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This Is What The American Dream Really Means For Americans

"Here in America, we have the ability to live for something much greater, and the best part — we can choose what that something is."

Posted on July 4, 2018, at 11:46 a.m. ET

Ian Brown

Otebehia Allen is a single mom raising five kids in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her wage recently was increased by $0.37 per hour, which puts her into an income category that will force her to lose her Medicaid coverage.

Since 2007, photographer Ian Brown has traveled the United States taking portraits of the country's citizens and asking each subject the same question: What does the American dream mean to you?

The question is simple, but the answer couldn't more complex. "The American dream doesn't actually exist in any formal document or in the founding papers," Brown tells BuzzFeed News. "It's a vague term that was coined to be understood that there was a positive result if one aspired and worked hard enough."

For each US citizen, the American dream can represent something entirely different from person to person — one person's American dream can be another person's American nightmare. "At this moment in time, with this president, there is such a polarizing divide," Brown continues. "I think that it has exposed a lot of issues and questions about what direction the country is going and what values and ideals make up the national identity."

Here are some portraits and thoughtful words that photographer Ian Brown has gathered for his ongoing project, American Dreams.

Chris J. Wright from Liberal, Missouri

Ian Brown

Chris is a Donald Trump fan. He was photographed a few weeks prior to the 2016 election.

"My American Dream is to put God first and for most and I believe that Donald J. Trump will put God in America again."

Dakota Overland from Wyoming, Minnesota

Ian Brown

Dakota is a 15-year-old high schooler who competes in 3-gun shooting and is an advocate for the Second Amendment.

"My American Dream is where fighting to keep my rights isn't done at the capital. ... Where law abiding citizens don't become felons by simply crossing state lines. Where I don't have to justify why I should be able to exercise my Second Amendment right."

Connor and Chase LaCoste from Kentwood, Louisiana

Ian Brown

Connor and Chase are 10-year-old twins who live with their grandmother during the week in order to attend a better school.

"In my opinion, I think the American Dream is that all people should be equal. No matter if your black or white."

Milton Socher Jr. from Goldfield, Nevada

Ian Brown

Milton lives in a miners cabin that his father built. He was enlisted in the Navy and said that the only girl he ever loved left him while he was out on tour abroad.

"I piss, shit, and eat to refill. ... My dreams were in my youth and it's a nightmare to me as I can do none of any of that now. Stupid that I'd want to."

Antoinette Harrell from Fluker, Louisiana

Ian Brown

Antoinette is a community outreach worker and a genealogist in one of the poorest areas of Louisiana. She lost her left leg to cancer two years ago and doesn’t bother with a prosthetic because it “slows her down.”

"I heard Dr. King's speech 'I Have A Dream.' In his speech he talked about equality for those that were oppressed. Today, in America we are still fighting for equality. What is the American Dream for me?"

Guy Lucero, incarcerated at the Sterling Correctional Facility in Sterling, Colorado

Ian Brown

Guy has been in prison since he was 15. He is serving a sentence for a drive-by shooting. Because of a constitutional ruling with respect to parole eligibility for people incarcerated as juveniles, he may never get out of prison.

"This country is based on changes for the better. We all relate in one form or another. And that's struggle, but this country gives us chances to reach the highest levels of success."

Allison and Sam from Blacksburg, Virginia

Ian Brown

Allison works as a nurse and Sam is in medical school. They are Christian and interested in doing missionary work.

"Our American Dream is to utilize our gifts and opportunity to serve as medical missionaries both here and abroad."

Justin Lansford from Tampa, Florida

Ian Brown

Justin lost his leg in combat while serving in the military.

"Here in America, we have the ability to live for something much greater, and the best part — we can choose what that something is."

Cody LaRue from Flint, Michigan

Ian Brown

Cody is an aspiring filmmaker who works as a courier driver in Flint. He lived through the contaminated water crisis.

"I guess traditionally the American Dream meant starting from nothing and working your way to the top... Or at least that's how I always thought of it. However, when you grow up a middle class, straight, white kid, you're kind of born into the Dream, and it's not until you fail to take advantage of the privileges that you were born into that the American Dream is put into perspective."

Toni Holt Kramer from Palm Beach, Florida

Ian Brown

Toni is a former​ TV producer and a member of Mar-A-Lago - she is also a co-founder of the “Trumpettes” - a Palm Beach support group for Trump.

“Since Election Day I am happy, enthusiastic and more relaxed. I believe there are many people across the entire USA that feel the same way. My American Dream is to see our country thriving again and accomplishing all of the important issues that are very much in front of us."

Clodite from Roseland, Louisiana

Ian Brown

Clodite lives in the community of Roseland, where over 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. Her house has no electricity or running water.

"My American Dream is to have running water."

David Anthony Segura from Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ian Brown

David is an ardent Donald Trump supporter and a lifelong member of the NRA.

"Help the President 'Make America Great Again.' And once this is done, I can get back to enjoying driving around this great Country of ours, knowing that Americans are working again and that Americans helped make the roads and bridges safe to drive on our Countries roadways and millions of Americans can also enjoy a piece of my American Dream.”

Robert Norton from Cleveland, Ohio

Ian Brown

Robert is a recent high school graduate who is interested in getting into music. He was raised by a single mom.

"In my country, I'm often refered to as a statistic. Little did you know [that] I wish to live in a America where a Puerto Rican, African American, white, and young man can feel free and brave [as] opposed to colored and enslaved."

Keandra from Kentwood

Ian Brown

Keandra was paralyzed when she was driving down the highway and her boyfriend grabbed the wheel of the vehicle, intentionally crashing their car in a forest. He served prison time, and she uses a wheelchair. She is raising her two children and taking care of her mom, who also lives with her.

"The 'American Dream' is a complex concept providing Americans with the hope of a better life. However, the American Dream for any person and for any epoch has always been based on the following pillars: freedom, equality, control over one's destiny, and an incessant pursuit of one's dream."

Hallie Winter from Osage Nation, Oklahoma

Ian Brown

Hallie is a member of the Osage Nation Indian Reservation.

"Thousands of immigrants come to the United States in search of a dream of success and freedom. Being Native American, my ancestors were already here before other came seeking this dream and in many ways they lived the 'American Nightmare.'"

To see more of Ian Brown's work, visit his Instagram: @ianbrownphotography.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.