Danny Wilcox Frazier

Lost Nation: America’s Rural Ghetto


For ten years now, I have photographed throughout the Midwest, the agricultural and industrial heart of America. I began in Iowa, my home, where youth flight has brought many small towns to the brink of extinction. Lost and alienated, these communities seem entombed in obscurity. Following Iowa, my work led me to two other communities in the Midwest where systemic poverty and suffering are the norm: the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and Detroit. Pine Ridge has a long history of injustice and neglect, and sits in the poorest region of the United States. Detroit is the only city in America that has seen its population rise above one million residents and then fall back below. As in rural America, depopulation weighs heavily on the economy of Detroit, the poorest large city in the nation.



Rural America has lost over twelve million people since 2000, with the latest figure putting its share of the nation’s population at just 16 percent, the lowest in history in 1910, that figure was 72 percent. My photographs document those fighting to continue living in these forgotten communities, the individuals working to maintain traditions that symbolize rural life. Swaths of the Great Plains, Midwest, and Appalachia, as well as numerous Southern states are in the greatest danger. Many towns in these regions are likely already lost, and my work will simply document these communities before they fade away.

As I continue to work on this project, my travels will take me back to Jefferson County, Mississippi, North Texas, and Appalachia. Jefferson County has the highest percentage of African Americans in the United States (85%). This county has a rich history that reflects America’s troubled past; it is also the poorest county in the poorest state in the nation. I have photographed briefly in all three locations and funding from the EPF will allow me to finish these essays as I expand the project nationally.




Danny Wilcox Frazier has spent the last decade covering issues of marginalized communities across the United States. He is a contributing photographer at Mother Jones magazine. Frazier’s work has appeared in: TIME, GEO, The Sunday Times Magazine, Der Spiegel, and Frontline (PBS). Frazier was awarded the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography leading to his book, “Driftless” (2007). After completing the book, Frazier directed a documentary that confronts issues highlighted by his photographs. The film was nominated for an Emmy in 2010 and won a Webby that same year. In 2009, Frazier received a grant from The Aftermath Project for work on the Pine Ridge Reservation. His photographs appear in numerous collections including: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History. Frazier is working on his next book, “Lost Nation”, a look at economic and geographic isolation across America.


31 thoughts on “Danny Wilcox Frazier – Lost Nation: America’s Rural Ghetto”

  1. I would of chosen this as the EPF 2012 winner. This essay really sings full of soul and a sad sorry at that. The only essay which led me deeper than just photos.

  2. Pine Ridge seems to be a popular place for photographers to do the “poverty tour.” Even Diane Sawyer did an extensive piece on the reservation.

    I’ve done a few stories on poverty in the Native American population, and the issue is complex. Government subsidies to the people are small, but many have become content to “live” on them and make no effort to move beyond that. Alcoholism is very high in these populations. Life spans are short for a variety of reasons, including alcoholism, but primarily because of terrible diets. Fry bread, for example, a favorite, is deadly if eaten regularly, and efforts to change these dietary habits have not been very successful.

    As for this essay: blurry, grainy B&W images have an editorial intent, here, as does the selective coverage of the subject. The poverty is real at Pine Ridge. This essay, though, doesn’t add to our understanding of the problem or point to solutions. Perhaps, though, that is too much to ask of photos.

  3. I agree with Jim. I was going to write a paragraph or two, but he just said it so well.

    As for the photography itself, I loved the light in 12 and 21.

    For many of the others, I was distracted by the content. For example, why turn a fun moment (I assume) into a dark one (see #3)? Who cares (see #4)? Died of what (#13)? These pictures feel like they are taken by someone with, yes, an editorial intent and passing through.

  4. Hunting deer with a kalashnikov? Hardcore!

    I have it down as 1, maybe 2 really strong images,a whole lot of dark blurry stuff and some incidentals, and no real idea what it is supposed to tell me or achieve. Everything it seems to wish to do is achieved much better by the accompanying words.

    also ” My photographs document those fighting to continue living in these forgotten communities, the individuals working to maintain traditions that symbolize rural life ” -where is this shown?

