I was, I basically got lost. I was using GPS for the first time while out on my personal work, and I drove by a bizarre scene. I drove by a Minuteman missile site that is now historic. You know, people go and take tours. So it’s a historic site, but it was a, you know, when John was growing up, it was a Minuteman missile site. So it was right next to his farm, or his ranch, pardon me. I turned on to his ranch and met his at the time girlfriend, Julie. And we got to talking and then I headed on my way because she helped me get un-lost, told me not to use the goofy GPS. I got my map out, we figured out where I needed to go. I went on a nice long drive across the prairie. And when I got to a town that had the population of 12, guess what. There was nothing going on in that town. And I turned around, drove right back, a couple hours back to Julie and then I met John that night. This photo was made on my second trip. The reason why I was there on my first trip, I was up for a grant. I was a finalist for a grant where they decided they wanted us to go out and make work over the course of a, they gave us a couple of weeks. So over the course of a week, I was, I went to the Badlands The reason why I was there, I had just finished Driftless, my first major body of work, and anyway I went to this region because it had been suffering drought for eight straight years. Out-migration from rural communities has been the center of my work and— When I made the photo, John and Julie often worked and apart, different parts of the ranch. Julie was, she was dealing with manure in one of the barns and then I walked over to the horse barn and the workshop is connected to the horse barn and I came around the corner and John was under the truck working and I just quietly made like four frames with my Leica and you know, he was just, he was working with his right arm. His left was just laying there. And, you know, for me, you know, the photo, I did see death in it, the death of rural life, as I knew it from my childhood and what I had been, you know, dealing with in Iowa covering for Driftless. And, you know, but John was really proud of this photo, um, because he saw the beauty in it too. He saw the beauty in the —
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: How did how did you kind of see death or the end in this image?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Well, John’s hand, it’s his left hand that you see. It’s almost as if he’s being crushed by the truck. But, you know, I also, with the care that he had given to where he placed his cowboy hat, and how perfect his cowboy hats always were. His boots were often dirty. And because he wore them while working and, you know, ripped jeans. Well, some people pay a lot of money to have ripped jeans, but it was that contrast, his beautiful cowboy hat, straw cowboy hat on top of the tire, but then his hand laying, almost as if that tire had crushed him, you know, that— and John loved the image. I remember a couple years later being up and we were sitting outside the trailer and some people sent me a photo of this image being projected at the New York Photo Festival. It was huge on the side of the Brook—well, I think it was Slideluck which was part of that year, was part of the festival and John just, he was, he loved that fact that it was, the image was being projected huge on a screen in New York City. And you know, there we were sitting, you know, out in the middle of nowhere, actually. But, um, but yeah, so he always connected to this photo. I kind of can go off Ilvy, so I want you to be able to ask questions. Yeah, keep the questions coming in.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I will, yeah, yeah, I’m gonna check. I wonder actually, if to you it’s important that the people you photograph like the image because I’m guessing it’s not always the case, the case, right? Or maybe it is, I don’t know.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I always give the, I’ve, from day one, always, given the photos that I use to subjects. I know, a lot of people will give outtakes. And for me, I just from the very beginning, I, you know, I’m about giving the images that will be published and, you know, hopefully carry on, well past me. Um, John had this photo. And he did, he loved it. I remember giving a photo to a father. It’s just a subject from Driftless, Ilvy. I gave a 16 x 20 fiber print that I made, and Leslie Miller, so a New Order Amish family, he was so proud of that photograph, but he had nine kids and some were quite young. And he goes, You know, I got to put this somewhere safe and we’re standing by his desk, and he opened a drawer of his desk took the 16 x 20, folded it and creased it so it could fit in the drawer and shut the drawer and it was safe.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh no. And your heart is like out—
Danny Wilcox Frazier: All the hours of making that fiber print I, you know, it did hurt a tiny bit, but I also loved it. I was like, Yeah, this is yours.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Oh, goodness. Yeah, that would kind of hurt. So would you mind telling about the more recent events a bit and I saw you also did a print sale of this image to help this family. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that and kind of what happened in recent years.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, so um, John took his life in the summer of 2019. John had been sick for a long time with an inflammatory immune disease that that attacked his joints. It was extremely painful. He had gotten private insurance, was—Tabitha told me they were paying $600 a month.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s his girlfriend, right?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yes, yep, his girlfriend and mom of his son, Stetson. And, you know, they were, so, they were paying for this insurance. But the problem was, there was one specialist in the entire region. And I’m not just talking, like, you know, within 100 square miles. He was having to go all the way across from the west side of South Dakota to the east side. And, you know, it was a year long wait to get into that specialist. And unfortunately, John took his life before he even got that care that might have had an impact on the level of daily pain. Um, you know, there are a lot of reasons for why suicide is so much more prevalent in rural areas, 25 times that of major urban areas. The suicide rate, the completion obviously, not obviously, but completion of suicide in rural areas is much higher due to access to firearms. You know, that’s something that isn’t a part of our conversation around suicide in rural communities enough in my opinion. You know, it’s— I’m not trying, I mean, I have very strong opinions on gun control and they’re not as clearly clearly defined as an all yes or no, no. But you know, that’s for another day’s conversation that would take up a lot longer than an hour.