Interstate, A Photographic Journal of American Identity
An Introduction to
A Photographic Journal of American Identity
Interstate Magazine is a photographic journal of American identity, roughly modeled on the work of the Farm Security Administration of the 1930’s and early 1940’s. It aims to show Americans to Americans, capturing the diversity that forms, in the composite, the American Identity.
The Model: The Farm Security Administration Photographers and “Showing Us to Ourselves”
In the mid-1930’s, during the height of the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s Undersecretary for Agriculture Rexford Tugwell was tasked with providing social welfare assistance to American farmers in need. In addition to the inherent challenges of his program, Tugwell foresaw hostility to it from more affluent, coastal-city dwelling Americans. He understood that the non-agricultural majority of the population, influenced by the newsmedia of the time, would resist his programs.
To counter the inevitable antagonism, Tugwell hired Roy Stryker to head-up a “Historical Section” of what would become the Farm Security Administration (abbreviated as the “FSA”). Stryker’s “Historical Section” was tasked with photographically documenting the people affected by work of the FSA. As Stryker saw it, his real mission was
to tell the rest of the world that here is a lower third, and that they are human beings like the rest of us. . . . they are human beings.
The FSA “Historical Section” was thus tasked with showing Americans to Americans, to allow Americans of different socioeconomic and geographic groups to see – not just read about -- “other” Americans, specifically those aided by the work of the FSA, and in so doing, to humanize them.
By sharing images of everyday Americans involved in their everyday lives, the FSA hoped to connect emotionally with fellow Americans to create a sense of shared American humanity, a collective American Identity, an understanding that, despite social pigeon-holing and economic stratification, Americans of all backgrounds and origins were first and foremost people. Whatever their differences, agricultural Americans ate their meals, raised their families, and toiled to earn a living, just as city-dwelling Americans did. All Americans laughed and cried, socialized and contemplated, lived and died. Americans’ collective similarities surpassed their differences. Stryker’s FSA group undertook to instill this understanding in all Americans, to make the “others” plainly visible, to show us to ourselves.
Stryker's work was remarkable on many levels. By assembling and unleashing on America a talented group of dedicated photographers, the FSA “Historical Section” created an emotionally indelible – and therefore, impactful and lasting – photographic record of Americans. The FSA photographs remain affecting to this day.
Sociopolitical Polarization and the Renewed Need to See Ourselves
In present day America, worsening sociopolitical polarization creates the same “need to see others” that existed in Stryker’s FSA era. Fueled in large part by the self-reinforcing, ideological echo chambers of social media, Americans increasingly identify those with differing viewpoints in non-humanistic terms: they see them not as people with differing viewpoints, but instead as humanity-less “others”.
Of course, the truth is different. Occupants on all points on the American sociopolitical spectrum are simply people, no more, no less. Regardless of views on religion, on the role of government, on welfare, healthcare, taxation or gun ownership, Americans of all leanings eat their meals, raise their families, and earn a living. All Americans laugh and cry, socialize and contemplate, live and die. We are all people, and we are all Americans.
Yet while social media readily reinforces the perceived humanity of one’s own sociopolitical in-group, at the very same time it denies the humanity of sociopolitical out-groups. Social media biases us to see members of out-groups in categorical terms – labels – rather than in humanistic terms. The inevitable result is deterioration of broader, constructive social discourse.
To counter this decline, we must return to the understanding – the fundamental truth – that those we identify as “others” are not un-human, but are instead living, breathing people who simply hold views different from our own. We must start seeing “others” in this humanistic light, and not merely as a “them”.
One way to facilitate this seeing is quite literally; that is, by photographically showing Americans to Americans, much in the same way Stryker’s FSA photographers did nearly a century ago. We must show that those Americans with viewpoints different from our own are, in Stryker’s words, “human beings like the rest of us.”
Using Assignment Photographers to Create a Photographic Record
Two approaches to photographically show Americans to Americans are (1) to select photographs from the vast internet photosphere, or (2) to task assignment photographers (that is, professional or other dedicated photographers) with the same mission given to Stryker’s FSA corps. For a number of important reasons, the latter approach is preferable.
First, the dedicated assignment photographer’s technical experience yields results that even an extensive collection of random, casual photographers cannot. To confirm this, one may review a stream of photos on a site such as Instagram, where photo after photo suffers from overt manipulation, incorrect exposure, poor focus, and confusing composition, among other issues. While these maladies may not afflict every photo in the public stream, the vast majority certainly do suffer from them, and the process of curation is therefore rendered difficult at best, impossible at worst.
