For seven years, Andrew Moisey, a professor of art history at Cornell University, had photographed the testosterone-fueled culture surrounding fraternities in the United States. These pictures, made during the 2000s at an unnamed Greek letter organization at the University of California, Berkeley, capture an intimate, and at times disturbing, look at the environment that shapes many of tomorrow’s leaders.
The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual, published by Daylight Books, compiles this work within the context of US history by drawing parallels between the young men in Moisey’s pictures and the people who have helped shape the United States of America — for better or for worse. According to the book’s Indiegogo page, “Seventy-five percent of modern US presidents, senators, justices, and executives have taken arcane oaths of chivalry and allegiance” — a sobering statistic given the nature of Moisey’s photographs.
Here, Moisey writes for BuzzFeed News on his motivations behind the book and shares with us a selection of his pictures in the manner he intends them to be shown — without context and accompanied by actual pages from the publication.
Have you ever noticed that the impression other countries have of America and Americans is very similar to the idea Americans have of “frat houses” and “frat boys”? Given the hubris, hypocrisy, depravity, and chauvinism that distinguishes the United States on the world stage, shouldn’t this connection be further explored?
The focus of this book is on presidents of the United States, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, CEOs, and other American leaders. The American Fraternity is really about America’s leaders as young men. At the same time, there’s a narrower focus in the book — that’s the culture inside. I had a chance to show people the intimate truth about something they’ve only seen fictionalized in movies or heard about in journalism.
That’s something I wanted for this book — uncomfortable intimacy.
This body of work began when my little brother came to Berkeley the year I was a junior and told me he wanted to join a fraternity. I had just taken an intro to photography course and was obsessed with Robert Frank, Roy DeCarava, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans. I carried my camera everywhere. At some point, it dawned on me that if I could be like those photographers in a place as secretive, controversial, and important as a fraternity house, I might someday wind up with a fairly valuable project.
I knew a lot of brothers in the house before my little brother joined, so his membership made my presence more legitimate. I became close with several of the guys in the house. A lot of guys asked why I was taking pictures, and I said, “to make a book someday.” Some referred to it as my “coffee table book about us,” and if you look at the very last picture, you’ll see some of them enjoying the pictures that way on their giant dining table.
I was appreciated enough that after a few years I’d be called up if there was going to be something interesting happening. I also promised everyone I wouldn’t use their names or their fraternity’s name. After my brother graduated I continued to shoot, and I became the outsider who knew more about the house than a lot of the brothers; I was looked up to, I felt.
I want people to feel like they’re holding a book they were never meant to see — the total opposite of a bound art gallery, which is most photobooks. I also want them to realize something that’s not spelled out in the book. In the climactic chapter, we see the one thing I think we would miss if we finally ended fraternity culture. We would miss something that Nietzsche realized our modern, micromanaged, microaggressive world was fatally missing: wildness.
Ancient Greeks and modern Greeks — fraternities, I mean — have special festivals where they worship the side of being human that is drunkenness, theater, performance, disregard for all social codes, especially respectability. For ancient Greeks that was part of the festival of Dionysus. American fraternities are the last institution in the modern world where Dionysus is found. I did not expect to come away with respect for their Dionysian festivities. I only did so after reading Nietzsche.
If only what was learned in the house stayed there. But it can’t.
For me, the image of the dog stands out. The way that dog is treated eliminates any hope that what happens inside the secret club of boys can stay inside the secret club of boys. The abuse has the look of a sine curve moving across the picture, into and out of it endlessly, into the dog, into the outside world, unstoppable, facilitated by vows of secrecy. That picture perfectly describes the problem of fraternities.
I hope young men will look at this book and think, “Whoa. I don’t want to look like that.” I hope everyone else will at least be happy I did the project, for the sake of truth. And I hope scholars will be excited for their counterparts in the distant future who will discover this book. How I wish we had something like this book for every culture of the past.