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: We could go on for two hours, probably. I actually didn’t know that, that suicides, yeah, because of the gun laws, are because of guns actually, yeah, are, what is the word, more? Sorry, I lost the word that you just used.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: More available. Yeah, people have access to firearms in rural areas. It’s very much part of the culture and unfortunately, that means that the completion rate is much higher, and John did shoot himself, so, but—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Are you still in contact with the family now?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, I am. So a year after John, a little over a year after John took his life, I got a call from from a friend of Tabitha’s. And she said she had just found out that the trailer burnt down. So Tabitha and Stetson were inside during the extreme cold of a little over a year ago now and an ember from their wood burning stove flew back into the back into the trailer and caught the trailer on fire and fortunately Tabitha was awake and grabbed Stetson. And they ran out and by the time they made it down the driveway, the trailer was fully involved. This is the photo I spoke about. So this was recovered a few days after the fire by one of the ranch hands, a good friend of Tabitha. And, you know, there’s this and then a photo of Tabitha and John actually. I’m trying to keep the number of photos low, like you asked, Ilvy. I’ve already shown that one.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: This is the two I mean, as I understood, like, almost all of the trailer burned down, right?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, it was, all that was left was the base. And then—What’s that?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And then these two pictures. That’s crazy.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, I’m sure there’s silverware and other things, you know, but they found the box that Tabby had kept all the photos I’d given over the years in and Julie had some, but John had some and then I’d given more when, you know, when I had visited and Tabitha was living at the ranch and the two that survived, both this and then one of John hugging Tabitha and it just, you know, to me it was these issues of lack of access to health care, you know, just lack of access to mental health care, just people’s opinion in rural communities, that just inability to understand the need for help. You know, this photo surviving is, has kind helped push me through my own, like ideas around what I’m what I’m doing with my photography, what I, where I need to go. And then my own mental health struggles and work, you know, to deal with that myself.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Can you explain a little bit more what you mean about that, how this photograph kind of changed your view on your work and your own mental health? And the way you want to work? Is that—
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Well, I mean, you know, it has a lot to do with balance, like finding balance. I think having not dealt with complex childhood trauma for 40 years, it led to, well, it led to alcohol abuse, you know, and multiple times in my life, I’ve stopped drinking. I don’t drink anymore. It’s, there’s just so much tied together, when you live a story the way in which I have always worked, but, um, but yeah, it’s having, there’s regret having wished I had even a better understanding. But I’ll be honest, I’ve tried to help others in rural communities that have been through tragedy, find mental health care services, and it’s next to impossible. Fortunately, I guess, you know, silver lining, half a cup full, what we’ve seen come out of the pandemic is just this explosion of online telehealth, especially in the mental health space. And I really think that that’s the answer. I mean, when you have prices of gas that in these rural communities that just make it impossible, whether people would even have the time to travel hundreds of miles for a mental health appointment. You know, the cost is, it’s absolutely impossible.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Not everyone can afford it, of course, yeah. So online would be a solution to this.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I guess, you know, having failed in some of those situations where I don’t think I was able to help people just because of seeing the, you know, the barriers that seem insurmountable to those individuals, and actually, to me, someone who lives in a community with, you know, incredible health care, one of the largest teaching hospitals in the country is right here at the University of Iowa. I live in a small college town, but because of that university, we have just unbelievable access to care and, you know, other aspects of a just society that a lot of these remote communities do not have. And, you know, it’s wealth, consolidation, it’s all the things I’ve been talking about for a long time. But, you know, it’s just keeping on the course. And that’s what I’m doing.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So do you kind of, because you’re quite open about this, and thanks as well for, for doing that, do you feel as a photographer you need to help people as well by telling their story in some way, or do you feel like separate to you photographing them, that you sometimes want to help? Or do you feel it’s like part of being a photographer as well?