Elaine Cromie has broken five pairs of glasses in the last several years. She’s moved from the small town of Hayden, Colorado, overlooking the mountains, to the humming, factory-filled city of Tijuana, Mexico. She’s now found herself in Detroit, on the Canadian border. Which is all to say that she’s been looking hard at what’s going on around her.
“I was exposed to photography from a really young age, because it was part of my grandparents’ lives, and they were privileged enough, or lucky enough, to have cameras in the house. On both side of the family, we have a lot of photographs,” she said.
Her father’s dad, a U.S. Air Force photographer, used to show her aerial shots from his stints in Japan and Vietnam. His mother’s dad, an amateur photographer, handed her stacks of National Geographic Magazines whenever she drove to visit him. She used to admire he portraits they had taken of her grandmothers, in their hometowns in Okinawa and Puerto Rico.
Elaine’s the kind of person who is hesitant to insert herself into the middle of a room, but is watching intensely from the sidelines. By the time she had graduated from a news writing at UC-Boulder, she started working on extensive projects about other people’s families’: a brutal series on the U.S. veterans stranded in Tijuana, and later a tender portrait collection of children affected by gun violence, including those who had shot themselves.
A professor, Kevin Moloney, had told her that photography was not an easy profession, but she had to learn the hard way that you have to be inventive on the job.
“I was lucky that he also said, ‘It’s not really lucrative, so you have to hustle. You have to diversify your income. You have to teach—and I don’t think I took that seriously,” she said.
The hustle has already taken her far. She has published with The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, The Detroit Free Press, NBC, Vice, CNN, and AFP. She works at times for local newspapers, for example for her documentary projects in Detroit, and then imagines more geographically expansive projects, such as one comparing automotive factory workers there and in Ciudad Juarez.
For now, she’s focused on photographing responsibly and becoming a collaborator with people in the communities she’s documenting. She’s got a socially conscious bent to her journalism, following the work of photographers such as L.A.’s Oriana Koren, who is focused on workers in global food production, and N.Y.C’s Miranda Barnes, who has documented black communities in America.
When she was younger, she had not imagined that being a photojournalist was even in a profession. But Elaine has gone back to those early family photographs. They made her consider what it is to be a generous witness to all the people in her stories.
Maya Averbuch, 2019 US-Mexico Border Fellow