“Every person’s story is written plainly on [their] face, though not everyone can read it.”
I’ve been wondering about what the stories written on American faces look like and have been curious to learn what Americans think about themselves. To find out, right after the January 6th insurrection, I began approaching people on streets across the country asking them, "What's it like for you to be an American?" I offered to make their portrait using a large format 8x10 camera and invited them to write an answer to the question on a single notebook page. Their responses proved to be a mix of sincere, emotional expressions: pride, an acknowledged sense of privilege, anger, frustration, gratitude, deep ambivalence, even shame.
For the portraits, I positioned individuals identically in a formally structured way. For many, the same array of emotions expressed in their writing are discernable in their faces. The result is a diptych collection showing closely related images of distinctly diverse faces. All of them American, full of commonality as well as difference. I have come to think of them as a fundamental part of our national character, a type of democracy expressed through portrait photographs.
Thus far, my assistant and I have made over 250 portraits. The process for approaching strangers has evolved, engaging them in the fleeting intimacy necessary for making a formal portrait and asking them to reflect and write about their sense of national identity. This body of work reveals that sense of shared identity, as well as diversity, in both their handwritten words and their faces.
As this project progresses, the wisdom of our nation’s motto, e pluribus unum, from many, one, becomes more apparent. I experience that sense of oneness with nearly every American I meet and nearly every portrait I make. When I finally disseminate these pictures widely, I believe they will make a significant contribution towards returning our attention to that ideal.