The New Americans – Photo Portraits

How do you capture a person’s essence in just a few key moments? At best, it’s a difficult assignment, but two photographers, Zach Domes and Elle Wildhagen, were determined to try. Last year they traveled America to create photo portraits of everyday Americans.

Zach Domes and Elle Wildhagen, from the Adobe Create Magazine site

They weren’t looking to make social commentary or show people struggling with life’s misfortunes. Rather, hoping for inspiration and uplift, they searched for Americans who had found a way to steer their lives in a positive direction. It was their stories Zach and Elle wanted to tell.

A Portrait of Today’s Americans

Elle, from the site:

With all the bad news we see on a daily basis, Zach and I began wondering what a portrait of America actually looks like today. We wanted the good news to be just as public as the bad. It was partly an investigation to find the good, hoping it was just as prevalent, as well as a chance to travel the country for 2 months, exploring and celebrating the landscape.

The results, 20 photo essays with audio interviews, were featured in Adobe Create Magazine as The New Americans. Here’s one:

Diana, Navigating Risks

Or click here for Diana’s video.

Zach comments:

Diana said that one of the most important things that rock climbing has taught her is how to fail. She has learned how to take on challenges and when to quit them. But, by quitting them she isn’t giving up. Every climb will teach you what you can and cannot do. Climbing shows you what you’re made of and what you have to learn. Even more importantly, though, learning how to take risks while climbing has taught her how to take risks in life too.

Following Robert Frank’s Photo Journey

Zach and Elle’s photo and audio portraits were inspired by a similar journey taken 60 years ago by renown photographer Robert Frank. A Swiss immigrant, Frank traversed the country with his outsider’s eye, capturing America’s contradictions and re-defining documentary photography with his acclaimed photo portraits, The Americans.

Zach and Elle, from their site:

Dozens of our friends connected us to people they were inspired by. We left our home in San Francisco to embark on a 6-week road trip around the United States to meet these inspiring Americans in person. Our goal was to do what media often doesn’t do: To share stories that are simple, yet inspiring. And to tell them in an honest way.”

Zai, Fabricating Her Art

Or click here for Zai’s video.

From Zai’s site:

Elektra Steel produces bold, mosaic wall hangings. The company is run by designer and metalworker Zai Divecha, a Bay Area native and Yale graduate who learned to weld at age 14. Her specialty is TIG welding, a type of arc welding that’s known for its precision, control, and flexibility.

From Zai’s site:

“Glitch”    Materials: stainless steel, hot-rolled mild steel, steel flatbar, plywood  48″x 24″

A Few Words About Process

Elle, from the Adobe Create site:

We arrived not knowing any of these people, and then we’d spend two days with them in their home, with their families—so it was very immersive in that way. We tried not to have any strict roles, so we could stay as open as possible to the story and make them feel as comfortable as possible.

Zach, from the 100 cameras site:

Sharing any work you create means that you have to be vulnerable. You are sharing a part of yourself, a part of your soul. Even though we tried to share people’s stories in pure form, who we are as artists surrounds the work itself…

Lillian, From Lawyer to Rancher

Or click here for Lillian’s video.

Zach comments on Lillian’s story:

Max, known as the last original cowboy by most of the locals, introduced Lillian to most of Pony’s longtime residents. We had a chance to meet some of their friends at the only bar in town that night. After hanging out with everyone inside it was easy to see why Lillian had always wanted to move here.

Robert Frank, Capturing America in the 1950s

In his seminal work, The Americans, Robert Frank uncovered a darker, more alienated vision of America.

“Canal Street – New Orleans” by Robert Frank

Many of his portraits evoke the space that separated us, one from the other.

“Chattanooga, Tennessee” by Robert Frank

“Charleston, South Carolina” by Robert Frank

Perhaps his most famous portrait also graces the cover of The Americans. It captured a vision of the segregated South, encapsulated in the windows of a New Orleans trolley.

“Trolley – New Orleans” by Robert Frank

Telling Stories

Frank shot dozens of images for each one that made it into his book. The photographs he chose evoke a vanished dream, forlorn hope or whispered secret that belied the rosy picture of life in America after WWII. In every case, Frank let the picture tell the story.

