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Fall 2022

Published by the Social Documentary Network

Who We Are: Photography and the American Experience by Stephen Mayes

and the 

by Stephen Mayes

"The American Dream” has always been an aspirational phrase, founded on the promise of economic opportunity (think white picket-fenced homes) and an idea that all people who live here are free and equal. For over a hundred years, photography has tried to document this ideal: showing who we are, demonstrating our achievements, marking our failures and inspiring our hopes, making visible for all to see across divisions of geography, class and political persuasion. But, today in the 21st century, the meaning of the American Dream has been obfuscated, reduced to hollow political messaging from both sides of the aisle, making it even harder to have a clear picture of what America really is and what it looks like.


In the 20th century, America was a story told with the simplicity of single images in an age when the nation’s eyes could be focused collectively and simultaneously on one front page, a national story that was led by the unified drum beat of mass media that drove the news agenda.


One story followed another in a more or less choreographed progression as the media gathered itself around each new issue and gave it shape in the public eye. This was the age of the iconic image, when a single photograph would find itself exposed to everyone at the same moment, and in feeling the moment, the viewers would imbue meaning in the image beyond the simple facts represented. This was America.

zeke magazine photo by susan ressler

Photograph by Susan Ressler

ZEKE magazine photo by Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. Florence Thompson, 32, a pea picker and mother of seven children. Nipomo, CA. 1936. Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Now, as we look back, some of these images have withstood time and still stand as symbols of the national will for progress, the celebration of achievement as well as moments of unified national despair. A migrant mother, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, a Saigon street execution, a video grab of a Black motorist being assaulted by a group of LA police officers and a flag raising at Ground Zero. Each of these widely known images evokes not just an American story but also conjures a host of references and associated emotions representing the spirit of the times. While speaking truths there is also a danger that such icons compress the narrative too much, simplifying complex stories and reducing the rich weave of history to clichés, assumptions and stereotypes.


For a nation that’s still less than 250 years old, one could think of 20th century America as still an adolescent culture, disguising its insecurities in consistent dress codes: the U.S. flag was (and still is) everywhere, marking everything and everybody as members of a new and strong nation. In this context the iconic images were appropriately powerful and told a simplified story, as would be appropriate for an adolescent sensibility. This broad-stroke overview of America’s cultural bones is of course itself greatly simplified and takes no account of the many amazing internecine interventions by the likes of Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, Gordon Parks and Susan Meiselas to name just a few of the hundreds of extraordinary 20th century photographers, each of whom contributed era-identifying imagery to our history.

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But the American experience was never a homogenous unity and while the 20th century icons told a truth, it was only a partial truth and the shortcomings became clearer. Although the number of photographs made and published expanded enormously towards the end of the century, the emergence of popular tropes and approved narratives that were often defined by the proclivities of mass media and their advertisers continued to simplify the story. Broadly speaking, society was represented visually into two categories: winners and losers, shown visually as symbols of achievement or broken hopes, the doers and the done-to, the haves and have-nots. This narrowed field of visual references appeared to present a complete landscape of American life but actually served to limit expectations of what American life might be. We now understand the visual representation of the American Dream to be grievously lacking in the expression of the experiences of women, LGBTQ+, Indigenous peoples and that of people of color, all historically excluded groups in the national visual culture.

Photo by Lori Grinker from 9/11

Photograph by Lori Grinker. Firefighters raise the flag at Ground Zero. New York City, September 11, 2001.

It’s important here to distinguish between the representation of, and the representation by “we, the people” in the American story. There are many images of women through the 20th century as there are of people of color, but if we’re honest, the dominant visual story is of exploitation, deprivation and pain, falling far short of the rich, full reality of life. Some pictures have acquired deeper truth simply with the passage of time. For example many images of Jim Crow lynchings were produced as postcards celebrating the acts of violence (one extreme of the American gestalt) but they have recently reemerged as the first signs of a remorseful acknowledgement of past wrongs, demonstrating the possibility that photographs (even the same photographs) can embrace the contradictions and complexities of American life. But there is much further to go.

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In reflecting on the alarming schism that currently separates red and blue America, I share the bafflement and dismay of the many Americans who wonder how such deep divisions can be healed. But the situation also reminds us that this fractured reality is not a new situation and for many it’s merely the continuation of the norm. BIPOC citizens have long experienced the brutal heel of democracy’s indifference to the reality of their lives.


