A Poster for Elliot Ross
Have you seen a photograph like this before? It’s a rare breed these days. It’s not just a unique composition, with Cole’s head just shy of hitting the frame’s ceiling, and it’s not just the unbelievably dramatic natural lighting, hitting him and “his domain” with delicate intention, it’s also the message, delivered with perspective and a confident clarity. We are publishing it as a limited edition poster and it’s available here. Before Elliot Ross and his partner, writer Genevieve Allison, went on the road to Donald Trump’s inauguration, we sat down with them to talk about their upcoming US-Mexico border project, which he’s shooting as a special feature for an as-of-yet-unnamed magazine, so we asked him about this photo too.
Elliot Ross: This photograph is the last frame that I took on a long project that I did two summers ago called The Reckoning Days, on dryland wheat harvest in Northeast Colorado. I was out there for a total of two and a half months. It was a way for me to reconnect with my family. This is where I grew up, this is what we did every year. This is the climax of the year and what everything came down to. It's a make-or-break time where if there's a flood or hail or tornadoes or pests, the year's income is gone. It's very stressful. This picture is after the harvest, after it's all done, Cole is up on the grain bin looking at the corn, the next harvest, even though it's not nearly as big [as their wheat fields], at sunrise. Looking over his domain, really. The light that morning was just so fantastic.
The very first frame of the entire summer was the same thing. The light wasn't quite how I wanted it... and I knew I could do better. We kept putting it off, kept putting it off, kept putting it off... and I had a flight out of Denver, which was like three and a half hours away, and I was already late. "Oh, man, Cole! We forgot to take that picture!" So we ran up there, take it real quick, it was really grey, "man this isn't gonna work. Oh well." Right as we were about call it quits, the sun broke through the clouds and made these moving shafts of light. That way the light was in the frame was a one-off, it was just that moment and then it all went away again. It was wild and felt spiritual in a way. It was a surreal moment.
Romke Hoogwaerts: Yeah, and it seems to represent something purely American.
ER: It's the American Dream, right?
RH: The work to be done, overlooking it all.
ER: This was sunrise too, about six in the morning. Cole had already been up for two hours working. Usually they get up at four, work, come in for breakfast around seven, and then work until sunset.
RH: What do you hope to find along the American border?
ER: We hope to find a large demographic of people living along the south west who have different realities and relationships with the border. Whether it’s a binational existence, working in Mexico, or vice versa, it's important that they're all American citizens. We hope to find people who voted for Hillary, who voted for Trump, are pro-wall, anti-wall, and the reasons why. What the different aspects are in their lives that have formed their decision and how much rhetoric and the media have contributed to their decision making. We hope to learn what they want to see happen in the next four years and what would benefit them in their daily existence. So we just hope to cover the largest gamut possible in terms of the people that we encounter and to understand how this fictitious line plays such an important, or unimportant role in people's lives in the immediate proximity of the border.
RH: What do you hope not to find along the border?
Genevieve Allison: We hope that we won't find coyotes who want to steal the van! [laughs]
ER: Yeah. We're worried about cartel. Especially along a couple of different sections along Arizona, New Mexico... some of these sections are some of the most remote places that you can come across in North America. So yeah, we're worried about cartel activity, whether it's human or drug smuggling...... them taking our van or kidnapping us or those sorts of things.
RH: How close to the border will you be staying?
ER: Ideally, every night we'll be within ten miles of it. It just depends, you know, with different landscapes and different places, some places for the vast majority will be within eyesight of the border. We don't plan on talking to people who don't live immediately alongside the border. Proximity is key for this.
RH: Have you spoken with any of them yet?
ER: Yeah, we spoke with quite a few of them already. The response has been overwhelming, which has been very cool and unexpected, quite frankly. I posted a couple Craigslist ads in communities in Texas and it got lots of calls there. Then I reached out to the University of Texas in Brownsville and wrote a couple of professors in the photography and creative writing departments and they replied immediately and put us in touch with other people, who put us in touch with other people, and now we're in touch with some of the biggest advocates in the area, some of the most outspoken writers on the topic and different academics on the topic. I think we're in touch with the ultimate people possible. Some of these people like Dr. Eloisa Tamez is really well-known activist. She was born in 1985, a Lipan Apache, and her family was granted their land by the Kingdom of Spain in 1775. That's how long they've had this land for. The government built a wall through it and severed some of it from the rest of the United States. She's taken this battle all the way to the Supreme Court and the United Nations. She's still battling this.
So from her, all the way to this poor man who leased a plot of land along the border for 30 years, put his entire life savings in it, building a golf course. Not that long after its completion the government built a wall through it and he went bankrupt, he's totally screwed.
RH: How long have you been planning this project?
