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This Beautiful Photo Project Reveals Ideas About The American Dream

"The ‘American Dream’ doesn’t exist in any formal way."

Posted on October 21, 2020, at 6:16 p.m. ET

Aveonte Willingham (Flint, Michigan), photographed in 2016

Three young people in coats on a sidewalk in Flint Michigan with a barbed wire fence
Ian Brown

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.

Ian Brown

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.

Ian Brown

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.

Greg and Ellen (East Liverpool, Ohio), photographed on Election Day 2016

Ian Brown

The American dream to me is growing up not worrying about where the next bit of money is coming from

Having the ability to find a job that takes care of everything you NEED so your spouse doesn’t have to work.

Justin Lansford (Tampa, Florida), photographed in 2016

A young guy standing with a prosthetic leg
Ian Brown

Justin was serving as a machine gunner with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2012 when his left leg was amputated.

My name is Justin Lansford. I served two tours overseas with the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. On my second deployment I was severely injured in combat. I proudly served our country, and willingly poured sweat and blood while defending and protecting a single idea, “the American dream.” It’s funny, because until now, I’ve never actually thought about what exactly that dream means to me.

I’ve seen places in this world where people don’t have the luxury of dreams. Places where an individual’s sole purpose is to stay alive, and where even that is done in constant fear of those around them.

Here in America, we have the ability to live for something much greater, and the best part — we can choose what that something is. In the United States, we truly are free. Free to set our own goals, free to succeed, free to fail. The opportunity in this country is such that the only obstacle between us and our goals is ourselves. We have this luxury because of the thousands of men and women, military and first responders, who put their lives on the line every day and night, not only to keep us safe, but to keep us free. Free to dream.

Sura (Salt Lake City), photographed in 2019

A woman in a hijab holding a child
Ian Brown

My name is Sura. I am from Iraq, before I came to America, I thought that I could save money, that I could have money to change my family’s life. I thought I would be working and earning enough money to save. But after I came here, I realized that it’s hard. We don’t know how to start.

I can’t start a job with my degree from Iraq. Learning English is the first step. All of our money goes to taxes and we can’t buy a house. Consequently, all of my thoughts about here are to save money for my kids — college. And my husband has changed many jobs. He has a good CV, but because there is no work in his degree he decided to study and is starting to change his life. Because there are many chances here but he needed money to have down payment.

My husband is always saying, “God is always with Us and we don’t need anything.” Even though it is hard here, my sons are safe from war and I have freedom to choose everything in my life. I will feel happier when my family comes here because I miss them. They cannot visit without a visa and my life will be a good life when I get work. I have a dream I hope to achieve in America. I hope to take a certificate of a skin health and I have my own work. I believe I will have a successful business and it will be big and have a multiple branches everywhere in the world, then I can help my family and everybody needs help.

Maria Castro (Immokalee, Florida), photographed in 2018

A young woman with tattoos
Ian Brown

My American dream is built on the backs of my immigrant parents. Growing up we didn’t have much. What I knew of the American dream was on the TV... The white faces with the white fences.It was so alien to me. But looking back my American dream is filled with the smells of chemicals. You know, the chemicals they put on tomatoes to make them look nice. The chemicals that benefited the tomatoes, but irritated my mother’s eyes and my father’s hands. These chemicals that, not only me, but many children of farmworkers know. But while my parents were just simple farm workers that worked below minimum wage and were looked at with disdain because of their tomato stained clothes, they showed me what the American dream is. It’s sacrificing everything for a “better life.” My American dream isn’t monetary. It isn’t materialistic. My American dream is a feeling. I want to feel true happiness. I want to look around one day and say, “Yes, this is why my mom, my dad, and my grandparents crossed the Rio Grande.”

Charles Erickson (Jeffrey City, Wyoming), photographed in 2019

An old man with a beard wearing flannel in a cabin
Ian Brown

Well being older, on the twilite of my life, my dreams are much
different then they used to be. No longer do I have delusions of grandeur. I don’t think too much about my future but I think a lot about the future for my kids and grandkids and young people in general.

I seem to have spent a lot of time thinking that someone else would fix things and that everything will be ok in the end. Boy was I wrong we have let America get away from us and now we must work doubly hard to turn things back around. I don’t want to get all political but there is a faction in this country who ate working very hard to bring down the America I thought we all wanted, where the American dream was alive. I don’t want to take us back in time that is foolish.

However all through my youth I thought things were getting steadily better until some time in the ’90s we began to lose our way. I grew up in the economic growth of the ’50s and Æ60s and the improved relations of the civil rights movement. Then again good economic growth of the late ’80s and early ’90s. We had our bumps and some disasters like Vietnam, Watergate, high inflation and not to mention some personal mistakes and wrong turns. I thought we were overcoming all that. And then long about ’92 something happened and we began to lose ground. A few things happened on the world stage and our gains began to erode and we began to lose liberty and our country.

Now I am in fear of losing it all. So in final my personal dream
is that America can be saved from those who would drag us down into a socialist collective where we are subservient to the state and bound in an authoritarian collective where the individual is slave to the state. That can only happen by destroying self reliance and individual liberty. So after all that my dream is for the young to remain free.

