As a British photographer, partly based in Mexico, I had always dreamed of making a photographic road trip through the USA. When the 2016 US presidential election became the increasing focus of the world’s attention, in a year that had already seen the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union, my instinct was to be there. So, I packed my cameras and flew to Reynosa, from where I crossed the border into the USA arriving in Brownsville on Halloween, where the journey starts. I would drive 8,000 miles by car in 5 weeks, covering 13 American states as well as Washington, DC. The publication Divided States represents the fruits of my journey: 244 pages containing 154 still images and 18,000 words of text. Divided States takes us back to a moment when Donald Trump’s victory felt improbable, which in retrospect now feels like a time of innocence or naivety, a different era. On 8th November 2016, he was confirmed president-elect. Divided States is significant as it visually evokes the seconds before America set off on what has turned out to be one of the darkest periods of its history with the firestorm of the Trump presidency. The images viscerally drop you right back into a critical moment of change in American history, vividly taking us back to where the current situation began. This was the moment when America changed and the world with it. Few if any of the people that I encountered on my journey could have imagined the tumultuous events, the twists and turns that would ensue. It is timely too as we now witness the ferocious nature of the 2020 US presidential election playing out in front of us in the bleak shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 2020 US presidential campaigns conclude with the election on 3rd November although Trump has continued his campaign for re-election throughout his term in office with regular rallies to enthuse his loyal supporters. The scale of the global coronavirus pandemic was unforeseen at the start of the year and has proven especially catastrophic in the USA, with Trump being heavily criticised for his mishandling of the pandemic, culminating as I write this with the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden leading Trump in the election polls. Meanwhile Trump responds to his apparent decline in popularity by resorting to increasingly authoritarian means to maintain power and demonstrate dominance. The critical nature of the election result on 3rd November cannot be underestimated as it will confirm the country’s ideological direction: was Trump’s 2016 win an anomaly – or did it signal a broad-based shift towards populist nationalism or even dictatorship? Commentators who claim that the US is in the midst of a cold civil war, might be reconsidering whether the word cold still applies. The coronavirus pandemic has scuppered Trump’s chances of a safe path to a second term in office, although it still remains possible that he might succeed against the odds. And so, the 2020 presidential election promises to be the most divisive in American history.
It had been my intention pre the coronavirus pandemic to seek commissions/funding/grants to enable me to cover the 2020 election even more extensively than my first trip, but his prospect has become impossible. I had wanted to return to the US to make a successive journey, listening to people’s stories to discover how they are reacting to the political storm swirling around them in their daily lives. My questions would have been these: How much have people’s opinions altered since 2016? If there have been major changes in their beliefs and attitudes in the past four years, how might I best illuminate and clarify those changes? Divided States is already a multi-media experiment, bringing still images and text together within a journal format. The still image – my fundamental mode of perception – remains the key element of the project in its current form. With the addition of further media, however, such as sound recordings and moving images, it would become possible to provide an even fuller portrait, bringing to life the road-trip experiences and going deeper into the subject to uncover and document more of the story. Developing the concept in this way would create the potential for a multi-media installation, an exhibition that would offer a more dynamic, participatory experience for the audience whilst retaining the primacy of the still image. A longer journey through the US at this crucial point in its history would also allow me to post material strategically on social media along the way, and thus generate broader interest in the project. I still believe that making this journey will be important in the near future as the US comes to terms with whoever it elects in the forthcoming election and grapples with the ongoing coronavirus crisis and its eventual after-effects.