ER: The genesis came when we were back home at my friend's house over Thanksgiving. We were bored and spent a couple days as ideation days and through a long series of coincidences we arrived at this topic. Basically, long story short, I was sitting at a coffee shop all day working and reading about the border and at first it was about drug violence. On the plane over, the flight had free movies, and I watched Sicario. I was really surprised by how good of a movie it was, how entertained by it I was. It got me researching that topic and then I got more interested in the aspects that you can see throughout my other work, with borders and blue collar workers, and I didn't realize that a lot of the things that I was learning, like farmers being disconnected from their land, going bankrupt because of eminent domain decisions...
GA: Also, one of the main interests you were researching these border towns was how remote they are. Which country was it that was the least populated in the United States?
ER: That isn't along the border but it's not far from it. It's Loving county in Texas.
RH: That's a nice name.
ER: Yeah, we drove through it and it was actually -- can I tell this story, Gen?
GA: Yeah! [laughs]
ER: Of all counties that this one [Gen] needed to poo in...
GA: Is this recording? [laughs]
ER: ...it was the least populated county in the United States! With zero public bathrooms.
GA: For hundreds of miles.
ER: We stepped on the gas. You were driving, it's the fastest you drove the entire trip! [laughs]
...So, going back to Fort Collins and being in this coffee shop, I had been sitting there and reading about the border, the guy sitting next to me looked awfully familiar. I kept looking over to him... finally after six hours of being there, he turns to me and says "Elliot Ross! That's your name!" I said, "Griffin?" "Yeah!" We'd done robotics class together in freshman year of high school. He looked completely different. He said, "I didn't mean to look at your computer but I see that you've been reading about the border this whole time. I can tell you all about it, I just moved from there." He had lived there for five years as a teacher, so he knows families there, those dynamics, binational lives... so we spent the next few days writing this treatment and developing this idea further into something that we could talk about intelligently.
RH: Can you us tell about how your design for the van came to life?
ER: The design came to life through... well, I'm not exaggerating when I say this, nineteen years of scheming and thinking about it. This came about when I was seven. My dad's friend had one of those old camper vans that, I couldn't believe, had a little toilet. He would spend an entire summer on the road in this thing and go to different rendezvous’, and I just loved that idea of self-sustainability and freedom. This idea was borne out of that. I was taking photographs every day at that point.
RH: When you were seven? Wow!
ER: Yeah, for my seventh birthday I got a camera, a Canon 110, I absolutely loved it. My allowance was a roll of film a month. Only a photo a day. I was very careful about what I photographed!
RH: I love that idea of a roll a month.
ER: The project really didn't develop into full color until last year when I sat down with my collaborator Schuyler Burks and started drawing everything, developing the actualities of [inaudible] and what I knew that I needed from previous experiences. Being on those long road trips, all those things that I'd wished that I'd had… that’s how we identified the needs of this vehicle.
RH: There've been a lot of famous and dependable variations on the perfect photographer's road trip vehicle. Do you look to any of those from photography's past as inspiration?
ER: They've certainly been a source of inspiration but in terms of amenities I don't think any of them approached what's happening here!
RH: This is definitely unique! You must be very proud.
ER: I'll be proud when it's done and also, paid off. [laughs]
RH: So this is the first trip you'll be taking with that van, right?
ER: Yeah, this is the inaugural journey.
RH: How long is the trip going to be in all?
ER: From the start of the project, it's 1989 miles to the other end of the border, plus all the other mileage... and it's 2000 miles to get to the starting point from here. We're going to drive to Brownsville in probably two days. That'll be intense.
GA: Maybe three. [laughs]
ER: Yeah, that makes sense. [laughs] Then we'll have about two months, unfortunately I'll be gone for two weeks in the middle of that, while Gen will remain on the ground plugging away...
RH: Where will you be taking the van afterwards?
ER: Well this is up for debate right now. We're thinking about driving the length of Baja since we'll already be in San Diego, something I've long wanted to do. [After a ferry and a few other stops] depending on our time we'll be driving down to Oaxaca, Chiapas and then head back north. Or! Drive up to Alaska.
RH: Well, I'm sure can survive anything in that thing and that you have a lot of dreams for it. I'm excited to see all the photographs and everything that you make with it. Good luck on your trip!
Cole and his Domain is available as a 19x27” signed poster, limited to just 100 copies. We launched it as a #Make100 campaign, which Kickstarter invited us to join. The project will help us set up our company and as with all of our posters, 40% of these raised funds go to the photographer, which will support Elliot and Genevieve as they embark on their ambitious project along the border.
[We were planning on publishing this interview with him in a major magazine's site but after waiting too long for scheduling problems to resolve, we figured we'd just publish it on our own site. There's been some major holdups around this project meaning we unfortunately could not actively promote the campaign.]