CNN Photos

Middle-class America searches for new identity

The story of a small town struggling during one of America’s worst economic periods isn’t unheard of. But when photographer Brendan Hoffman discovered Webster City, he knew it was worth exploring.

The appeal of Webster City’s story wasn’t just that the town now faced an immense uphill battle after the home appliance factory that had provided years of employment for the residents had closed.

It was that Electrolux relocated its factory to Juarez, Mexico.

Covering the Republican presidential primaries during the summer of 2011, Hoffman followed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to the Iowa town.

“We arrived early and just casually asked a local radio reporter about the town, of which we knew nothing,” Hoffman said. “The closing of the Electrolux factory was the first thing out of his mouth.”

With only a few jobs left that the newly laid-off workers were qualified for, Hoffman began to examine the “psychological” side of the story, which presented a new challenge for the photographer.

“For a relatively tight-knit community like Webster City, I feel like the fate of the town is going to rise or fall with the prevailing mood,” Hoffman said. “I'm trying to pull back from the immediate impact of the factory closure and make the story a bit more universal.”

His approach explored the meaning of middle-class America during an economic crisis and the decline of manufacturing.

The closing of a factory in Webster City became a story about questioning and finding a new identity.

Since production was moved out of the country, the federal government helps the former workers find reemployment by covering the cost of training and tuition through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

“Of course, there is a need for only so many diesel mechanics and nurses in a small town,” Hoffman said. “At this point the biggest changes are mental.”

Over the past year and a half, he has seen the residents grow weary of the jobless lifestyle. Unemployment benefits are nearing the end for some, and “it's beginning to sink in that things aren't going back to what they were any time soon.”

Hoffman has been back multiple times since his first trip and seems to find a connection to the town on a deeper level than just a subject-photographer relationship.

“Steve (McFarland), who I stay with, and his family are like my adopted family there now, which is really amazing considering we met at a bar just a year ago,” he said. “Life is less hectic (in Webster City), and I can be more focused and single-minded.”

Hoffman intends to spend a couple of weeks in Webster City immediately after the November election, but he doesn’t expect the decision to affect the town’s outlook too much.

He said he isn’t sure what the end of the story will be, but a trip to Juarez is a possibility.

“I want to see if the jobs the new factory brought to Mexico are the same type of middle class jobs that were lost in Iowa,” he said. “From everything I know about maquiladoras, they are not.”

- Clint Alwahab, CNN