Even more important than technical prowess is objectivity. Assignment photographers approach each assignment as an outsider, while internet photographs are most often taken by participants in the events and lives they capture. The participatory status of internet photographers encumbers them with biases and familiarity revealed in the pictures they take. The assignment photographer brings no such baggage to her work. She is not a party carouser, a worshiping church congregant, or a birthday party celebrant. She is instead an outsider, a fly on the wall, free to observe from an emotional distance, and thus, to see with (largely) unbiased eyes. This quasi-objectivity is critical to truthfully show Americans to Americans.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, every assignment photographer imprints on his work an internal coherence and style. In some cases the stylistic imprint is striking, in others it is subtle, but in all cases it is real: the works of Walker Evans are discernible from those of Lewis Hine; Dorothea Lange’s works from Jack Delano’s; Robert Capa’s from his brother Cornell’s. Wherever an individual photographer’s work may fall on the spectrum of striking-to-subtle, the stylistic imprint imparts a coherence to each photographic series unattainable in a selection of photographs pulled from an ad-hoc internet stream of photos.
As a result of the photographer-to-photographer distinction, viewers are given the opportunity to connect emotionally with various photographers’ visions – again, whether unknowingly or consciously. This chance to connect is important to the present mission, because only when viewers connect emotionally with photographs can the photographs impact them in a meaningful, lasting way. Without this connection, viewers might look at, but never see, the “other” Americans presented to them.
Phase 1 – Interstate Magazine, A Photographic Journal of American Identity In Print and Online
The initial form for Interstate Magazine is a print magazine, more specifically, a magazine printed on high quality paper stock and cover, with a glued binding commensurate with the social “weight” of the work it contains and reflective of its value as an objet d’art. It will be published between monthly and quarterly.
Each issue of the magazine will have a number of discrete sections, each beginning with a short written description or comment concerning its content. These published sections may be considered “articles”, although not in the sense of traditional written-word journalism. Photos will be presented with informational captions, as appropriate. Each issue will also include a forward/comment from the editor addressing themes or issues raised or addressed in the issue.
Sections may include a number of the following, varying by issue, with certain sections appearing in each issue and other sections appearing on a rotating basis:
Local Focus (permanent section) – Focus on the people and environment of a specific geographic locale, e.g., a specific city, county, metropolitan area or other distinct geographic region.
Cross Section (permanent section) – Focus on a cross-sectional “group” of people and their environment. Cross-sectional “groups” might include, for example, religious groups (either specific or general), professions, institutions (like high schools, nursery schools, bowling alleys), civic groups (again either specific or general), and political groups, among others.
Family (rotating section) – Focus on a particular family, it’s daily experiences and environment. Articles in this section might include home, work and school lives of the subject family members.
Individual (rotating section) – Essentially the same as Family (above), but limited to one individual.
Latitude/Longitude (rotating section) – Content all shot along a specific latitude or longitude.
Portraits (rotating section) – Portraits of individuals. The individuals may be selected from a geographic area (as in Local Focus), by cross-sectional “group” (as in Cross Section), by more fanciful grouping, such as people named Phil, or people 4’ 11” tall, or other arbitrary attribute, or by any other relevant selection criteria. This section may supplement the related section (i.e., the related Local Focus, Cross Section, etc.).
Landscapes (rotating section) – Same as with Portraits, but capturing landscape/architecture subjects.
One Day/One Hour (rotating section) – Content shot from various geographic areas, all within the same day or hour.
The printed publication will be supplemented with an online presence, accessible without paywall. The online presence will be updated frequently and will include the various sections detailed above as well as additional sections not included in the print edition. Online content may include both content published in the print edition and online-only content. The online edition may also include interactive and multi-media features such as discussion threads and short video.
Beyond the print and online publications, Interstate, A Photographic Journal of American Identity may readily expand into different forms, all with the aim of showing Americans to Americans to foster positive social discourse. The “Photographic Journal” may thus ultimately form only a part of a broader “Institute of American Identity” which leverages the photographic work of the Journal and disseminates it through school-based programs, educational curricula, traveling museum exhibits, conference participation and the like.
Interstate, A Photographic Journal of American Identity and any future phases or institutions will be funded and operated strictly as a non-profit organization. The first phase (the print and online magazine) will be initially crowd-funded to underwrite online costs (including hosting and domain acquisition costs), costs of creating initial photographic works (travel expenses, per diem costs, etc.), and publication of at least a pilot print issue. Initial labor, including that of graphic/layout professionals, web developers, and photographers, will be sought on a volunteer basis. If sufficient labor is not available on a volunteer basis, then initial funding will be required to secure this labor as well.
The print version of the magazine will be sold, with price to be determined after appropriate analysis. For longer term viability, corporate and/or foundation funding will likely be required.