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Jakob Schiller

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Alazar "Junior" Soto lies in the Des Moines River while tubing on Sunday, July 15, 2012 in Lehigh, IA.
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When the Electrolux washing machine factory left Webster City, Iowa for Juarez, Mexico almost two years ago, it effectively knocked the town’s middle class to its knees. A sizable portion of the town’s population worked there, and they quickly found themselves scrambling to figure out what came next.

A couple of months after the plant closed down, photographer Brendan Hoffman first visited Webster City, which sits about 75 miles north of Des Moines. He was following former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who, at the time, was campaigning in the Republican presidential primary. The plight of the town presented itself to him as the bigger story.

“It was a story that I felt conflicted about and those are the kind of stories I’m most drawn to,” says Hoffman, who is a member of the Prime collective. “Sure, some of the people in Webster City are going to tell you that they got screwed over. But at the same time if we are going to consider this country to be a free-market democracy, whose is to stop [the company] from deciding that they can be more efficient by moving production to Mexico?”

Hoffman also knew he could follow the story beyond Iowa. One of his colleagues in Prime, Dominic Bracco, has been working in Juarez for years and could help him find the people who now work the jobs that used to belong to the residents of Webster City.

“This was a solidly middle class job when it was in Iowa and I’d like to see if it’s creating the same kind of jobs in Mexico,” he says.

Hoffman has been back to Webster City three times, putting together an ethnography of the town. In the spring he hopes to travel to Juarez to document the new Electrolux factory and have the story done by 2014, in time for NAFTA’s 20-year anniversary.

Instead of focusing on just one family in Webster City, he’s chosen to look more broadly at moments that slowly weave together a complicated story about a place in transition.

“I don’t think there is any way to ignore the fact that this is a major blow for the town. I wouldn’t be doing my job of being objective if I tried to gloss over that,” he says. “But at the same time it isn’t a surprise that companies have the option to move to a lower-wage country. The question comes up about whether the company has any responsibility to the town. I also don’t see why people aren’t more prepared for this kind of thing.”

While the Electrolux plant didn’t employ the entire town, Hoffman says the closing still had a seismic effect on everyone there. For those that did lose their jobs he says the Federal Government has stepped in and helped many of them go back to school through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Some former employees are also still living on unemployment while they look for new work. Others have ended up losing everything.

Showing this complexity in photos is difficult. Hoffman has the photo of a Webster City resident on his lawn with all his possession lined after being evicted and the photo of the shuttered plant. But he also has the photo of a dad joking around with his kids as they lay out under the stars on a summer night.

The dad, Steve McFarland, actually shows up in several of the photos. McFarland was never an Electrolux employee (he builds houses and frequently works outside Webster City) but for Hoffman he signifies someone who has found a way to work through the general economic problems in the town. Within the context of the story McFarland helps show the viewer that not everyone has thrown up their arms in despair.

“He’s not someone who worries about this future at all,” Hoffman says. “That’s probably unique in some ways, but he manages every week to have a couple dollars left over and as long as there’s something left over it’s all good.”

Some of Hoffman’s photos are more ambiguous. This summer, for example, he shot photos during the county fair, including the fair queens and the local parade. While people still lined the streets and dressed up for the contest, he says the whole event felt a little forced.

“It all kinda felt like an attempt to remain stoic,” he says. “They were trying to stay straight faced and let people know that everything is fine because look, our daughters can still be beauty queens.”

Struggling towns are nothing new in the United States, but Hoffman says he hopes that by visiting Juarez his work can provide a more three-dimensional view of an ongoing story that has affected much of the country. He’s been pushing to get an edit of the photos out before he heads to Mexico because this is an election year. Politicians on both sides love to toss around the word “middle class,” and with his story, Hoffman has provide them with a picture of what real life in the middle, or former middle, class really looks like.

“In the end I think people have to take responsibility for their own lives,” he says. “But imagine that you’re 50 years old and that’s the only job you ever had. All of sudden you have to find something new to do and maybe move somewhere new. That’s a really difficult decision for some people.”