Zach and Elle’s work doesn’t rise to that level of complexity. Still, their stories give us a glimpse of people searching for something better – a more meaningful way to spend their days.

Frank’s imagery is lyrical but stark – exploring the underbelly of a different era in America. Zach and Elle paint romantic, optimistic portraits – one person finds their challenge in climbing, another in art, another leaves a lucrative but deadening existence for the natural beauty and warmth of community in rural Montana.

The last video I’d like to share features a couple who’ve discovered an intimacy with nature and each other. They’ve broadened their horizons by living in a very small space. It’s one of life’s contradictions – that by leaving the comfort and security of the familiar, we may find romance, adventure and a sense of fulfillment by traversing the unknown.

Greg and Kathleen’s Small Pleasures

I’ll let Zach introduce their photo portrait of Greg and Kathleen.


What began as a simple idea turned into a reality when they moved out of their apartment and into the newly bought camper RV. The smallness was actually a joy for them. Having also lived in a tiny home for a year I can definitely say that there is something about the struggle of living in a tiny space that makes life more interesting and delightful.

Or click here for Greg and Kathleen’s video.

Kathleen has a blog that explores the living-in-a-van lifestyle. On her site, I found this enticing photo essay, reminding me of a delicious summer long ago spent traveling across America.

After watching these portraits of new Americans, I feel like I’ve met some people I’d like to know better. As for Zach and Elle, they plan to embark on another New Americans photo journey this December.

What is your take on the videos? Are these life-changing journeys only possible for the young or young at heart? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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Up From Addiction: Portraits of Courage

What would you see if you turned addiction upside down? Being a recovering addict yourself, and a woman, what if you captured images of other women who overcame addiction’s clutching demons? You would hope, by telling their stories, you might reach some of the 200,000 women who may die this year from their addiction and remind them there are those who were able to make it to the “other side.”

Introducing Rocio de Alba

Rocio de Alba

I’d like to introduce you to Rocio de Alba and her photo series on women who have been sober for ten years or more, “There is a Crack in Everything.” From the NYT Lens Blog:

“I celebrated nine years of sobriety Dec. 29, 2016. I nurture my recovery like a newborn child. I attend a 12-step program, therapy, and practice unconventional forms of meditation or prayer. People who survive the claws of addiction are considered miracles, because long-term recoveries are rare and addiction is on the rise.”

“For me, it’s clear the odds are against us. Ten years of recovery is nothing compared to the millions who die. It is the sporadic and humble success of my exemplars that inspires my recovery and this project.”

There’s a Crack in Everything

The photos of women and their stories are from her site and the NYT Lens Blog.

B.C.G. in Long Island, N.Y. She has been sober since 2001.

B.C.G: “I tried desperately to drink myself to oblivion daily because I didn’t want to feel all those painful emotions I tried to ignore all my life. People say that addicts are weak and have no willpower. If it were that easy, I’d have been sober 40 years by now, believe me. The truth is choosing sobriety has been the most empowering change I’ve ever made.”

Rocio wants to show an image of each woman that explodes the typical portrayal of addicts as “haggard, perpetually in angst and destitute.” She saw the project as a collaboration and asked each woman to pick the location for the photo shoot.

Rocio: “Some choose a space that brings them peace and comfort. One subject wanted to be photographed in the last place where she woke up from in a drunken stupor.”

Karen, in Forest Hills Park, Queens. She has been sober since 1997.

Karen: “I’ve walked through a death, moves to various states, childbirth, miscarriage, marriage, changing jobs, losing my husband overnight, illness and more. The gift is that I can face adversity head-on and not duck out. I can be present for myself, family and friends. I take responsibility for my actions today. I don’t steal, lie or cheat. I am dependable, reliable and loyal. I am strong and I am courageous.”

Alanna, in Forest Hills, Queens. She has been sober since 2006.

