“What does democracy mean?” It’s one of those exasperating questions, like “what is art?” Both questions remind you that the dictionary definition is less a comprehensive explanation than a placeholder for centuries-old debates.
Photographer Andrea Bruce was asked the first question in 2003 by a woman who was working as a prostitute in Iraq to support her children after her husband was killed by a bomb.
“My answer had to do with the Bill of Rights, and it made no sense to her whatsoever,” says Bruce. She had been assigned to cover the war in Iraq and its impact on civilians as a staff photographer for The Washington Post. During the following years that took her to conflict zones across the globe, that question about democracy would continue to dog her.
Andrea Bruce left the Post as a staff photographer in 2009 to gain more flexibility to take on long-term projects. Her work has been carried by outlets ranging from The New York Times and National Geographic to the photojournalism collectives VII and NOOR, the latter of which she currently belongs to.
Her photographs have earned numerous accolades, including the Overseas Press Club John Faber Award and several Pictures of the Year International awards, and the White House News Photographers Association named her Photographer of the Year four times. Bruce has also received two awards named for fellow conflict photographers who lost their lives on the job: the 2018 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award and the 2012 inaugural Chris Hondros Fund Award for the “commitment, willingness and sacrifice shown in her work.”
Her work is also marked by the empathy she brings to her subjects, as well as a determination not to turn away from hard truths, no matter how ugly or mundane. She has photographed the violence of war, prostitutes at work and girls being subjected to female genital mutilation. She traveled to India, Vietnam and Haiti to cover a vital issue that may be the most unglamorous subject known to photojournalism—sanitation and public defecation—and won a Pictures of the Year International award for the body of work she produced.
To all of her images, Andrea Bruce brings a keen eye for light and human expression. Her poignant use of chiaroscuro in many images is a reminder that in photojournalism, aesthetic techniques can be used not just to make striking pictures but also to draw us in close to people we’ll never meet and illuminate their experiences.
Everywhere Bruce traveled to capture those images, the inquisitiveness about democracy popped up like a leitmotif.
“People kept asking this question—in Egypt during the revolution, or in Afghanistan and Mexico and Liberia,” she says. “It seems like the definition of this word overseas is very different from place to place.” People appeared to think that as an American, she’d have a ready answer, but she was never satisfied with the explanations she came up with. “I wondered what people in the United States think this word means,” she recalls. So after more than a dozen years covering conflicts, disasters and social issues overseas, Bruce decided to come home and find out.
She applied for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard to spend a year studying political theory and ideas of democracy. Her fellowship year turned out to be one of the most contentious in recent American political life, 2016. Over the course of the year, Bruce drew on her academic work and discussions with scholars to plan a collaborative multimedia project called Our Democracy, with the goal of exploring what democracy means to people in the United States through in-depth reporting on communities across the country.
“And then [President Donald] Trump was elected,” she says, “and I was like, ‘Oh, well this is even more interesting to me now.’” She kicked the project off right after the election. “This is what I think is needed right now,” she says. “I want to show how people are wrestling with ideas of democracy and community and citizenship.”
Andrea Bruce spends two weeks at each location she covers, accompanied by two assistants, her mother and her baby daughter. She and her assistants hold community discussions, take photographs, conduct interviews and invite community members to contribute their own photos to an Instagram feed called @ourdemocracy. They also host a “Democracy Dinner” near the end of their stay, inviting community members they’ve met to join them for a meal and some lively conversation.
During the 2016 presidential race, Bruce noticed a disconnect between how national media covered the United States and what she saw for herself when she went back to the small towns in North Carolina and Indiana where she had grown up. She wants to avoid that kind of problem in her own work.
“I want to approach journalism in a different way, a way that’s actually an old way, a community journalism style,” she says. That means going into the community and talking with people before she starts to shoot. “This is an approach that we use overseas all the time,” she explains. “We really get involved with the community, and we talk to fixers and translators and drivers and community people to try to battle the idea of clichés and stereotypes that are so easy to fall back on when you’re covering a country that is not yours.”
As it turns out, that approach is pretty effective for covering a country that is yours, too. In fact, it’s the kind of community journalism Andrea Bruce practiced early in her career before she went abroad. But during her years away, local journalism continued its steep 21st-century decline, and by the time she came home, many areas outside of major cities had no journalists left at all. Local papers that still exist are often filled with notices and syndicated content. Most people she meets traveling across the United States now tell her they’ve never met a journalist before.
“When people talk about democracy and how they would change the community they live in…the media is never mentioned,” she says. “Using journalism, in general, is just not something people think about.”
Even when she talked with students at an affluent high school in San Francisco, she found that they didn’t consider the media to be a useful resource. “There’s this idea of mistrust everywhere, not just in rural areas,” she says. Demonstrating the role that journalists can play by listening to people’s ideas and concerns, and generating community discussions, has become one of the unintended purposes of the project.
Andrea Bruce usually begins her conversation with each community at a high school, since schools often lie at the center of community life. “When you start with them, you hear a lot about what people are thinking about, even from the students and the teacher,” she says. Although the framework for her project grew out of scholarly research and is informed by thinkers like the 19th-century political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, she stays away from political theory abstractions and national politics in these conversations.
Instead, she comes to each group with just three questions. “They’re very simple, and they don’t use the word democracy,” she explains. She asks what people like about their community, what they’d like to change about it, and how they’d go about making that change. The conversations her questions generate help her shape her coverage and identify other groups to approach. “I start to get into the community that way and then start covering the issues that they’re all talking about,” she explains.
She has ended up talking with and photographing a wide variety of subjects, from business people and nonprofit groups to veterans to ex-offenders and gang members. And the early discussions don’t just point her in relevant directions; she says they also make her photojournalism better. “Those discussions mostly help dispel clichés and stereotypes that I have in my head,” she says. “You can’t help but have things like that when you go to a community that you’ve never been to before.”
Unfortunately, that kind of commitment to avoiding preconceptions can make a project like Our Democracy hard to sell to media outlets that want to know what they’ll be getting when they sign a contract.
“It really is something that’s defined by each community, and you can’t pre-visualize it,” says Bruce. The project also loses media marketability because it doesn’t fit neatly into a content category. “It’s audience engagement and education and media literacy and reporting and photography,” says Bruce, “and so when I try to explain this project to magazines and newspapers, they just can’t get there.”
She ended up finding support for the project through grants from the National Geographic Society and the visual storytelling funder CatchLight instead. Bruce and her team are planning to go to a new location each month until the grant money runs out. In between trips, they’re editing the work into a book, a traveling exhibit, content for the ourdemocracyproject.com website and a curriculum that schools can use when they’re teaching about de Tocqueville or ideas of democracy, especially during the 2020 election year.
But Bruce stresses the nonpartisan nature of Our Democracy. “We really are trying not to take political sides,” she says. “This is actually trying to bridge the divide in our country.”
If she’s on the side of anything, it’s the power of community journalism to help us get closer to the truth. In a documentary project like Our Democracy, she says, that means listening to and giving an honest portrayal of people with all kinds of different perspectives.
“It comes down to the same thing it comes down to when I’m covering international news,” she says, “which is everyone has a shared humanity. Most people go to school. Most people have jobs. Most people have dinner, at some point, somehow. And where you have your power in your daily life in this shared humanity is the main starting point of photographing people and not just showing how messed up people are or what makes people different than other people. And that’s hard, because it’s also kind of making life more boring, not exoticizing people, which is sometimes hard to sell when you’re a freelance photographer. I’m showing daily life and daily struggles, and sometimes that’s not sexy, and sometimes it’s not the answer that people are looking for. But it’s the reality, as close as I can get there.”