With compassionate, authentic work that touches the heart and mind, Michelle Frankfurter’s career has encompassed the impact of the Contra War on Nicaraguans to the desperate poverty and addiction in the Ohio River valley region.
Her book, Destino, an intimate look at the journey of migrants from their homelands in Central America through Mexico to the United States, was a finalist for the FotoEvidence Book Award in 2012.
In this interview with Focus on the Story, Frankfurter discusses her beginnings as a social documentary photographer while as a photojournalist in Syracuse in upstate New York. She also offers insights into her work process and career, along with a brief preview of her upcoming workshop, Expose, in which she will show participants the methods to develop a book project from start to finish, with a strong emphasis on producing work that focuses on stories designed to raise social awareness.
Mike Lee: What inspired you to become a documentary photographer, and how did that drive effect you personally as you moved forward in your career?
Michelle Frankfurter: I started my career as a newspaper photographer in my hometown of Syracuse, New York. While working at the Syracuse Herald-Journal and Post Standard, I spent about a year documenting the life of a young woman who grew up on the city’s impoverished West Side.
When I met her, she was topless dancing at a strip club in the working class suburb of Solvay. This was my introduction to the long-term project. Through the process of working on this story, I realized I was more interested in the immersive experience of developing a narrative than cranking out daily assignments.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have that luxury and so I ended up working on the project mostly on my own time, around my newspaper job, which became exhausting. I was also growing restless and bored, having lived most of my life in Syracuse. So in early 1988, I quit my job at the paper and traveled to Guatemala to study Spanish. I spent the next three years in Nicaragua, first working with a human rights organization and then as a stringer with the British news agency, Reuters.
Afterwards, I settled in Washington, DC working as a freelance photojournalist for various newspapers and magazines. It was in 1993 when I traveled to Haiti, however, that I realized definitively how I wanted to function as a photographer: by balancing the work I did for a living, with my own personal projects. Editorial work, unfortunately, never afforded the opportunity to juggle both freelance and personal work: either I was too busy shooting daily assignments, or I wasn’t busy at all, yet had no funds. So I transitioned to photographing weddings for a living. I found I could apply my documentary aesthetic to wedding photography and in turn, the commissions served as miniature grants that collectively began subsidizing my personal work.
Lee: In the work you create, explain the value of trust in working with your subjects. What suggestions do you have when approaching and then becoming an observing participant documenting the lives of the people whose lives you document?
Frankfurter: Trust is paramount. During the nineties, I did a lot of freelance work for a news service that no longer exists. One of my biggest frustrations was the get in/get out, parachute approach to the stories we did. I think the most amount of time we ever spent on a story in any given place was about 3-5 days, which sounds like a lot now. But it takes a lot of time and commitment to build trust and forge relationships.
Despite having traveled extensively, I am no globetrotter. I’ve really only been to handful of places, but I believe in returning to those same places over and over again, getting to know a region well, while developing a degree of cultural fluency.
I started traveling to Central America in the late 1980’s, learned to speak Spanish fluently, and then continued building on that experience. Being fluent in a language is tremendously helpful in breaking down barriers. I was comfortable working by myself and dealing with people directly, instead of having to rely on fixers or other intermediaries.
Lee: What drew you to covering the Mexico-U.S. border, documenting the mass migration?
Frankfurter: Initially, I was inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy. I was drawn to the frontier edginess of the region along the US – Mexico border. Later, I read Sonia Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book,
Enrique’s Journey is about undocumented Central American adolescents whose mothers had left them when they were very young to look for work in the United States. Predominantly from El Salvador and Honduras, these mostly teenage boys traveled by rail across Mexico in search of their mothers in the United States.
Along the way, they faced a multitude of dangers. The book had a profound impact on me. Although a work of nonfiction, the narrative was so compelling that in many ways, it read like an epic adventure tale.
Lee: What is your next book project. Is it Bloodbuzz? If so, tell us what you learned in the process of documenting the intense poverty and social collapse in the Ohio River valley.
Frankfurter: Bloodbuzz was funded by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. As such, it fell somewhere between personal and commissioned work. At the moment, I have no plans on developing it further. Because I tend to pursue projects for a long time, I need to find something redemptive in the subject matter and unfortunately, this particular theme of economic and social collapse felt like a bottomless pit of despair.
Lee: You’ll be discussing your experiences and offering advice in your upcoming talk. Could you highlight some of the points you’ll be making this June?
- The importance of finding and trusting your own voice.
- Being an expert in your area of interest,
- Having passion for your subject and your work.
- Looking to influences outside of photography for inspiration.
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.