Alanna: “When I started my sober journey I really thought life was over. This was the lie I told myself again and again, as I agonized over what to do about this problem of mine. Ten years later I can tell you that I have found a freedom and happiness that I was unaware existed.”

“An Independent yet Miraculous Transformation”

From the Lens Blog:

Rocio: “The only criterion was they had to be sober for 10 years or more. It seems an independent yet miraculous transformation occurs within each woman during that time period. Not everyone reaches this milestone, and even if they do, without constant vigilance a relapse is almost inevitable — in fact, some of my subjects experienced repeated relapses and near-death experiences before they found solace in recovery.”

Ms. Bailey, in Massachusetts. She has been sober since 1958.

Ms. Bailey: “I’m grateful for everything that has ever happened to me. I have outlived so many dear friends and family members. I caused so much suffering to my children but Lord knows I’ve worked effortlessly to redeem myself to them and so here I am in Massachusetts with my beautiful daughter and her husband taking care of me. We do a lot of damage as addicts, but it’s like I have always said, from scars make stars.”

from Rocio’s site

Art Saves Lives

On the site Art Saves Lives International, Rocio describes how her journey as an artist became an antidote to the emotional turmoil fueling her addiction:

Rocio de Alba, from her site


“It wasn’t until I studied Claude Cahun and Nan Goldin’s work that I realized I could use art as a way to overcome personal difficulties. Many times during a panic attack, state of deep depression or a moment of anxiety, I can simply pick up my camera, begin photographing, and it’s almost as if I am transported into a mental state of mind that is soothing and authentic to my inner self.”

Alice. Kew Gardens, Queens. She has been sober since 2002.

Alice: “Whenever I feel overwhelmed in life and I feel like giving up or using, I go for a jog or a walk — rain or shine. All the world’s troubles just seem to melt away.”

“Always a Good Reason…”

I’ve had some experience with addiction; I was a dedicated cigarette smoker for many years of my life. Back then, there was always a good reason to light up. Cigarettes were tightly wrapped around my sense of myself and what I was about. You could even say cigarettes defined me, as any random thought or feeling would call up the desire to reach for the next smoke.

It took years and many, many failed efforts to finally quit. I’m not trying to equate my experience with Rocio or the women she honors in her photographs. I’m just mentioning it here because addiction in one form or another plagues so many people and the ones fortunate to come out the other side have struggled mightily to get there. That’s one reason I find her portraits so rewarding.

Rocio’s Other Art Projects

Rocio has other conceptual photo projects on her site that are worth exploring. Some projects remind me of other photographers who explore identity and stereotype,  Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee, as she inserts herself into her emotionally tinged imagery.

“Falling to Pieces” from her project Girl Anachronism

“Sinking” from Girl Anachronism

Rocio de Alba, from her site


“To choose a career as an artist means you are willing to let go of all those fantasies and work from the heart to create work you are proud of and hope that it somehow connects to an audience and maybe even touches someone.”



More than anything, we humans are a crazy stew of emotions, sometimes pain and all those turbulent feelings, sometimes joy and that lightness of being. That’s why I wanted to end with that photo of Rocio. To remind us that so much is possible if you are “willing to work from the heart to create work you are proud of…”


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Summer’s Choice: Chasing the Ghost of the American Dream

When we meet Summer Jordan in the short video, Summer’s Choice, she’s a high school senior facing a terrible dilemma.


Summer Jordan, from “Summer’s Choice”

Her father’s dead, mother lost to drugs, so Summer lives with her ailing grandmother in a small California desert town. She’s a talented artist but her grandmother’s health and finances are failing and Summer feels guilty about leaving to pursue her dream of attending art school.


Summer Jordan, from “Summer’s Choice”

It’s often said that education can offer a path out of poverty, but poverty pushes kids to drop out even before they finish high school. That dilemma is at the core of the video Summer’s Choice, created by two talented filmmakers, Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.


Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton, from the Toronto Film Scene site

From the Toronto Film Scene site:

Keith Fulton: It’s almost impossible for these kids to change their situation. They don’t have any money. They don’t have any emotional support. They don’t have stable places to live and places to get a meal. These problems make it hard to make school a priority for them.

