Prime Collective
Webster08.jpg

The Beating of the Heart • Brendan Hoffman

In March 2011, Webster City’s main employer, Electrolux, shut down and moved to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The company and its predecessors had made washing machines in the small Iowa town of 8,000 under various brand names since 1937, and then it was gone. Nearly all of a workforce that once topped 2,000 was laid off. It’s not the first community to end up in a tough spot, and it won’t be the last – though to a large degree, these workers were forgotten. 

This is a story we’ve heard before. Yet the lack of novelty in the primary storyline has allowed me to direct my gaze elsewhere, beyond a simple chronicling of events. Webster City isn’t unique, but as an anecdotal emblem of contemporary small-town Midwestern life, it’s fascinating. Over the past several years, through some dozen trips, I’ve embedded myself in daily life in Webster City, striving to capture the character-driven drama and vague sense of anxiety common to such places. It’s a middle-class town slowly losing that distinction. This project is in part an attempt to understand the changes taking place among the middle class in America today, as the Great Recession fades while few feel confidence in their economic future.

On November 8, 2016, people in communities like Webster City, spread throughout the Rust Belt, finally made their message when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.

The uncertainty dominating these towns undermines the quality of life we all seek. Many of my pictures depict longstanding routines and daily activities with an implied or inherent transience, highlighting the fact that that any comfort in the present suggests no assurance of the future.

Yet despite my efforts, that may not be what is really reflected in my photographs. If I’m honest with myself, what kept drawing me back was the chance to live in an alternate reality. What I see in my own pictures is an outsider’s view, the perspective of someone who enters the town like putting on a costume as I attempt to become a local for a week or two at a time, all the while knowing I will leave again. My affection for Webster City is real, but very different, from what would be felt by someone who lived there all his life. At heart, this project is a complicated way of asking “what if”? What if I had been raised in such a place—a small rural town in the Midwest, instead of an East Coast suburb—with no plan or desire to leave? What would I have missed? Or gained?

 

PROJECTS

The Beating of the Heart

By Brendan Hoffman

The Beating of the Heart is a dispatch from a place where I both do and do not belong. In 2011 I began photographing in the small town of Webster City, Iowa following the closure of the local Electrolux factory, which moved to Mexico. Many hundreds of people were laid off. I was attracted to narratives of hardship and resiliency, with a desire to create a record of the rippling consequences and how individuals confront circumstances differently.

Very quickly, however, I found myself equally drawn by the simple fact that this most quintessentially American place felt exotic, even foreign. Why? From the standpoint of a journalist, to empathize is critical to honest and informative storytelling. Intellectually, I could understand the people I met; yet emotionally I struggled to bridge the gap. As much as anything, to do so became the goal of my work.

Over the next several years I visited more than a dozen times, photographing life in Webster City as well as my own experiences and reactions to it, trying to better understand the people I now consider friends. These photographs are the accumulated record of my journeys, revealing the degree of my bond.

I approached the project with no specific outcome in mind or list of pictures I must take, instead allowing natural connections to guide my experiences. The resulting images, in both subject and style, raise questions of representation and the presence of biases that seep through what is meant to be a rigorously nonjudgmental depiction. While I previously viewed this as a flaw, I now believe it is an inherent, even critical, part of the work, subtly illuminating the American cultural divide.

 
 

Related Content

 

Exhibitions

2016 America House, Kyiv, Ukraine (solo)
2014 “Of Midwest, By Midwest” Overture Center for the Arts, Madison, Wisconsin, USA (group, curated by Wally Mason, director, Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University)

 

Publications

'Why I’ll be handing out a free zine at Trump’s inauguration:' A Town Left Behind, HUCK Magazine

Bringing Rust-Belt Stories to Donald Trump's Inauguration, TIME Magazine

Great Old Days, LensCulture

After Factory Closing, Iowans Live Realities of Global Economy, New York Times Lens Blog

Gorgeous Photos From The Front Lines Of Outsourcing, WIRED Magazine

 

Other

www.thebeatingoftheheart.com