  5. Documentary photography at its best. I have never been to Pine Ridge. I get a FEELING of what it is about. I learned a lot. Thank you.

  6. I’ve met Danny several times while shooting the same events and I have a great deal of respect for him and his work. His book is one of my favorites. If you don’t own it, you need to.

    That being said, I do wonder how DWF qualifies as an emerging photographer. He shoots for Time, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, has been nominated for an Emmy, is a member of Redux, and has a successful book.

  7. I too,
    feel this….
    I especially like how you combined different formats..
    tripdychs and panos…..
    i can really see these in an exhibit…
    #19 punches me in the stomach….

  8. John Vink
    July 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm
    Documentary photography at its best. I have never been to Pine Ridge. I get a FEELING of what it is about. I learned a lot. Thank you.

    i SECOND THAT! PERFECT SAID!tHANK u John V, and thank you Danny!!!
    Amazing photographs, amazing story/purpose: PLEASE CONTINUE!
    I really believe that you my friend Danny Wilcox Frazier are serving the craft AND you are the FUTURE!

  9. I know you will finish this work either way, you have passion and drive. Thank you for that. Documenting your backyard, your homeland with a great eye and simplicity.

    A book I will wait for.

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  11. Sublime imagery. Through the backdoor this essay becomes inspirational, especially upon viewing the girl doing homework on the basement floor.

    Having met Danny in person at Look3 – he is a man who is almost always smiling – I now appreciate the optimism of his work which hitherto was beyond my grasp.

  12. there are few photographers, for me, working the ‘traditional’ vein of ‘documentary’ photography who possess as much physical connection to light and shadow, as much unapologetic committment to harnessing their emotional relationship to people and place as Danny….He not only lassos light and ligature as a way of conveying the stories than unfold in front of him, but most impressive for me, is the fact that he continually pushes himself (and the viewer) to the edge of both visual and narrative failure…to risk alienating his viewer because he has invested himself and his time to charge beyond the cliche (visual, literal) of a story to allow it to be channeled through him…this is not the story Wounded Knee, nor is it even the specific story of the lives of the people in this (each person and each place is a cosmos of stories and no one picture or picture taking can harness their multitude) but rather a story that is told the way the best ones always are….one travels and becomes, for however long, connected to a place that meant something that impacted one and then tried to distill that reckoning…

    for me, this story is all about negioation…photographer and subject alike…splintered land, splintered light, ignite….

    that fucking horseshoe aflight is a wing’d creature set asight….

    god damn…..

    hugs danny

  13. I appreciate Danny’s use of light, shadows and line. For me, they strike an emotional depth as well. Well done Danny!

  14. amazing photos!the motion of the camera gives the pictures something unreal.a world outside of common sense!

  15. Of all the emerging photographers I’ve encountered on Burn, I think Danny Wilcox Frazier is my favorite. I think it’s becuase, beyond the fact that he has skills few others possess, we’ve inhabited similar spaces, both physically and intellectually. I suspect that because I have so much admiration for his skills and attitude towards his subject matter, and that his work in several ways hits home with me, that I keep finding myself being far more critical of his work than I am of other photographers whose work is not near as good (imo).

    My grandfather was a construction foreman for a company (L.E. Meyers) that built those towers for high tension power lines that you see all over the midwest, the ones that look kind of like a dog wearing a hat. He moved every year or so and like everyone in his field back then lived in a mobile home that was truly mobile. The trailer parks of Iowa were my second home as a child. My earliest memory is of Muscatine. Every summer after that was an even smaller town even further west of the Mississippi. Because of that, unlike most people, I don’t have a negative attitude toward people who live in trailer parks. Maybe it’s changed, but back then they were generally either hard working decent people or nice old retirees. Anyway, point is, I have a great affection for the small towns of Iowa and much of Frazier’s work resonates with those memories.

