People are disillusioned with the fact that it is so difficult to get by today. They said there is no American dream any more. This, they said, was the American reality. This was what the Danish-born photographer Joakim Eskildsen found, and in turn highlighted, when he was commissioned by Time magazine to photograph Americans living below the poverty line.
Over several months in 2011, Eskildsen visited regions that – per census data – were afflicted by the worst poverty in the country: in New York, California, Louisiana, South Dakota and Georgia. Behind the statistics, the representatives are a sundry lot – disabled veterans, the mentally ill, immigrants, single mothers, people reeling from natural disaster – sprinkled throughout diverse American topographies in cities, suburbs, and small towns. The series, American Realities, was published as a book last month.
Eskildsen was an unlikely choice for this mission: he had only been to the US once. He trained as an assistant to the photographer of the Danish Royal Court, and his previous output spans from luminous vistas of seaside communities in Portugal (Bluetide, 1997) to spirited, tender images of Roma populations in Hungary, Finland, and Greece (The Roma Journeys, 2000-2006). He’s also spent the last ten years sporadically photographing his home and surroundings in Germany as a counterpoint to his travels. You go out in the world and see so many things: a lot of hard stories and destinies, he says. When you have your own life and own family, it’s a good balance to go inwards. It was a way to turn away from the world.
Eskildsen’s outsider relationship to the US meant his initial assumptions were mostly what he had gleaned from exported pop culture. To him, America seemed almost pastiche. (It was a place that you have seen so many pictures of, and films, and songs, he says.) His expectations were overturned in both good and bad ways. Overwhelmingly, he found that people were easygoing, quick, helpful, and extremely welcoming.
The quality of life among those he met stunned Eskildsen: housing materials were appalling, and all readily available food was mass produced. He noted a sharp difference between the experiences of recently settled immigrants compared with long-established Americans. The immigrants from South America, or other places, really have a lot of culture, and in a way, a richness, Eskildsen says. Some of the Americans who’d been there several generations were not only poor in terms of money, but also culture: food culture, general culture.
In the spring, when Eskildsen completed a series in Cuba, also on assignment for Time, he said: I was sometimes thinking that I would prefer to be poor in Cuba than in America, because there’s a culture that is so present, even despite the economic situation – there’s another kind of life.
US poverty is, nonetheless, incomparable to the conditions in developing countries: poor Americans still own myriads of consumer goods, and even work – but they are stuck in precarious professional situations, mired in debt, hemmed into condemned housing in areas with high crime rates, and often limited in both nutritional choices and healthcare options. The minimum wage in the US is so low that people need several jobs to afford basics, and circumstantial changes can completely unhinge a family fiscally. Having money for a car payment one month and then not enough for food the next is the dark side of American economic mobility, Barbara Kiviat, a former staff writer for Time, remarks in the book’s afterword, in which she dismembers the cliches about American poverty. At the heart of absolutely everything is an anxiety about losing what has been gained. Moreover, there are startling, unfathomable incongruities. Notably, California farm laborers in one of the nation’s lushest agricultural regions can’t afford to buy enough food and so walk two miles to a community center to receive handouts.
Despite the hardships and melancholy, Eskildsen’s photographs are eerily beautiful. The warmth of the compositions harmonizes with the subjects’ meaningful, direct eye contact. Eskildsen only used existing light – almost Renaissance-like in its painterly softness – and a tripod. Neither forcing situations nor overstating the grim, one main condition is that you have the feeling that you want to photograph this thing, he says. The idea is to get into people’s homes, see how they live in their spaces. He continues: I wanted it to be a very humanistic portrait. They don’t look poor, or in a situation that is hard. It tells a story about how weird the system can be – this series is more of a critique of the system than the individuals.
In this way, Eskildsen takes great pains to split viewer expectations from the portraits, extricating the narratives from the visuals. The book – as with a spring show at Polka Gallery in Paris – showcases the images without pairing them with text (text exists separately in the back of the book). Eskildsen does not eschew the facts, but feels the best way to absorb visual information is through a more atmospheric reading. He edited the photos independently of their corresponding stories, creating a steadfast visual focus. When the text is there, all these senses are shut off, he states. Many of the stories are the kinds of things you’ve heard about. But the picture has more information that is difficult to explain with words.
Though the series dates from five years ago, it resonates just as strongly in today’s ever-worsening socioeconomic climate. Eskildsen says it doesn’t look so different now … It’s maybe worse. Though he feels this is a very distinguishably American in the landscape, there is a universal resonance to the malaise.
It’s a survival thing, says Eskildsen. People are so proud of America; on the other hand, they were blaming it. It has both. This feeling of ‘unfairness’ – people felt very broken. And yet, Eskildsen notes, they also supported the system. It’s a sense of safety – they don’t want to change everything. Or they don’t know what to change. You don’t see any clearer solutions: what to suggest? Not something else that doesn’t work.
News Source TheGuardianNews