Black photographers have rarely shared an equal voice and still offer a relative novel perspective in the photographic oligarchy, yet they have a uniquely clear perspective of the US zeitgeist. They have been living the complexities of the American reality for a long time and as such they have a breadth of vision that encompasses highs and lows that are beyond the direct experience of many in the White population. Black, Latinx, Native, LGBTQ+ photographers have dreamed the American dream, they hear the call for individual achievement and community advancement, yet they have also experienced systemic exclusion from its fulfillment, not as individual failure but from the systemic injustice of White supremacy. If the American character is defined by ambition, it is all too often marked instead as frustration in so-called “minority” communities. This has been evident in the writings of many Black authors such as Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Cornell West, Toni Morrison and others but it is only recently that wider culture is seeing the equivalent imagery.


Photographers like Alexandra Bell, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ruddy Roye, Sheila Pree Bright and others are stretching the bounds of documentary to bring us thoughtful and inclusive studies of American identity that actively embrace the complexities and contradictions, rather than trying to simplify and rationalize, as has been the editorial tradition. Andrea Ellen Reed, for example, looked inward to reveal exterior reality in her heartbreaking project Unseen which simply presented a video self- portrait as she reacted to the documentary reporting of pundits, politicians and others describing the world we live in. Bayeté Ross Smith in his history series co-produced with the New York Times blends archival documentary images of historic moments with contemporary imagery of the same locations combined in augmented reality formats that demonstrate social developments and inertia.

Photo by Ruddy Roye from ZEKE magazine

Photograph by Ruddy Roye. Keisha, at the Roger Williams Housing Projects, Mobile, Alabama, 2006.

This tension is evident almost everywhere we look. In the mid- 20th century, Robert Frank, in his seminal work The Americans, began to examine this dichotomy with his brutally honest images of racism in the U.S. accompanied by images of beauty in the every day. As Jack Kerouac said in the opening essay, “Frank sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.” In this issue of ZEKE, inspired by Frank’s epic journey across America, despair is represented in Virginia Allyn’s Lost: A Portrait of Addiction although in typical American style it is despair tinged with the hope of recovery. But this bleak outlook is most strongly evident in the essays depicting the rise today of social movements of White nationalism told by Anthony Karen and the implicit violence of a prevalent gun culture, such that teachers are now taking up arms, as shown by Kate Way. Brian Branch-Price brings joy to the story with his essay An American Dance. Enthusiastic crowds gather to watch performers dance in the streets celebrating the legacy of Black performance from Duke Ellington’s swing to contemporary break dancing and we see beginners and masters giving inspiration to new generations. That these two realities still exist in America is what makes it so difficult to represent our visual identity.

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Some practitioners whose work is rooted in documentary photography have, by embracing the opportunity of digital representation, utterly released themselves from the constraints of conventional photography. It’s been 40 years since David Hockney broke the photographic mold with his “joiners” (intricate photo collages creating abstract representations of the scenes he photographed) and now we can look to Clement Valla, Josh Begley, Trevor Paglen, Mickalene Thomas and many others. Their work emerges from documentary. We think we know how to receive it. Yet, it transcends the factual and temporal limitations of photography without deceit and without even requiring the re-education of the viewer. They set a different frame and the willing viewer intuitively inhabits their world, stepping through disbelief into a universe of photographic truth beyond photography.


Photography has always done more than merely record the evidence and memories of history. Driven by imagination as much as by facts, the photograph leads the viewer to places we have never actually visited. This includes the future. Photography, as a technology-based communication tool, is still at the center of the process. Geo tagging is now a banality, as is facial recognition and to some extent we also recognize (and fear) deep fakes as a new reality in visual communication, but strange new processes with unfamiliar names such as GAN imagery and volumetric image-making are starting to emerge. The issues thrown up by these new processes will confound us and force us to new understanding of the image in an increasingly complex world.


As early as 1846, Frederick Douglass recognized this in his speech Pictures & Progress in which he described pictures as essential to progress because of the possibilities they conjure in our imagination. Words might be necessary to describe the factual content of an image (the Who, What, Where and When) but the photograph can also harness the imagination to substitute for words in exploring the intangible aspects of human experience. This is where we turn to imagery to reveal the American Dream in all its complexities. And then, perhaps, we will truly see a nation of the free and the home of the brave.


Stephen Mayes is Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust with 30 years experience managing photography in the areas of fashion, art, commerce, and journalism.


Barbara Ayotte made editorial contributions to this article.


ZEKE magazine is published by the Social Documentary Network (SDN) |

SDN and ZEKE magazine are projects of Reportage International Inc., a nonprofit organization incorporated in Massachusetts in 2020.

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