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I think it’s part of the contract unless you’re directing and impacting. I mean it’s— and what I mean by part of the contract, it’s the fact that hopefully we’re humans first, photographers second, compassionate humans who, you know—I mean, I’m the furthest thing from a perfect human being. I work every day to try to be better. And, you know, but I would hope our humanity is first and foremost. Unfortunately, you know, journalism is, it’s an industry and we’ve all heard of, seen situations, I don’t care about hearsay, but seen situations where people don’t act with that in the foreground, they act with with other goals or, you know, as priority one, but there is difficulty because, you know, and for me what it is, is if I have to step in, in a way that it totally changes the story, I’ll do it, and then that’s just not a place I will photograph anymore. You know, it’s more important, I think, to help when it’s needed, if there are no other options. But often what it is, is directing people just, you know, having come from a community where, no different than the communities I work in, no one had access to mental health care, the stigma around mental health was terrible. It was like, you didn’t talk about it, let alone actually get care. So, you know, I know what it feels like to be in those situations where you just don’t have access, and then having the fortune of now living in a community, surrounded by people, just a lot of physician friends, friends who are physicians, and people who, have had great impact. My wife, who’s a therapist, you know. Lydia’s had incredible impact, hell a lot more than me, you know, and that’s front and center. It has to be for me. And the photography has, it’s a continuous part, but if it’s the only driving force, then the balance is— and I’ve lost that balance before. I think we can get into the next image and I already kind of touched on it, but you know, I’ve most definitely— I had lost that balance before, Ilvy.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s quite easy to lose it at times. I do also recognize that in my own work, that you can some, you can sometimes really get lost in a story or into—but, yeah, but it’s to me, it’s also not the way it’s supposed to be. I like it when I, yeah, I like to be human in my stories and want to have the human part go first, and then the photography somehow. Yeah, I don’t know if secondary is the right word. But yeah, when when I can do something, I’d rather do something, then shoot, if worse comes to worse. Like, if it’s needed in some way without interfering. It’s, yeah, it is quite a balancing act, actually. Now that I think of it.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: And that’s, that’s what I love in your work. And, you know, that’s the work that I most connect with, it’s it’s work where, you know, emotion is so foregrounded, like you just you lose all consideration of the photographic process. Chris Anderson said, you know, like for him, I’m, you know, I’m not gonna get the quote, exactly right. But for him, photography is just about emotion, everything else is just a trick. And I just, I just think that that’s one of the most pure and beautiful and spot on things that I’ve read about photography. And you know—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s so true. What a good quote actually, yeah. I teach a lot. You teach as well, right?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Exactly. It’s not exactly what he said. It’s out there.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I’m teaching a lot and I think you are as well and lots of, yeah, it happens a lot that students ask a lot about technical things. And I always tell them, I’m definitely not the most technical person in the world. I’m more about connecting because when you connect to people, you can tell their story much better and I know many students are always waiting for the more technical aspects and, yeah, I feel that part is important, but it’s also a trick. It’s rules. It’s, yeah, it’s not what makes a story usually, I feel. Yeah.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah. It’s just not, it’s, you know, you’re, I’m not gonna connect to that work. You know, and, you know, the work that that I first connected to, when I started in photography very late in my undergrad, you know, education. You know, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, you know, it was work that lived entirely in emotion, and you know. I remember going to talk by Nan up in Chicago, John Lowenstein and I went to it and standing room only, we got there late, ended up sitting, like, almost at Nan’s feet. She was giving a presentation at the Art Institute, and she was talking about not understanding early in her career, why her color photographs, parts, sometimes they came out green or parts of the, and not understanding temperature of a bulbs and color and light, blah, blah, blah. And I just was like, because the technical side of it was a real struggle. You know, I just, I wasn’t interested. I had close friends who were incredible at it. And they’ve been like, over the years, just so damn gracious and being patient with me and helping me when I call them. I love them for it. You know, because it’s just part of that ADHD mind, that it’s been a struggle, but struggles are a good thing. They’re a good thing they force you to you know, work harder than others maybe have to work in places. And that’s a beautiful thing. So—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it is. It truly is. There’s two questions that just came in. One is from Liam Kennedy. Do you see the questions? I’ll read it out loud to you. But they are in the q&a box as well.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I can’t see it because of how I’m sharing.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Ah, okay, I’ll read it. I’ll read it. So the one is from Liam Kennedy. And the question is, you talk about out migration from rural communities, along with the older generation retiring or passing away. Do you see a younger generation taking over these ranches, farms and workshops? Do they have pride in it? Or do they feel burdened with these tasks?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Ah, I think that’s such an incredible question. And, you know, literally could go, I could go to the end of it. So I’m just going to— end of our talk with just answering that. So I’m gonna try to hit a few points. I don’t want to be doom and gloom. Because, you know, I do know, and in a community where pre Great Recession, so pre 2008 we were seeing such incredible movement in the CSA, sustainable farming, young people getting in smaller plots, being able to get small plots, there were loans, but when people did not have as much disposable income, they weren’t able to buy these more expensive foods. And I’m, of course, talking macro here. Nationally, we saw real decline in people’s buying power for more expensive produce. And, you know, that hurt the industry and I really felt like a freezing of that movement. And it’s gotten even worse. So now the dark side of it, at least here in my home state, which you know, is the largest producer of hogs in the US. We’ve seen just a roll back. We have a Governor, Kim Reynolds, who has fought and rolled back any restrictions on hog confinements, on water quality. There have been, you know, nationally debated, nationally funded and debated water law, water quality lawsuits. Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that went all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court. Eventually they lost. That’s due to nitrate, the high level of nitrates in the water that residents of Des Moines have to pay to have removed. Unfortunately, then they just take those nitrates further downstream, put them back in. This is what they used to do. And, you know, it’s just, it’s all so difficult, um, you know. I’ve been working on stories around depopulation back in Iowa again, for journalistic organizations. One of those will be coming out, so I won’t get into the details because it’s not yet published. But stay tuned. I’ll put stuff out on social. I’m sure VII will as well. You know, it’s just industry, corporate egg factory farming is as powerful as it has ever been due to people’s economic situation, having cheap food no matter what the implications of that is, what is running state capitals like Iowa and other rural states. You know, but there are states that saw and rolled back. North Carolina was the largest producer of hogs in the US and they implemented a moratorium on hog confinement. So there’s things that can be done. Again, I could we could talk about this forever. You can reach out to me private, you know, the email, whatever, social media, and we can continue a conversation, but I don’t want to, I—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That is a question that, I mean, there’s so much to that question, I think literally. I use— did you know, I used to live in South Dakota?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yes.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: For one year. Yeah. And I lived at a ranch as an exchange student when I was 16. And the ranch has now recently been taken over by the younger generation. And I was also always surprised when I lived there. I thought it was not going to happen. They had two children. The one wasn’t interested in the ranch. And the other one was a girl who was kind of interested in the ranch, but not that much. But she then married a rancher, and now they are taking over the ranch. But I think if they wouldn’t have, they might have moved out of state, you know, and then states like this just empty out. Yeah, but that’s a whole. Let’s, you know, we’re not even at the second question yet. We’re gonna run out of time.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Well, but we kind of thought we really oh, gosh, yeah, we’ve touched on the second question. So balance, and you know, and that’s what this— So this is my wife, Lydia, and my, at the time newborn son. Now he’s 20 years old, much bigger than me, you know?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Is he?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: He’s much taller
Ilvy Njiokiktjien:Taller than you are. Oh, so just for the people listening in. The second question would be, What is your biggest sort of failure? And you pick this image? And I kind of had a hard time understanding when seeing the image now, like, why would that be a photo failure?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: But yeah, I mean, how I how I thought about the question is, like, What could I talk about that one is, you know, okay, yeah, I fail photographically every single day, every day I have a camera in my hand. You know, I make, you know, typically my first through on edits, so I have 1000 photographs, you know, from a shoot, it’s usually 10%, slightly less than 10% that get into that, literally, just, you know, how I edit is, you know, any kind of reaction. If I have any kind of reaction to the image, I take it. I give it a color and, and it stays. So, you know, that typically is around 10%. So that means 90% are complete garbage. Like, you know, it’s difference between a professional photographer and a hobbyist and professional doesn’t show you all their photos, right?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes. It’s so true. I love that. At the lectures actually, I love to show the outtakes. People are always amazed, like, wow, you take a lot of crap images, too. And I’m like, Yes, of course. I do. Are you kidding me? Yeah, it’s, I mean, for outtakes, the ones that I throw out actually. It’s so unfair. People just think, Oh, this final image is— she must be taking all these kinds of final images. No.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Exactly. And you know, and that’s just that that’s the reality of doing anything, you know, um, you know, famous quote from Jordan, I missed 9000 shots to become the greatest basketball player in the history of the sport. Of course that’s, you know, it’s part of the 10,000 hours. So for me that, you know, like, kind of that very literal interpretation of it, just, it’s like when I teach workshops or work with students at the documentary workshop I am director of, I’m pushing everyone to fail, like, you learn more out of your failure than you do your success. I mean, we all, yes, we all need some success, we need images that, you know, which will be the next photo I show, you know, that have that magic dust, and I’ll talk about the magic dust here in a little bit, but you gotta have those, or you’re just gonna be so beat down. Like, how the how the hell can you even get out of out of bed in the morning or pick up your camera as you head out the door. But, you know, the reality is, we can get lost in this work and for me, sorry, I got a little far away there. Um,nfor me, this photograph represents that, you know. This was a photograph, you know, that was everything to me, and still is, and yet I still lost sight of that. I lost sight—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Of what?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: What’s that?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Of what you lost sight of?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I lost sight of what was most important. I lost sight of how to work in a healthy way, how to work in a balanced way, how to work in a way that I could reflect on and be proud of. And it was just, you know, it was running and burying myself in a work ethic that was nonstop. It was all I did. It didn’t matter whether I was on the road or at home, I worked all day every day. And not having the ability within myself to recognize what I was doing wrong and not having people in my life. Or ignoring the people in my life, the most important people, my family, who all said it or even neighbors. I remember a neighbor saw me at the gas station, and we hadn’t seen each other—literally my next door neighbor—and we hadn’t seen each other in months. And he—I was all excited. He came walking out of the gas station, and I’m like, smiling, going to say hi to him. And he glared at me and shook his head. And he’s like, Do you even realize you’re missing everything?