    Also, I studied photojournalism in college and my goal was to do similar work. Aesthetically, I loved that kind of gritty black and white photography and intellectually I wanted to do good in the world by showing the dark places in the country that typical Americans are unaware of or choose to ignore. That’s the other reason I like Frazier’s work so much. It represents an old ideal on a path not taken. I’m glad to see someone doing it so well.

    But, I think it’s because Frazier’s work is so close to my old ideal that causes me to be so critical of its flaws. Or to be fair, what could arguably be its flaws.

    My first reaction on seeing his Detroit work was something along the lines of “Oh no, yet another essay showing how totally fucked those poor black people are.” I didn’t come by that attitude through my upbringing in Iowa and other small midwestern towns. I’ve led a very urban, integrated existence for quite awhile now and tend to see that kind of thing through the eyes of Africans and African-Americans. Of course, I can’t speak for any large group of people, but that attitude is consistent among the small group of people I interact with everyday. At the time, I showed the Detroit essay to several people whom I figured would have that reaction and they had that reaction. Many blacks are really sick of seeing white photographers come into their communities and portray them as totally fucked up. So when I saw the essay on the Sioux, part of my first reaction was “Oh no, yet another essay showing how totally fucked up the Indians are.” Now I’m very afraid of what we’ll see when the work from the poorest county in Mississippi comes out.

    Of course, those problems are real. Those communities are fucked up. More people do need to be aware of the horrors. Something needs to be done. And maybe there’s no way to depict those issues without rubbing some, even many people in a bad way. But, I think it’s something documentary photographers need to be acutely aware of and make every effort to mitigate. How does one do that? Well, every situation is different and I can’t claim to know anything about the Sioux, but I think the general problem with these essays that spur that “those people surely are fucked up” reaction is that they tend to be uncompromisingly grim. I think the solution is to show a more well-rounded picture. There must be something good about the culture. There must be some joy in the community. If not, fine. If so, then show it. Personally, I’ve found it impossible not to see good aspects in every culture I’ve ever encountered. To show them as totally fucked up requires editing.

    Along those lines, I read a very good book recently that paints a well-rounded portrait of how fucked up American Indian communities are while simultaneously showing them to be not all grim all the time. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie. Documentary photography is capable of capturing that kind of well-rounded picture.
    And of course for historical understanding, “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” is required reading. But, documentary photography simply cannot explain how people ended up as they are. Frazier’s essay would benefit by some strong accompanying text by a big time writer.

    My second criticism of the Detroit essay was “Why Detroit?” Everybody does Detroit. From Guilden to Robocop, everyone knows Detroit is a mess. Why not Akron or Chicago or Saint Louis? Somewhere with the same problems that hasn’t been done so repeatedly before?

    So again, I had the same response with this essay. Why the Sioux? Everybody does the Sioux. Everybody knows the Sioux are fucked up. Why not the Crow or the Blackfeet or the Tohono O’odam? Why not something different? Something that nobody, or at least nobody at such a high level has done before?

    I realize the answer to that criticism may well be that one wants to be published and that publishers (and on a related note, consumers) prefer variations on familiar tales. If that’s the case; if to get the work disseminated it’s necessary to follow the footsteps, to go where many have gone before, then I’m okay with that. Maybe we need the work. Maybe we view the story as more important than our aesthetics. Maybe there’s some other reasoning why we choose not to attempt originality. Nothing necessarily wrong with that.

    But, if that’s not the case, if a photographer of Frazier’s skills and stature could do whatever and still get the work disseminated, then I’d like to see him start blazing his own trail, telling us stories that haven’t been told.

    On the positive side, I love the photography and the mixed presentation. The panorama photos work very well. Any number of pictures are gallery/museum worthy. And the larger story of rural poverty in America is compelling and surely one that needs to be told.

    Again, Frazier is probably my favorite of all the emerging photographers. If it were otherwise, I probably wouldn’t bother with this kind of critique.