Otibehia Allen (Clarksdale, Mississippi), photographed in 2018

A mother and her five children on a porch
Ian Brown

MY AMERICAN DREAM
AMERICA WAS ESTABLISHED ON THE BASIS OF FREEDOM & EQUALITY. TODAY WE CANNOT SAY THE SAME. MY AMERICAN DREAM IS TO WAKE UP & NOT WORRY!

KNOWING THAT IF I GET A 0.40c RAISE THEY WILL NOT CUT MY HEALTHCARE OFF. THEY SAY WE ARE FREE BUT IN REALITY WE ARE NOT! THEY CONSTANTLY CREATE LAWS TO KEEP ME FROM MOVING FORWARD. I CANNOT JUST GO TO THE REALTOR & SAY I WOULD LIKE TO BUY THIS HOUSE OR TO A DEALORSHIP AND PURCHASE A NEW CAR. IF I HAVE THE SAME RIGHTS AS WHITE AMERICANS, HOW COME MY CREDIT SCORE IS LOW?

FREEDOM, EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL, WHERE? NOT HERE IN NORTH AMERICA!

Chase LaCoste (Kentwood, Louisiana) photographed in 2018 with his brother Connor

Two young boys in school uniforms on a sidewalk
Ian Brown

My American Dream

In my opinion, I think the American Dream is that all people should be equal. No matter if your black or white During slavery and Jim Crow whites controled African Americans. The whites had better schools, homes, and rights African American hated that whites controlled and owned us as slaves African American people wanted to put a end to it. As an African American young boy in America I see other African American males getting shot and killed by white polices. I just hope I can live to be a black man. Two main thing you should always have is freedom and liberty.

Art Tanderup (Neligh, Nebraska), photographed in 2018

An older couple in jeans in a corn field
Ian Brown

Growing up, the American dream seemed quite simple: get a great education, work hard, raise a wonderful family, be productive, and make this country and earth a better place. Seems more like a fairy tale now.

Today’s American dream has so many questions. Why is there so much hate that we are destroying core values and democracy? Why is it so difficult to get an affordable, quality education? Why is the middle class falling into the abyss of poverty? Why do we refuse to provide the people with health care? Why do we allow corporate greed to run our government? Why do we allow foreign companies to use eminent domain to destroy our land and water? Why do we continue to destroy the environment instead of rapidly renewable energy? Why do we refuse to grow sustainable food. What will our grandchildren’s American dream be? In the time that I have left, my American dream is to stand up to the forces that divide us, to empower the people, to save our clean water, and to protect the Earth.

Punahele DeCosta (Maui, Hawaii), photographed in 2019

A young woman in a crop top in a hilly landscape
Ian Brown

I want a livable future.

We have been told by the IPCC that we have 12 (now 11 as of 2019) years before climate change is irreversible.

I am 18. My generation should be planning our futures, not protests
for climate action. As an Indigenous woman, it is hard for me to watch the land to be so disrespected. Indigenous people know the land the best. We have taken care of it forever and in turn it cared for us. Now as we have been colonized, we have an impending climate crisis. What was seen as progress was really only progressing us into our own doom. Indigenous voices have always been speaking and it’s time those in power listen.

a hiki i ke aloha ‘āina hope loa

Pastor Lisa Weah (Baltimore), photographed in 2015

A woman in white robes on a street in Baltimore with brick row houses
Ian Brown

My American Dream
My ancestors came to America in chains. When slavery was abolished, we were considered three-fifths, and separated to an inferior societal status. So I dream the dream of a people who have come this far by faith. I dream of an America which embodies its own declaration: that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Ben Baker (Ashburn, Georgia), photographed in 2018

An older man in jeans and suspenders in a parking lot
Ian Brown

What is the American dream? Success? A house to own? Freedom? Happiness? How about instead of an adverb or a noun, a verb? TRY. The American dream is try. Try to be happy. Try to be successful. Try 2 buy a house. Try to preserve freedom. Try 2 do. Try! is the American dream. This Great Nation allows everyone the2 try. Try a New Food. Try a book. Try to change an unjust & oppressive system. Try to keep the status quo. TRY!

Try to convince sm1. Try to ride a bike. Try to help someone in need. Try to be there for ur kids. Try to Understand sm1 else. Try to fly. Try out a new mattress. Try embodies effort, opportunity and even chance. The US is the #1 Nation in the world for immigration. People know they can TRY in the U.S. Try meat. Try vegan. Try God. Try atheism. To try — be it as mundane as ordering something from the other side of the menu to as ambitious as running 4 president — to try. That is the American dream. Give it a TRY!

Antoinette Harrell (Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana), photographed in 2018

A woman crying in front of the American flag
Ian Brown

My American Dream
I am a person of African descent in America, and I’ve seen the many faces of injustice for people of color. My forefathers and foremothers were forced into the bondage of slavery in America for 400 years. I was born in the 1960s, and can Recall the Jim Crow era in the South.

My maternal grandmother Josephine taught me about racism. I overheard conversations about lynchings, land grabbing, and other evil acts.

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.

My American dream is to end poverty. My American dream is end slavery in all forms. My American dream is to end police brutality. My American dream is to see my grandson grow up. My American dream is to bring the missing children home. My American dream is to end homelessness. My American dream is to end the pipeline to prison.

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