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Wow, wow. Oh, Danny. Wow. How— I know we’re kind of almost running out of time. But how did you go from that? Because it changed now. Right? Something has changed. Somehow you manage, you’re managing it.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I think it’s understanding, it’s like studying people like Sara Terry, our colleague who has a movie out called A Decent Home and just seeing someone who’s so completely committed to the same issue working in different spaces, but that same issue of wealth consolidation and how do we work in a way that has great impact, but it isn’t about making sure that we’re suffering to the point of this like just great decline. And I think then you serve the story better. You’re serving your subjects better. You’re serving the impact better. And Sara’s work around—she’s done a feature documentary about the impact of these private equity firms going in and buying up trailer parks and then raising the rent on residents in what has historically been some of our housing alternatives for people who suffer or are most challenged by the economics of the US, this unjust economic system that we have. And people just, the wealthiest among us, preying upon the poorest among us and to see Sara work in that way that just, it inspires me, not just take action, make sure I’m supporting the individuals locally, or doing the things here in Iowa, because she filmed in Iowa for this, as well as Colorado, California and out east. You know, it’s also seeing just the way she does it with this just beautiful light around her at all times. And that’s something that I have great respect for and try to learn from and aspire to get closer to.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: She is such a hard worker. I don’t know how she gets things done. She just does it. And then like you say, she has something light about her, like it doesn’t, she seems to be balanced about this work, in general. Yeah, it’s quite inspirational. But I’m happy to hear that you kind of are finding that same path now. And so your neighbor and your family will see a bit more of you as well. I think in a way, I don’t know if the same goes for you, but I think the pandemic, in some weird way also helped us to slow down a bit and to give some thought, some more thought about long term projects, instead of kind of running and taking all the assignments and flying. And I don’t know if the same happened for you, but it did—it was a retrospective time or kind of introspective time, I mean, yeah.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I mean, I agree completely. And I think there’s so many, there just so many ways to do our work. And the pace, it doesn’t have to be defined by, hopefully, it doesn’t have to be defined by these commercial confinements or restrictions or entrapments, or whatever you want to attach to that. And, I know it hasn’t been in-depth conversations, but because it’s been so difficult, even within an agency the size of ours to have any conversations at length with colleagues on these things, because it’s just, we’re all getting better, or I’m at least getting better in being able to do it in this way. And I said glass half full out of the pandemic, you know, telehealth, I really think that for rural America and the world over, these cut off communities, there’s really something we’ve learned there and I hope that things improve and I hope all of us as a community can support each other and also just reward people finding that balance even if that’s just like, just a simple, seeing a colleague who’s building a home with their own hands and just acknowledging like how impressive—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Instead of, instead of— it always felt like before the pandemic, actually, people were making each other crazy, like, Oh, where did you go on assignment? Which country did you go? Who are you working for now, blah,blah, blah. It was all about work all the time. I love it now, when people are chatting a bit more about more personal stuff, or what keeps them busy beside the work it’s, yeah, there’s some kind of—I like the shift. We should move to the third question. Otherwise, we’re really going to run out of time and there are questions coming in as well in the q&a.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, we can get we can get to those I mean, I you know—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Let’s go to the third one. What is your dream image or story? I see you are showing another beautiful image, by the way, it’s amazing. Is this South Dakota as well?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah. Yeah. This is from the Oglala Lakota Nation powwow. So it’s a horse race. Good friends of mine were racing in it. And, you know, it’s just x pan, backlit, sun is going down, couple dozen horses, just amazing people. And yeah, and then that magic dust—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Especially with the sun on the grass in the front. So is this, are you showing this because this is? Yeah, because the question is, what is your dream image or story you would like to work on? Is this a story you would like to continue? Or?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Well, you know, how I was thinking about the question is, you know, this is the pursuit, that magic dust. This was shot with x pan. So film, and I’m going through the negatives, you know, with a light and my dark room, and it’s like, oh, you know, because in the moment I’m shooting, and it’s like I obviously recognize that things were coming together, but then all sudden, I come to a frame. And it’s that second rider, that ghost rider, that metaphor that just magic and that’s just the gods like, saying, Okay, here’s one. And we’re giving you one and you know, you better, you better, you better respect that. And it’s then a pursuit to always get to that point. And I love that. I love that pursuit. It can become an addiction, like the negative of trying to, chasing that first high that addicts talk a lot about and that’s one I wouldn’t actually know. Some others I do, but—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: This one, eh, but for pictures, it’s kind of the same, especially with moments like this, like, you just kind of know that something magical is going to appear.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And when it happens, you want it to happen a second time. Yeah, it’s quite a chase, or it can be quite a chase.