Lou Pepe: There’s a strong sense with these kids that by the time they turned 18, they’ve witnessed and dealt with problems most Americans will never experience.


Summer’s hands, from “Summer’s Choice”

The filmmakers, writing on the NYT Op-Docs site:

We take kids who can’t seem to stay on track and write them off, dismissing them with summary labels. It’s simpler that way — if we know what they are, we don’t really have to think about why. So more often than not, the roots of a “bad kid’s” difficulties are left unexplored, as they would most likely force us to look at histories of abuse, neglect, abandonment, addiction or possibly even that huge unspoken problem that plagues our public education system: intractable, generational poverty.

The Video

If the video does not appear, click here.

Summer’s Choice was part of a larger documentary project by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.

The Bad Kids


from “The Bad Kids”

Their feature documentary, The Bad Kids, is an intimate portrait of several students from Summer’s high school and the adults who try to help them turn their lives around. I haven’t seen The Bad Kids, but given the strength of Summer’s Choice, it’s bound to be an emotionally powerful documentary.


from the ion cinema site

Here’s what the filmmakers have to say about how they collaborated on location, from an interview in Filmmakers Magazine

Pepe: Keith picked up the boom and mixer and did all of the sound recording, so we worked as a two-person camera/sound team. The advantage of this was that while I would be in-the-moment with the drama unfolding in front of the camera, Keith was always able to tip me off to the action happening behind me. Keith has a strong editorial eye, so he’s always whispering to me to grab the shot that he knows I haven’t noticed yet but that we’ll need in the editing room.

Every day in the course of 120 shooting days, for at least a few minutes, I would set off alone in search of “poetry.” A lot of times, I would come back empty-handed, but on some occasions, I would capture precious moments that gave a really intimate view of our subjects’ lives: a student trying his best to stay awake but falling asleep during class… a couple making out in a corner of the hallway… a boy staring at himself in the hallway mirror… a silent hug of comfort between two friends.

My thoughts on Summer’s Choice


photo from NYT site

Summer’s Choice is beautifully realized, with quiet insights and great photography. The filmmakers’ compassionate, watchful eye makes Summer’s dilemma all the more immediate. The cinema verite style helps create an intimate portrait of a young person on the edge, yet with her inner strength and resilience, it has a hopeful, positive sensibility. Youth is often optimistic, but as adults, we can see how the cards are stacked against kids like Summer. You want her to beat the odds, but will she?

If nothing else, documentaries like this show how the American Dream has become more of a phantom for many of our fellow Americans. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment.




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Prowling the Dupont Underground

I recently had a chance to explore an abandoned site under Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle. Dupont Underground is promoting the site as a performing space for “cutting-edge arts, architecture, design and creative endeavors.” They made it available to our group of  urban explorers and about 12 of us went down to check it out and take some photos.


urban explorers photo by Liz Roll

I probably took about 200 photos down there and spent some time later editing them down to just a handful. I wanted the photos to express a feeling about the space, rather than just document it. I ended up with a mix and here are some of my favorites:



This was part of a sculpture that was abandoned there.



Inside the sculpture.


The underground station opened in 1942 and was originally designed for street cars. They would discharge their passengers here, below Dupont Circle. Walkways led to the mix of streets above. Everything is closed off now and, except for a few months here and there, has been shuttered since 1962. You can read a Washington Post story about the history of the space here.


This is what remains of a fanciful installation by a team of architects.


One of the tunnels to nowhere.


When the underground streetcar station was in operation. Washington Post photo


I love how the light plays on the tile and rusted ironwork.



img_1114 img_1148











This fanciful composition I discovered at the entrance is just part of a rusted iron grating.

As you can imagine, it takes creativity, vision and persistence to transform a Dupont Underground into something we can all use and enjoy. Still, it was not too long ago that the Highline in New York was an abandoned, rusting hulk. Now it’s a major attraction for visitors and residents of the city. I hope The Dupont Underground can do something similar here in DC and wish them well in their effort to create a haven for makers and creatives. They have events there from time to time, so if you’re interested, check out their site.

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