It is a challenge to singularly define America because the country reinvents itself on a daily basis. Growing up I have been able to view America from several perspectives: Black, female, first-generation American, and a former military child. Always being on the move has made me curious about how people come to formulate opinions about themselves and others.
As a college student during the Gulf War, it quickly became apparent to me how little my peers knew about the military’s activities or the symbolic power of the American flag. From 1995 to 2007 I traveled via train across the United States and Europe photographing and interviewing people with the American flag. The culminations of my journeys are the books Flag: An American Story and Flag International.
The Flag series reveals what is beneath the surface of the American dream by looking beyond statistics and into the minds of ordinary citizens—native born and naturalized — whose feelings about America not only told the reader what the country is, but also what it should be.
Through each subject’s photographs and hand-written statements about America, the reader became aware of the beauty, violence, racism, hope, and inequity that created the American cultural fabric leading into the twenty-first century. I concluded the first Flag book by stating ‘As Americans, we are who we choose to be, and that may all change tomorrow’. That statement was published before 9/11, the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, Abu Ghraib, and the war in Iraq.
In 2007 all these events compelled me to ask, what has become of America? I began thinking about shooting Flag International and quickly formulated a list of destinations. It was paramount that I shot this story while President George W. Bush was still in office because his administration has played such a crucial role in international politics. My goal was to explore Europe with the American flag and investigate how the international community views the United States in the 21st Century.
Before departing for my trip I encountered a lot of well intentioned, but discouraging remarks from people in the U.S. Over the past eight years Americans have been conditioned to think the rest of the world hates us, the world beyond our borders is a dangerous place, and people want to kill Americans for sport. People told me I must be out of my mind for even thinking about traveling with the American flag at this time. I was also instructed to buy several ‘back up’ American flags, because surely the flag will be burned. Lastly, Americans generally believe they already know what other people think, so what’s the point of asking them?
I walked throughout eight countries in search of people to interview and photograph. Each of the subjects were approached on the street and handed a sketchbook to write their views of America, afterwards they were given the American flag and proceeded to pose whichever way they felt comfortable. Later they read their comments in their native language for audio recording. The entire process was captured on HD video. This was not a simple process. I was basically working as a one woman band, handling still photography, video, text and audio interviews. Did I mention I am only fluent in English?
One of my discoveries traveling through Europe was that there is a New Europe! The ‘Old Europe’ (which I was familiar with) was basically where you went to see ‘Old Stuff’ such as castles, and was composed of a homogenous population. The New Europe is a dynamic, cosmopolitan, and ethnically diverse continent with a youthful push towards a unification of cultures and resources.
New Europe reminded me of the idea of America, which constitutes a vast array of people striving to create a new way of being. While interviewing the international community, it was interesting to hear their expectations and frustrations with America. On the road I encountered Graffiti artists, Holocaust survivors, Iraqi women, street vendors, and even a Pulitzer Prize author, and many more, who gave me a piece of their mind while holding Old Glory.
In Berlin I met a former political prisoner who witnessed JFK speaking at the Brandenburg gate. He enthusiastically grabbed the flag and began singing “We Shall Overcome” at the top of his lungs. In Holland a store keeper remarked “Americans are a little bit crazy. They eat too much Mcdonalds and they work too much.” A man informed me “I don’t like Paris Hilton and I don’t like Bush.’ On London’s Oxford Street, three affluent Muslim women wearing designer clothes wrote: “I like the U.S.A. I want to live in the U.S.A., but all the people in the U.S.A don’t like Muslims. I hope to love them.”
By far the biggest shocker of them all happened in France. While photographing a young man in the middle of a busy street, he proceeded to drop his pants and began wiping himself with the American flag. That was a pivotal moment for me, because in an instant I had to decide if I was really going to allow the participants to freely express themselves without restrictions, as I had promised. I decided to keep my word.
As I continued to travel throughout Ireland, England, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, I could not help but to wonder how the E.U. will deal with the same challenges facing America such as nationalism, immigration, racism, fundamentalism, and apathy. Will the opinions and concerns voiced by the people in Flag International, become self-prophecies for their own nation and unification? Only time will tell.
Once again the statement ‘As Americans, we are who we choose to be, and that may all change tomorrow.’ rings true. On Election Day Barack Obama became the new embodiment of the American Dream and the global face of change. Most Americans no longer assume that ‘everybody hates us’. Now the assumption is ‘everybody loves Barack, so that means everybody loves America, right?’ Only time will tell.
The intention of the Flag International series is to inspire a dialogue about cultural understanding within a global framework. Cultural understanding is not only how a people or a nation views itself, but also how the world views you.