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: So that’s kind of how I looked at it. It’s not to say—I mean, I hope I’ve been plenty clear with all the failure and, but then when you have success, I would like younger photographers to realize, I talk about that when a photo hits, and you know when it hits when you live with it. I actually have this photo, we have this photo up in our house, and I tell young photographers, when you think something hits, then live with it, put it on the wall where you will see it multiple times every day. And then when something really works it develops a life of its own and you have a conversation with it on a daily basis and it develops and it becomes its own living thing. And that’s, I mean, we’re chasing a handful of those. So I kind of took it more as as a way to give advice. Again, I’m not trying to sit here and say, Oh, no, I have no dream image because I’ve already made— no, that’s bullshit. Every day I’m chasing to make something this good.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s never done. It never is done. It’s just not true.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: And all my photo heroes, you know, I’m chasing, we’re all chasing—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Kind of chasing each other
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Nan Golden and Sally Mann and Anders Peterson, and it just keeps going and going and—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So many good new people come into the industry as well. I see it with our mentees at VII—it’s like what, you know, they’re just amazing. You just feel like okay, I’ll be chasing forever to look for good pictures. So before we literally run out of time, Danny, let’s go to my last question, and then I’m gonna really try to get to the q&a as well. What advice would you give your younger self?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Well, I got advice from, at the Eddie Adams workshop, from Yunghi Kim where she said —I was all nervous, like anxiety. It was about blowing my head apart. And I really wanted Yunghi to see my work and she could she could see this nervousness, this anxiety, and she just, she has such a calming voice, and she looked at me and she was like, you know, she said, you know, be patient, you need patience. This takes a long time. And then she proceeded to just talk about that. And it was incredible. It was, it allowed me in situations—I have friends who, it’s like, they’re driven by going to go places where no one else goes. And they go to, say, a conflict zone. And trust me, I’ve already spoke about how important that work is. And I have the deepest respect for all our colleagues who go to those places. But for me, it was like, there are a lot of people there. And for me, it was this emotional space that an army of half dozen photographers can’t surround these emotional spaces that I’m working to get into. And I just knew—and it was that conversation with with Yunghi that just played over and over in my head. So, it’s to trust it, whether I got lost at times, yeah, I got lost at times. And I fortunately, like recognize that, would pull back and stop covering so much politics. And while I needed it financially, it just, I was like, there are photographers everywhere, what the hell am I doing? I’ve lost track. I’m off course. And so I guess it’s a bit of continuous advice to myself. And hopefully, this is advice to those out there who are thinking about these same things, early career, whatever, wherever you’re at thinking about those same things.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, I’m actually happy you’re saying this. It’s a really good advice to me, I can be very, I don’t know. Yeah, I just recognize it. I don’t know how to explain it. But you sometimes feel it’s going too slow, or the stories are not working out, or the right publication is not publishing it or anything. You can just kind of feel like, sometimes I really feel like I want things to go or to move faster. But things, I mean, don’t move faster just because you want them to, you know. Usually things will slow down, actually, if you want them to go faster. So to get to hear this advice, I think for a lot of photographers, this would be the perfect advice. It’s what you do in the long run, long term. Stick to the plan. Keep going. I always— it’s funny, because I always tell my students when I’m teaching, like, just keep going, just keep going. It’s like, I think that’s what Dory also says in Finding Nemo. Like, just keep going. And so it’s like, that’s it, just keep going. You know, just find your track. Stay on it. And if you kind of derail sometimes just, yeah, try again and keep going and yeah, to stay calm while doing that. That’s what we need to do. I feel it can be such a frustrating thing, photography, because you just, yeah, I don’t know. It’s so intertwined with you personally. It’s not a job. That makes it crazy in a way. Yeah.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, no. So go ahead. What do you want to say?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, I mean, I love what you said there. It’s not a job. It’s a way of life. It’s, you know, it’s just you’re living, you’re living the story. And I think those who also—I mean, there are photographers out there who just have been able to find that balance in a way that I just have the greatest respect for. You know, finding ways to collaborate with others. And sometimes even spouses. Alex and Becky Webb just work and everything about them or it’s following the career of Eugene Richards and just how incredible of a person or learning so much from Jeff Jacobson when he was alive, and then seeing the relationship that— I won’t say it in past tense— that he has with his son, Henry, and these are just, it’s people do this thing in such beautiful ways and then our colleague Maggie, you know, Maggie Steber, like literally one of the most inspirational people and storytellers. I’ve— and it was way before I had the fortune of getting to know her and that’s like finding—I’ve never understood— What I love about the music industry is the connections they have. They play each other’s songs, they record each other’s songs which will give support, whether it’s Willie recording, oh my gosh, Blaze Foley, sorry, jeez.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: We have less of that in this industry, you say?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, yeah, you know, like Willie recording Blaze Foley’s song, which, you know, gives him just like this incredible songwriting fame and but more importantly, I’m sure for plays a dime, was it helped him financially like huge and it just and I think I—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s super important to kind of—