  16. “More people do need to be aware of the horrors. ” Who? People in Northern Mali, the beggars of Tuva, slums of Johannesburg, the economically stuffed up in Greece. the displaced of Iraq, Afghanistan etc the hovels dwellers of Rio ……….. or are the affluent of Europe Asia, Oceania etc the ones that should view the essay and help those people?

  17. Anyway it would be interesting to see who is going to supply the lanes/hardware of communication to the poor so they can be made aware of the plight

  18. Roberta Tavares

    Danny…Im always excited checking your work. It never fails expectations, it never disappoints either technically or conceptually.You keep showing something and proving yourself, you keep doing great and surprising in each essay you introduce and based on my humble opinion..that what differs exceptional from ordinary. The bridge from emerging to master. What makes your name shines and be remembered when the question pops up “what’s the promising new talents, emerging photographers nowdays?”

  19. I think Jay Leno is right: if you need an AK-47 to kill a deer, then hunting is probably not your sport. I liked the essay, though.

  20. After my return home from the hospital, I fought my way through the pain and drug haze first to Burn. strait away to this essay. When I opened up #23, saw the number of graves and read the caption information as to place, year and season, I was stunned. Over 40 years ago a young woman from Manderson who loved my wife and admired me brought us together. In 2010, she lost several children in a terrible car crash and this is almost certainly the funeral where she buried her children. She is broken-hearted and will be for the remainder of her earthly days – but that doesn’t mean she won’t smile, or do good for others. She does both.

    In my opinion Danny Wilcox is one of the finest photographers around and I have great admiration for him and his work. He includes some stunning and even mystical pictures in this essay. How in the world, Danny, did you take #16? How is it possible to photograph bushes and trees and therein capture so ghostly an image of the seventh calvary bearing down upon the Lakota? How did you do this? Was it by chance, or did you see those images out there in the sticks and know that if you put on just the right amount of blur, this is what would come through? I think it is very great that got such an image, because so many people always like to look so disapproving at Native peoples today and to say, “they’ve got to put the past behind them.”

    But that past is always there, and you caught it, riding through the wind, trees and bushes.

    This essay is rich in mystical images, interjected with a few slivers of reality. Maybe this is what you are trying to achieve and if it is, then you seem to be succeeding. From my standpoint, however, if you are doing an essay on the Lakota of today there is a most important element missing:

    The Lakota of today.

    The Real People. They are missing. They just aren’t here. They’re not. They are missing. Go back and find them. Despite the depredations they have suffered and the poverty that has engulfed them, they have not disappeared. They are still here. Go back and find them. Please don’t give me a stereotype of the run-over and downtrodden Indian. The real Lakota, with heart and spirit, remains and fights on. Go find him. You are a fine and exceptionally gifted and hard-working photographer. You can do it.

  21. Frostfrog, good that you’re up and around.

    The “real” people? I don’t know, these people look pretty real to me.

    The issues on American reservations are pretty much the same as on our Canadian reserves. Part of the problem is the trap of the reserve itself, and the spoon feeding parent-child relationship between government and status aboriginal people.

    80% un-employement? yes same up here. Very close by where I live there are reserves adjacent to medium size cities. 80% un-employement on the reserves, but less than 10% for the non-native population, many of whom are immigrant people of colour who may lack education and english language skills, but have a willingness to work.

    Maybe the “real” Lakota do exist beneath all this, somewhere in the deep memory. I think this essay alludes to it. But the exterior, what we see here, is pretty right on from my experience.

  22. Gordon, to say that I am “up and around” is to greatly overstate the degree of my recovery so far. I do get up from time to time, I do hobble slowly around for very brief periods. I am on the mend, but I can see it is going to be a much slower and painful mend than I had hoped.

    I fear I have started an argument I lack the strength to finish, but, briefly, I will move back 40 years in time and just a bit to the east and north of Pine Ridge to the day when I first drove onto the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation and saw the place for the first time. It was a frightening sight to see. I wondered how I was ever going to survive there.

