Aveonte Willingham (Flint, Michigan), photographed in 2016
My American dream is a safe place for everyone. The poor, needy, sick, the helpless everyone. No more danger in the streets or fear to walk down your own block at night. A sanctuary of sorts, where everyone can at least go to work and provide for their families and do what they love in peace. No fear of getting shot, robbed, kidnapped, only the wonder of what to eat for dinner or if you’ll go out for a movie. Though it may be cliché, it’s my American dream.
Ian Brown, a Canadian photographer based in Toronto, has spent the last 12 years thinking about the American dream. It's a concept that is often referred to and rarely defined — something that is keenly apparent in the current presidential election as President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden appeal to different versions of the future. For Brown, what first began as a portrait series about hope has turned into a chronicle of everything that is messy and contradictory about the United States. "I realized that [the American dream] is the one commonality that binds all Americans together, and it is a phrase that everyone across every state has heard and has an idea about. It transcends politics, race, gender, and geography, and so I thought that it would be the best way to get Americans to speak about their lives — and their ideas on what the idea of America means to them."
For each person he spoke with, Brown would ask for their version of the American dream to be written out, an exercise that for many was unique and deeply personal. Brown's project American Dreams has now been turned into a book, which includes the portraits and the handwritten responses, and encapsulates the wide array of views that people have about the future. BuzzFeed News spoke with Brown via email about how this project got started and what he, an outsider, learned from his travels.
I got the idea to focus on the American Dream because I was long interested in what Bruce Springsteen once described as “the distance between the American reality and the American Dream.” The “American Dream” doesn’t exist in any formal way — it’s not in the Constitution or any law — it’s up for interpretation but it's also the one common thread that weaves throughout the entire country. Everyone has an opinion on it and when people are given the opportunity to think about it, it becomes a much more intimate exercise. Many of the things people wrote down were things they hadn’t ever considered before or had shared with others in a deep way. So, I think that a lot of the themes that emerge in what people have written are the things people are concerned and passionate about: politics — obviously — racial inequality, job security, healthcare, climate change, gun violence for some and gun rights for others. I think the underlying common theme in much of what people wrote is that there is a great distance between the American reality and the perception of what the “American Dream” is.
Initially, like a lot of photographers, I had a romanticized idea that I would head out on the road and just meet people fortuitously. I had an old Toyota truck and my dog with me and I would often just try and meet people where I could. I quickly realized that it’s one thing to stop someone briefly and ask to make a portrait — that is nerve-wracking enough — but to ask people to also write something out on a piece of paper what their ideas are on their country and their “American Dream” is a much deeper commitment — on everyone’s part. Eventually this developed into a sort of organic rhythm where I would meet people I had connected with and that inevitably would lead to meeting more people in their community, and so on. There were also a lot of chance encounters and serendipity, and some of my favourite subjects in the book were people I just happened to meet at that specific point in time.
When I first began this project, it was the end of the George Bush era and the advent of Obama, and it seemed people wrote more hopeful and introspective things. Over the years and especially with the election of Trump, people have become more polarized and disenchanted. As I wrote in the introduction of the book, the very definition of what it means to be “American” is being challenged in profound ways. The mythological ideal at the core of American identity — freedom — is being interpreted in opposing manners. This was reflected in what people wrote.
Since COVID began I’ve followed up with a number of the people in the book and others I met along the way. I’ve asked some people to just write a short postscript to see if their ideas have changed. For some there has been some heartbreaking circumstances and for others there has been some inspiring and beautiful achievements.
I traveled over 80,000 miles through all 50 states for more than a decade throughout America so I have a unique, grassroots sense of what the country is all about. As a Canadian, I have the fortune of being able to sit in the bleachers, so to speak. We can see and understand what’s happening in the United States but also recognize there is a world outside American borders too. The US is a very complicated and divided place. I think that this time of COVID has revealed — or exposed — a lot of the fragility of American life. A lot of people struggle to just keep their head above water and there is some deep pain all around the country. However, I also have hope in renewal and in people becoming activated and more engaged in their own path. I think we're seeing this in this election cycle, especially with younger people.
I think it’s good to approach any creative endeavor by seeing where the work goes as opposed to having an endpoint already determined. I spent a lot of time at kitchen tables and on front porches listening to people share their stories and describe their ideas on America, and so having a book that compiles all of this seemed like a natural outcome. America has always been more than a country — it’s an idea — a complex, vast and messy idea that is an evolving experiment. So, I hope that this book can be a chronicle of the last decade or so of the American identity. Someone described it as a yearbook for this moment — and the last decade — in our lives.