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I meant Townes Van Zandt. I said Blaze Foley, but it was Willie recording Townes.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s alright.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Unfortunately for Townes, you know, he was, probably spent a lot of—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I think it’s true. I think in photography, we should have more of this. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to join VII, to be more collaborative. But, Danny, we’re actually past the hour, which we have, like, chatted more than we should have. And I would really like to get to the q&a. There are three questions in there. Is that okay with you?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Love to.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Let’s see, because they might—
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Can I stop sharing?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: There might be comments as well, instead of— Oh, yeah. Then you can see them yourself as well. Okay. Let’s start—
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Oh, my gosh, you all are like—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes! There are a lot of people here. Everyone’s chatting.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: I’ve gone over. I’m so sorry. I’ve loved talking with you. It’s great.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I’ve been loving this as well. I could go on and on. But I think most people think this would be an hour, so some of them have to leave. I see. Yeah, there are a few people saying goodbye as well. Are you reading the chat?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: It’s up. I don’t know if I know how to. Oh I just have to scroll down.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Exactly. Thank you Mr. Wilcox Frazier, for such inspirational speaking engagement. Wonderful pictures that touch the heart and tell a story. Thank you for restoring hope to some of us. So there you go. Okay, let’s go quickly to the q&a. And thanks, Geoffrey, for the lovely words. So Joseph Murphy is asking, You have travelled around the world covering important events. What intrigues you after many years to document rural America?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, I mean, the only reason why I— that’s not entirely true. Um, the reason why I got to return to doing international work is because of the work that I did in Iowa, and I’m most proud when I’ve had the opportunity to continue on the issues that I’ve covered across the US, mostly the Midwest and Great Plains, but when I can continue those issues in places like Senegal, you know. The VII Foundation sent me to Senegal to work to look at the impact of Money and Villages projects, which came out of the UN’s Millennium goals of ending world poverty. And this was out of the Earth Institute at Columbia. Jeffrey Sachs started a program that worked on figuring out how to do that with local sustainable development in rural communities and is just one of the greatest things. Actually I had returned to Senegal to show that work in the communities we made it in and was traveling home when the lockdown happened. That was late February 2020. It’s the last time I’ve been out of the US. So I don’t know, maybe I don’t work internationally anymore. You know, but a beautiful thing that’s come out of this is a lot of editors have discovered photographers who are working in their own backyards. And we’re getting those stories by, so narratives about important issues and peoples and written by those who it’s their home. And obviously, that’s what I’m about with my work in rural Iowa, rural Middle America. And so I think it’s a beautiful thing. So if that’s the way it’s gonna go, I never travel internationally again, a thumbs up, it’s a beautiful thing. But it’s, I mean, I want to—there’s so many amazing stories out there in rural communities the world over. But it’s all tied together. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, though. I’m not gonna be someone who just runs to the next big story. I have colleagues who have been documenting, whether genocide, war, aggression, I mean, this is what they’ve done their entire careers, and I have the greatest respect for them. Women and men who risk it all when they’re doing that work. And, but I decided long, long ago that—well, it probably picked me, I picked it, whatever—what mattered. And that was home, what I was most connected to and these issues that rural Iowa was suffering, still suffers, I’m still working on. That’s what’s driven me. And that’s the only time I’ve ended up somewhere. That’s why.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thanks, Danny, I think the next question, kind of, it’s a little bit about the same thing, but a bit different. Nick Roman is asking, what is a time you have found a moment or moments of joy within the reality of what life is in these declining populations, rural communities. I can imagine there has been quite a bit of moments of joy in there as well.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: So many, so many, and humor is like—and this isn’t just impoverished rural communities. This is, I found this because I have worked in urban settings. I mean, it’s always been mostly in Detroit. And the reason why I’ve worked there so much is because Detroit’s the only city in America where the population was at one point over a million and then dropped down below. So depopulation is very much part of the story of Detroit, everything that has driven that, all the impact of those who are left in the wake of that out migration. And again, we could talk about all that for a week straight. And there are people with so much more expertise than me, but fortunately, I know some of them and read everything they write, and some of them I know personally, but Nick, your question is spot on. And I think it’s really important for all of us to make sure that we highlight that as well in our work, but also in our interaction with the work. So for me, it’s humor, like the humor that I can just think of sitting around listening to John, or situations in small towns all over where it’s just, we just ended up just losing it. And if you don’t have that sense of humor, that self-deprecating sense of humor, at least in the rural areas, but I’ve found it in the urban areas as well, people are gonna be very skeptical, and I’m skeptical of those people, so. I am, I mean, I’m from a small town, small Iowa town on the Mississippi River. And that’s just, that’s the reality of it. And so that’s, those are the—whether it be a friend’s father in law, asking him if he needed help with his white man problem that he could shoot me. And then I answer back, you better shoot straight because I shoot back. And then he starts laughing and everyone starts laughing and the ice is broke and everything’s great. And you know—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s amazing that you can connect in that way because you’re from a similar kind of background, right?