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OIL FIELDS #27

Bakersfield, California, USA, 2004

Photo: Edward Burtynsky

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There’s no doubt that Edward Burtynsky’s photos from his Oil series are best viewed as enormous prints on a gallery wall. Known as one of the preeminent projects about the industrial age, the photos rely on scale to deliver their message about how oil has changed both the earth and human kind in profound and lasting ways.

That’s why we were skeptical when we heard he was releasing a new iPad version of the project’s book, which was originally published in 2009. How would these prints translate to a backlit viewing platform smaller than a sheet of office paper?

With app in hand, we were able to confirm the obvious — the iPad will never replace a print on the wall or a well-designed photo book. But that said, what we lost in scale and tactility was made up at least in part by the other features we’ve all come to love about the iPad.

Case-in-point are the short interviews with Burtynsky that accompany 24 of the photos. I enjoy a piece of art more when I know something about it and hearing Burtynsky explain things that you wouldn’t find in a normal caption — like why he composed certain photos in very particular ways — enriched the experience.

Other features on the app include three videos of Burtynsky speaking about his work and maps that show the location of the photos. There are also nine new images from the Gulf oil spill.

What tips the scales in favor of the app is the price. The Oil book sells for $128 on the publisher’s website. We can just imagine how much a Burtynsky print sells for. So at $9.99 there’s not much room to complain. If you enjoy Burtynsky’s work, it’s a drop in the bucket to experience a project that will only get more important as time goes on.

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<< Previous | Next >> Rouleur_10

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From the magazine's three-part, nearly 80-page story about the Tour of Rwanda.

Photo: Ben Ingham

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Rouleur is to bike magazines what National Geographic is to nature photography. Instead of glossy, well-lit portraits and fancy racing shots, its pages are filled with long, thoughtful photo spreads that drive deep narratives.

“We want to tell stories, we don’t do just want to do winners and podiums,” says Guy Andrews, the magazine’s editor and founder.

This makes the London mag an anomaly among the typical bike magazines, or most any sport magazine these days. They don’t exist to pimp the newest product or tout the coolest new protégé, but to capture all the moments that happen around the sport. Like the old photojournalism adage: The photos don’t happen at the event, they happen in the parking lot.

“We don’t have pictures of riders crossing finish lines,” he says. “We tend to concentrate on what happens to support that.”

One example of the magazine’s storytelling is the enormous and beautiful three-part, nearly 80-page story the magazine ran about the Tour of Rwanda. The piece, loosely based around the race, also delved into the history and politics of this once-war-torn country, providing a dynamic and in-depth look at a place that many Western readers know nothing about.

The production quality is another aspect that sets Rouleur apart. Printed on thick, rich paper, it feels more like a book than a magazine. It only comes out eight times a year and each of the recent issues has been 162 pages and cost $20.

“Some magazines will give three pages to a story and we’ll give 20,” Andrews says.

The secret to keeping the quality up, says Andrews, has been building a healthy pool of freelancers who are constantly pitching ideas. Andrews say he would much rather send photographers to produce work they came up with and care about than make assignments.

Rouleur‘s success has also about giving the photographers as much time as they need to tell the story right.

“There has been a death in [the U.K.] of good photojournalism, but not just photojournalism, there’s been a death of any kind of story that takes more than five minutes,” he says. “To get quality you need to give photographers time to explore their craft.”

The magazine’s audience has responded in kind by growing every year. A majority of its 10,000 readers are located in the U.K., but Rouleur also has a healthy audience in the rest of Europe and the United States. It’s a modest readership for a cycling magazine, but it has become a must-read for both fans of the sport and fans of photography.

The magazine has benefited lately from an upswing in the popularity of road bikes among the kind of middle-class professionals who might otherwise play golf. In addition to the racing aficionados, it’s the dentists, lawyers and doctors who are now subscribing, says Andrews.

For Rouleur, there’s no race to push for online content until things settle down in the digital world. The plan for now is to keep producing quality magazines that tell interesting stories and highlight good photography.

“It’s like the wild wild West out there,” says Andrews. “I think we just need to stay creative.”

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