One Photographer, 40 Portraits of the Midwest Working Class

Andrew Lorenzen is not a journalist; in fact, he’s studying industrial design at Iowa State University. Regardless, he’s on a mission to tell the true stories of Midwestern minds. When he had the opportunity to do an independent project for a graduate-level photography class, Lorenzen took it up a notch and decided to self-publish a collection of interviews and photographs of 40 Midwesterners. You could call him the Humans of the Midwest guy, and Lorenzen may laugh and shrug. “I get that a lot,” he says. But Lorenzen’s project has been less candid, and more deliberate. “I invite people to tell their stories,” he says.

Come May, the 40 stories, told in quotes and portrait photography, will appear on his website, andrewlorenzenphoto.com. Right now, he’s about halfway there. He calls the collection Vita — Latin for “life” or “short biography” — and aims to leave readers with a greater understanding of the varied occupations within the Midwest. Photos and quotes from a horticulturist, a footwear designer, a locomotive restoration specialist, a historical re-enactor, and 36 others will fill the pages. Urban Plains got a behind-the-scenes look at Vita before it goes live.

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Urban Plains: Why are you doing this project?

Andrew Lorenzen: My motivation was to learn more about photography. Now, it’s more of a project to put me outside my comfort zone. I’m not usually a person who would go up to a stranger and talk to the person about their life, so getting outside my comfort zone was my main motivation. If I hadn’t talked to those people, I wouldn’t have gotten to know those people.

UP: How did you find your subjects? What was your methodology ?

AL: Most of the travel thus far has been around Iowa. Typically, I’ll drive around a small town and browse shops to try and get a lay of the land. A lot of my portraits are of business owners. Usually, I’ll walk in and browse their store for a while, purchase some small trinket, and strike up a conversation. I don’t try to hide the fact that I’m a photographer. Some of these conversations go on for two minutes, while others go for as long as two hours. I try to learn as much as I can about the subject and try to make him or her feel comfortable with my presence. At some point in the conversation, we’ll start talking about taking a portrait, and I’ll try to find a location that’s special or meaningful to them and photograph them there.

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UP: How would you describe the people you included in the collection?

AL: It’s hard to pinpoint one type of person I include, because the goal is to showcase a diversity of people. However, the running theme has been people at work.

UP: Was there an interview that particularly surprised you?

AL: Donald Kom was an incredibly interesting person to talk with. He currently manages the Ames power plant and oversees power production and distribution for several surrounding cities. At first glance, Don seemed like a stereotypical engineer. However, after taking the time to talk to him, I found out several intriguing facts. In addition to engineering, Don studied music and performance theater in college and is an excellent baritone. He has worked with several Des Moines theater companies and has been featured in several operas. In talking with Don, I realized that all too often we generalize people, and that if we take the time, everyone has a story to tell. We need only to give them the time to tell it.

UP: What do you hope people take away from your collection?

AL: One of the things I’ve always been fascinated with is simply how many people we interact with on a day-to-day basis. We often contemplate about how complicated our lives are yet fail to realize that everyone else has an equally astounding amount of complexity within their day-to-day lives. On the surface level I’d like people to appreciate the book as a piece of photographic art and enjoy a glimpse into people’s day-to-day lives. On a deeper level, it’s my wish that people take the time to contemplate the lives of people they encounter throughout their day-to-day lives and have an increased sense of empathy.

 Don, the director of the Ames power plant, sits atop one of the plant's massive turbines.

Don, the director of the Ames power plant, sits atop one of the plant’s massive turbines.

Douglas
Douglas, a retired elementary school teacher, now educates tourists in the history of Door County, Wis.
Jackie, the owner of Great Stuff, recalls some of the interesting things she's encountered throughout her time in the resale consignment business.
Jackie, the owner of Great Stuff, recalls some of the interesting things she’s encountered throughout her time in the resale consignment business.
Joanie takes a moment to recall the history of her and her husband's business.
Joanie takes a moment to recall the history of her and her husband’s business.

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