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, absolutely. And those are the moments that I’ll always remember. John Waters, first time I met him, I’m driving through a small town in South Dakota and I see a guy on a bucking horse, bareback, of course, and this, and the horse rears up goes off its hind legs, so it’s completely airborne comes down on the, on its side. And I throw my truck into park in the middle of the highway and I run over because I’m thinking this guy is going to be hurt and I need to help and the horse jumps up, he jumps up, and when he jumps up, he’s standing like this, his eyes huge. And he’s like, What do you want? And he was like, ready to fight.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You just wanted to help.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Are you alright? I came over to help. And he’s like, I’m fine, man. Why are you, why did you run onto my property? And then I’m like, well, wait, I’m a photographer. Let me get my camera. I want to take your photo. And I’ve been friends with him ever since. I mean, that’s the stuff that matters most, the hard moments. Yeah, there are hard moments. You know, they’re moments where you’re not sure you’re gonna get out of it alive. And that’s just the job. That’s the job. That’s the, this is what matters most.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I agree. So there’s another question, and then we should really—
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Call it? Thank you, David—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: For the extra time. But this has been really lovely. There’s a question from Kent. I think it should be—how are you reading the question? How is your lack of human balancing exemplified the lovely shots of your wife and child? Well, you did kind of explain I feel but at one level, it seems like a phenomenal image to be so proud of. Can you elaborate a little more? Well, I guess it wasn’t about the image itself. Right. That being a failure? Are you seeing?
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s just, it’s, I’m talking about it in a way that I hope just helps others reflect on what, how they’re interacting with their own professional life, the professional side and thinking about balance and I mean, most of my, if you go back and listen to my talks, I mean, like one of these talks, via VII Insider talks, you know, I brought a subject on and I don’t, I most often don’t want the attention and I kind of run from photographers who are I, I , I and me, me, me and it really—but these questions, Ilvy, I’ll be candid, in really reflecting on them from when you sent them to me, I just, I was like, gosh, like, I think you could learn so much out of this series. And I’ve watched them and I’ve learned so much and in your conversation with Maggie especially, and I had a lot of students who watched that and just and I learned so much and had such respect for it and wanted to do it and I just, I was like, What would I have wanted? What would I have wanted if if I was a woman or a man from, young, young, a professional from rural wherever, rural America, a small village in Kenya, just the world over? What would I want to hear from someone who’s worked in this space. And I just have to be candid about aspects. And it doesn’t have to be someone who works in the rural space or from a rural space. Obviously, those individuals, I think are going to connect to me. Those are individuals I connect to, often automatically. But that’s how I thought about this. And so, forgive me for talking so much about myself.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, that’s what this is—I mean, this has been amazing the way you’ve shared so much. I think this was actually maybe the first episode or first talk like this. And I find it very inspirational. And you can check the chat. I’m not the only one thinking this. There’s a lot of people thanking you for your openness. And Maria says, Thank you for the honest and heartfelt conversations. And Stephen says, Thanks for these wise words from you. I mean, everyone—I think a lot of people can kind of relate to what you have been discussing. And it’s something that a lot of people don’t talk about, which is too bad in a way, because I think a lot of people relate to these kinds of subjects and are dealing with similar things. So yeah, really, thanks, Danny, it’s been amazing to have you here and all your wise, wise words and your beautiful images. It’s really been lovely. Oh, check the chats now. There’s more people. Well, check it, please. It’s a lot to read. And one more thing. Liam, I saw you ask the question to me, maybe you can write to me. You can write me an email. You’ll find my email easily online. So please, just reach out. Yeah, Danny, thanks so much. And thanks, everyone, for listening. It’s been really lovely to have everyone here, to have you here, Danny. And, yeah, I hope everyone tunes into the next one. And please check out the VII Insider website as well for other things that will be coming up soon. So yeah, thanks. Thanks, Danny, again, I don’t know how to thank you.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Yeah, thank you, and thank you for doing this. And, you know, it’s, these are the kinds of conversations that I think we need to have and you are, you’re driving that and building that community and and all those in the background that I’m not going to sit here and just do promotion of our agency. I’m not even gonna say, but everyone else in the background, it’s really important. It’s important for people to be able to participate and listen and hopefully learn and then go out and create and make a change, like change in your own life, make a change in someone’s else’s life, like have impact with what we do. It’s such an amazing way to interact with the world. But I really hope like what we’re collectively about is making a difference and making making the world a better place.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you. Thanks so much. That’s beautiful.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Thanks, Ilvy.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thanks. Thanks, everyone, and see you on the next episode.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Thanks, everyone, for being here. Thank you.