Ohio Values | Daniel Mainzer

As told to Josy Jones 

Every four years, America turns its attention to Ohio. And for good reason. The Midwestern flyover state has voted for the winning presidential candidate in 29 of the last 31 presidential elections. That’s from 1896 on.

In the days before COVID-19, journalists from six news outlets from across the state came together to give local national and global audiences some advanced insights into our state’s electoral magic, straight from the people who know it best — Ohioans. All kinds.

They learned how to use the storygathering tool A Picture’s Worth and agreed to make the resulting content free and open for all to use, with credit to original sources, of course.

This audio story series, Ohio Values, is intentionally not political, although you will hear some stories that involve political topics and issues. Instead, we made an intentional choice to focus on our people, sharing photographs and stories about what they value the most, whether they’re heading into a voting booth or weathering a pandemic.

Daniel Mainzer uses his camera to capture the commonality of human beings and he values the strength of the individual. He has always been a go-getter–from getting his first camera at the age of ten, to battling cancer, he emphasizes resiliency and joy in life. Mainzer, whose Jewish parents fled the Nazis in Germany, believes that high-quality, accessible education would ease much of the current tension in the US. For his Ohio Values photo, he shares a black-and-white image of two men sitting side-by-side on a stoop — in them, he saw both contrast and shared humanity. This image was chosen for a past May Show exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Below is a partial transcript from Josy Jones’s interview with Daniel.

Listen to the audio recording here.

Read more:

That [photo] was done on a bet. When I moved [to Cleveland], they said there was a contest at The Cleveland Museum of Art called “May Show.” It’s difficult to get in. And they said, “Oh, you know, you may be good, but you can’t get in that show. It’s very hard.” I said, “Well, I could get in that show. Let’s put some money on it.: And I knocked it down from $100 to $20 and went out and gave 50 cents to each one of those guys that I photographed. I made that picture and entered the May Show and actually won a prize for it. 

Those guys were sitting there just like you see, leaning against a wall with a bottle of something in that paper bag. And I just thought they looked fantastic. To me, I call that picture integration. These were two guys. They were just so close together. You could tell they’d known each other a long time. Regardless of what you think of those guys — who most people would say, “ah, they’re a bunch of bums, you know? This and that” — to me, they project a lot of humanity. They’re still people. They feel the same as anybody else. 

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I was born in Mansfield, Ohio. My parents were immigrants [who] came over from Germany in 1938. I think they got to the United States and I was the firstborn. They were physicians there and I had a great time growing up. I had a lot of fun. We spent all our time outside. I don’t think I ever went inside except to eat. I grew to love nature. And they were very interested in art. [My mother] founded what they call the Art Guild, which is now the Art in Mansfield. She started that. And my dad was interested in photography, and that’s where I got it from. I became a commercial photographer. I’ve been in business [since] 1987. I’m pretty much retired now. 

I’m a cancer survivor, so we pretty much stay at home [during COVID-19]. There’s only two people that come over here that we know are safe. And then everything else we do on the phone. But I keep my spirits up. I watched the spring happen. There’s a hawk’s nest near our house. And the babies are growing and growing and I’m taking on myself to make an essay on until they leave the nest. 

I’m a firm believer in the individual doing it as much as they can for themselves to better themselves. And that’s where your main responsibility is. I find that you can’t really rely on much of a government for much of anything other than tax the hell out of you. As a small business owner, I paid approximately 60% of my gross earnings in some form of a tax or another, you know? That’s a big hurdle to have to clear and then make enough, you know, [to] make a living. I would like less of the government. Let the individuals make more of their own decisions to do things, you know. I believe in individuals. I believe in the power of a person to change their own circumstances — If they want to, they will, you know? It’s astonishing, and I’ve seen so many people do that. 

My family fled the Nazis, you know. They got away. Some of them didn’t make it. Some of our family was killed. Fortunately my parents… They got out early. In ‘33 they left Germany. If they’d stayed, they’d be dead. My dad got my mother’s brothers out, and her sister. But her parents, they refused to believe that Nazis were for real, and it killed them. So I never met him, never saw him. And those are some strong lessons. 

Right now everybody’s in an uproar. There’s riots and this and that. I think we need to talk more about, you know, what are the real root causes of what the unrest is in this country? What is systemic poverty and what causes it? Opportunity needs to be really expanded and has to be real for people. And all that, a lot of that, depends on a solid education for all people.

I have always used the tool of photography to try and communicate the commonality, the passion, the emotions, and the shared goodness that most people have. I’ve been able to do that with my photography and I’ll continue to do so. Photography’s a very powerful tool and I feel blessed to be able to use it this way.