In 1999, then-unknown photographer Aaron Schuman set off on a road trip with his girlfriend, driving west in a Chrysler minivan. Most of the photographs he took on that trip were put away, and are published here for the first time.
The sequence begins with an image of a South Dakota national park, the territory the Lakota people called the mako sica, the badlands. It was a ceremonial sacred site for the Oglala Sioux and was designated Sioux land in an 1868 treaty. Within a few years the treaty was broken, and in 1877 the territory was confiscated by the US government and eventually made into the Badlands National Park. Turn over the page, and there is the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. This is where Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by white supremacist James Earl Ray. On the same page is a photograph of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, where King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. The last image in the series shows a family in one of the Amana colonies in Iowa; a father, daughter and the daughter’s husband on a green lawn. The Amana Colonies were founded by nineteenth-century Pietists from Germany, and remained self-sufficient until 1932. This, too, is an aspect of America: religious communities offered the freedom to practise without, for better and for worse, much state intervention. Some deteriorate into patriarchal cults; others, like the Amanians, assimilate into the surrounding community. The old villages had become tourist destinations by the time Schuman took this photograph. The Lorraine Motel, too, is a heritage centre, as is the Badlands National Park and the Reflecting Pool in Washington: these are all memorial sites. But what are we meant to remember?
‘Long, too long America’, the title of this photo essay, is taken from the first line of a Walt Whitman poem about the ravages of the Civil War (1861–1865). The last two lines read somewhat ambiguously now, a repeated call to conceive and show the world what the children of America ‘really are’. Is that what Schuman is showing us here? A remnant of Sioux land, a broken treaty. A motel, the site of racist murder. A pool of water to reflect on the state of the nation. Descendants of Amanians on a green lawn. The conundrum of America: on the one hand, violence and repression; on the other, freedom and social justice.
But I find myself wary of conclusions these days. In Swedish schools of the early 1970s, our textbooks in history, geography and civics each ended with a chapter on the Soviet Union and a chapter on America. These books were, I suppose, part of the effort to maintain neutrality in the Cold War, but there was no balance in tone or content of the chapters. The US was presented as a country riven with poverty and racialised polarisation, whereas the Soviet Union was shown as quite poor, perhaps, and, yes, lacking in free speech and other human rights, but also as progressive and cosily communal. It was a political smokescreen, of course – Sweden’s ongoing information exchange with NATO was kept secret (finally revealed last summer); the security police registers of communists in workplaces, ditto – but I suspect that the difference in tone also stemmed from the fact that the language for critical thinking was missing in the Soviet Union. Beyond Solzhenitsyn and a handful of other samizdat writers precariously pushing against the limits of censorship was a multitude of ironic jokes and an ocean of political slogans and propaganda. The lack of interrogative social sciences and a free press made the vocabulary to criticise communism a little elusive – it existed, of course, but in neutral Sweden it didn’t quite trip off the tongue in the same way as the critique of the US.
Some causes come with preconceived language. It is easier to criticise the US than, say, Myanmar or Turkmenistan because the language and positions are readily available. We praise originality more in art than in politics.
Perhaps – I am not sure – Schuman asks us to pay attention to what we don’t know rather than to what we know. Mowing a green lawn. A bed, a wallpaper. A car park, a gun shop, a singer at a family reunion. Roller skaters, tourists and a park ranger. A stuffed wolf, a TV. Ordinary beauty: incidental and anarchic.