It is often said that America needs more “inside jobs”: writers, artists and photographers who — rather than parachuting in from coastal cities with predetermined ideas of what constitutes news — live in the places they report on and have an intimate understanding of which stories need telling.
In other words, artists such as LaToya Ruby Frazier, who grew up in Braddock, Pa., and has spent long periods with residents of Flint, Mich. Frazier has made deeply personal and politically charged work about both places.
But maybe America could also do with some genuinely outside perspectives?
Since de Tocqueville, some of the best insights into this country have come from outsiders. That tradition, which reached a climax of plaintive eloquence in Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” has just been extended by two Italian photographers, Renata Busettini and Max Ferrero.
Prompted by questions posed by the election of Donald Trump, Busettini and Ferrero visited the United States four times, beginning in 2017. On that first trip, they took photographs in towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan — including Braddock and Flint, where job insecurity and anxiety are rife. On a second trip, in 2018, they visited locations along the border with Mexico. For a third, in 2019, they photographed Las Vegas and San Diego, and on a fourth, returned to the Rust Belt, adding West Virginia and Kentucky.
One photograph taken in Braddock shows “Mad,” an African American man who stands on his porch holding a black cat in front of a “Beware of the Dog” sign. Mad, who is smiling and pointing at something out of frame, lives a few hundred yards from Braddock’s steel works (a subject Frazier addressed in “The Notion of Family”). He gets called up for occasional short shifts there. But work, like Braddock’s population, is evidently dwindling.
The image is characteristic of the entire book, with its focus on portraiture, its embrace of nuance and its effort to tell truths without pandering to received ideas. Titled “America Fi(r)st: Trump’s America,” the book is divided into four sections addressing, in order, the Rust Belt; the southern border; gun culture (perennially the strangest aspect of America to foreign eyes); and the underside of the American Dream. It has an introduction by Alan Friedman, a documentarian and the author of “This Is Not America.”
The black-and-white photographs have dynamic compositions (lots of diagonal vectors and pictorial torque) and are reminiscent of the work of Mary Ellen Mark. You sense behind them a great moral curiosity. Each image is underwritten by a sense of urgency that feels personal.
And so it is. Ferrero believes that by photographing the United States, he and Busettini are also saying something about how European culture is changing.
“What scares me,” he said in an interview with Anna Somers Cocks of the Art Newspaper, “is what my father said: ‘Look at the United States and after 20 years the same thing happens here [in Europe].’ ”
What has changed, Ferrero added, is that “it’s no longer 20 years, it’s five to 10 years. .?.?. So, this journey was also a journey into ourselves.”
Most of the photographs speak to harsh economic conditions in places where once-thriving industries have collapsed. One, taken in Detroit, shows Kishna, a Black mother of five, four of whom surround her on their porch, each in evocative, unrelated attitudes. They are beautiful. They live near the derelict Packard factory, says the caption, and await the return of her husband, a day laborer.
The captions accompanying each image derive from conversations Busettini and Ferrero had with their subjects. “It was all very natural,” Busettini told Somers Cocks. Busettini made approaches in English while Ferrero, whose Spanish is better, made contact in the Spanish-speaking areas.
People still mystified by Trump’s popularity point to the polarized media, the culture wars, the spread of misinformation and the degeneration of politics into entertainment. All of those explanations open onto important truths.
But what these photographs show, again and again, is real people under acute economic pressure. As they try to survive and feed their families, many must reckon with unrelenting prejudice. Much of this is racist or anti-immigrant, and profoundly so. But a whole lot also takes the form of contempt and condescension from big industry and from coastal city dwellers who are oblivious to their daily realities, and whose scorn drives them crazy.
Trump, in his uniquely egregious way, feeds on their grievances. Yet the ingrained inequities revealed by these outsiders’ photographs was perhaps always going to lead to political convulsion of some kind. And those convulsions are unlikely to go away when Trump does.