In early June, four University of Nebraska-Lincoln photographers packed into a Chevy Suburban for a nine-week journey in search of the good life.
Their mission: Learn whether the recession afflicting the country was straining Nebraska, too.
Bruce Thorson, an associate professor of news-editorial at UNL, and three journalism students -- Patrick Breen, Kyle Bruggeman and Clay Lomneth -- interviewed and photographed dozens of Nebraskans while on the road.
With their 23-foot travel trailer, they visited communities from Falls City in extreme Southeast Nebraska to Gordon in the Panhandle.
The Center for Great Plains Studies and College of Journalism and Mass Communications at UNL funded the project.
The UNL Great Plains Art Museum, 1155 Q St., featured the work at an exhibition, "Searching for the Real Nebraska: A Photo Essay on the Great Recession," between Nov. 6 and Dec. 13.
The second part of the exhibition will be shown at the museum Jan. 5 to Feb. 28.
A First Friday reception is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 5.
Journal Star: How did this project get started?
Thorson: As the news reports increased about the economic downturn, people started calling it the Great Recession. As a photographer, I've always been fascinated with the photographs that were made during the Great Depression back during the '30s and early '40s.
So I had a book on my desk titled "In This Proud Land" put together by Roy Stryker, who was one of FDR's economists, and he put together probably the greatest documentary team of photographers that ever existed and they went out and documented the Great Depression.
One day, I just all of a sudden got a notion to pick up the book off my desk and I went down to the Great Plains center and walked into James Stubbendieck's office. He's the director, and I pitched him an idea I had for a project. Of course, I was expecting the "Well, thanks, but no thanks," and he liked it.
Originally, it was just going to be me making these sort of weekend voyages out into outstate Nebraska. As I thought more about it, I began to realize that if I get out someplace where there's really good subjects and good stories to tell and good photographs to make I would want to spend more time there.
And so I thought more about it, and I came up with a plan to rent a travel trailer. And that was also when I decided to invite three students along with me to do that as well.
Journal Star: Describe your mission. I know you had talked about having some themes that you had set out with wanting to look at.
Thorson: We looked at housing and banking and ethanol. ... And so we looked at those areas and thought, here is where we will go. At the same time, it was pretty much just throw caution to the wind and hit the road.
We left here on June 3 and went to Omaha. ... I wanted to start out in an area where, if something went wrong, we could get the trailer fixed, we could get more propane, we could get water, whatever. ... Within a couple of days, these guys were able to unhitch the trailer and put the jacks up and get the water running and get the electricity plugged in and get the whole thing all set up so that we were ready to go. ...
Then we went down to Falls City. We spent about four days there. We just got hammered every night with thunder, lightning, rain. The cops came out twice ... just as a courtesy to let us know there were possible tornadoes in the area.
When we went to Carleton, which is where there was an ethanol plant that had started construction and they got about 80 percent finished and then the company just pulled out. ... We pulled in there and there was an RV area but the electricity wasn't on. ... This woman was walking her dog up the street and I started talking to her and told her about the project that we were doing. She's like, "Well, what is it that you need?" I said, "I'm looking for a place to park the trailer." She said, "Well, we've got a slab of concrete right next to our garage. You can park it right there." Her husband came out and hooked us up with electricity and brought us all a round of Guinness.
Bruggeman: It was the first time I had had a real shower in about a month.
Journal Star: Describe some of the challenges of being on the road and being stuck in a trailer with three other guys and just trying to get people to talk to you.
Thorson: For Kyle and Patrick and Clay, I think it was an enormously growing experience of just parachuting into these small towns and hitting the streets and trying to figure, OK, where's the story? How do I find a story? ... For myself, it was an opportunity to do a project. I was in newspapers for 25 years, I never did a project like this where I was just on the road for nine weeks.
Because I'm disabled (he's missing most of his right arm) ... the part of the project for myself was to do other people with disabilities. Up until about halfway through, that was my focus.
Unless they win a wheelchair race or a Special Olympics, they don't have a voice. In Falls City, I went to the postmaster because I thought, Who better knows the area than the postmaster? ... She immediately called in one of her carriers and she said, Oh yeah, there's this woman out in Barada. ... She had a stroke and she has a wheelchair and she runs this grocery store. So we went out to meet her and I had kind of heard that she was sort of cantankerous.
A lot of times I would walk in without my cameras, just to strike up a conversation. So I walked in and introduced myself to her and then I looked at her and I said, Do you remember me? So she looked and she was searching the memory banks. She's like, No, I don't think I do. I don't think I remember you at all. And I said, That's good because we never met. And right then, we just hit it off. She just started laughing. So I photographed her.
It was just people like that were just amazing, just amazing.
Journal Star: Talk a little bit about what you found as far as the recession's effects and what impact the recession is having on rural Nebraska.
Thorson: Mary Howard, she's the one that had a stroke, runs the grocery down in Barada. She remembers the Depression and she said during the Depression people were worried about what they had to eat and during the recession people are worried about whether they have enough money. ... These little towns are fairly well insulated. The businesses thrive, to whatever extent they thrive, regardless of what is going on out in the rest of the United States because they're local, they have their own clientele. For the most part, that doesn't change.
What we did find was that people were doing less travel and, just for the most part, staying closer to home and not spending as much money.
Bruggeman: We found that agribusiness is doing well. One, there's a lot of government subsidies for that. So, obviously, farmers are fairly well off. But ethanol was one thing that we did find wasn't doing too well. Obviously, that was kind of a market thing. At the time it wasn't quite as profitable to make ethanol.
You know we talked to a lot of banks, but obviously all the banks there are very heavily involved with agribusiness so they, too, weren't hurting very much.
Journal Star: Describe some of the lessons that you learned from different people, maybe even just beyond the lessons of the recession's impact, kind of life lessons, I guess.
Bruggeman: A lot of these small towns, they don't have big movie theaters, art houses, Broadway plays, all the things that people in big cities depend on to entertain themselves after they get off of work. They find happiness in the smaller things in life. I really learned from that that it's more than just the entertainment values of the latest craze of the Internet that make people happy. Sometimes it's family, friends, the home you live in and the dogs you raise, to even crops, just being a farmer and having land that you raised by your hands is something that makes them happy and that's what they live by.