    Yet, It looked very different to me when I drove away 13 months later to go off to another reservation. So very, very, different. It had been a tough 13 months with a stunning amount of trauma and death, but in that time I had gotten to know every family – in many cases, intimately. I had experienced not only the trauma and heartache but the spirit, generosity and humor of the people. I had felt their love, care, and compassion.

    And don’t forget, one way or another, be it L-48 or Alaska, this is where my life has been spent ever since. I have heard the argument you make 1000 times… 1000 times 1000. I hear the very same argument used against impoverished and prosperous Native communities alike. It is not without its shreds of truth, but it is superficial. There is so much it bypasses, fails to grasp. It represents a perspective formed in one culture that has sought to dominate all other cultures, a culture from which the larger perspective cannot be grasped nor understood, without yielding some ground regarding certain American orthodoxies and tenants.

    I hope I made it clear that I do believe Danny has the vision, talent and character to pull it off, and to find the Lakota people of today. I could say much more, but I have started a debate that I lack the stamina and energy to finish right now. If I ever succeed at packaging my life’s work, my responses will all be there.

  23. Frostfrog,
    Well, if you’re not really up and around yet, I’m still happy for you that you are still on the right side of the grass.

    I had a post disappear an hour or so ago when my laptop overheated and shut down, maybe a good thing, I’ll try to be more brief.

    I have no issue with any of your points, particularly about the humour, generosity, and loving nature you experienced on the reserve.

    My perspective is different from yours. My family are card carryin’ Metis. Metis are an officially recognized aboriginal group. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%A9tis_people_(Canada)

    I have worked for Native organizations, as do my brother and sister to this day, my sister is completing a doctorate in Native studies at the moment.

    Unfortunately, while we witness the love etc. among native people, much more obvious, from within or as an observer from outside, is the drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, nepotism and exploitation, gang violence, petty jealousy and political in-fighting, a work ethic at odds with the 21st century. I could go on and on.

    Frostfrog, I am one who laments here frequently about the negative tone evident in much of what we see. Yes, I’d love to see Danny dig deeper and find the “real” Lakota. Their soul, our common humanity. Meantime, we cannot deny the reality of the situation as it presents itself. I believe Danny’s photographs have an undercurrent that perhaps points the way.

    I hope the Lakota themselves see this work and can perhaps be shocked enough to take a deep breath and begin to look inward. Change and healing can only come from inside the Native community. No amount of outside help or big whacks of money thrown at the problem will make any difference. It’s time to put aside romantic notions.

  24. Gordon, there is not one thing you say here about the broader swath of life that I am not in complete agreement with. You might notice that while I spoke of of the love, I also spoke of the trauma and death. Someday, you must see some of the considerable coverage I have done on the very subject you speak of. A much bigger picture needs to be filled out.

    You speak of putting aside romantic notions. In his truly wonderful image of the horse-rider and that very mysterious and potent image of the Calvary and the Lakota of old, Danny took the romantic and the esoteric to their finest honed edge. I cannot overstate my admiration for these two photographs. He countermanded this with a much harder edge, which is fine, except that it comes across almost as though these conditions constitute everything when in fact the story and picture is much broader and larger.


    the identification of “emerging” will always come into question for sure…do we do “beginning emerging” “mid level emerging” or “advanced emerging”…Danny is surely advanced emerging….the “emerging” status is generally self policing…we have never had a truly established photographer enter for the EPF grant…because you know Iowa and Danny well, for you he may seem more advanced than the jurors think of him..or me…despite his impressive track record so far, for me , and for the jurors (who may disqualify anyone), he is emerging…

  26. Micaël Martel

    Danny is probably one of my favorite photographer right now, his work is just so poetic and inspiring, while treating of incredibly important subjects. He reminds me a lot of Larry Towell and Eugene W. Smith

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