State Of The Union
Scenes From The U.S. Presidential Inauguration
Though it is unusual for us to focus on a particular event, we felt like this is a moment of cultural shift, a moment in history that all of us, as artists, as photographers, as thinkers, wanted to express in some way. If we are going to talk about culture, and as we say, make culture out of the world, that inaugural day, that coming together of forces in Washington D.C., seemed like an opportunity to capture a snapshot of American culture right now, in all of its confusion, passion, and complex emotion. Annie Morton, André D. Wagner, and Debra Scherer, discuss their experiences and try to make sense of the stories the pictures tell.
Debra Scherer: What does American Culture mean anymore? It’s almost like, “Oh wait, let me check to see what it says on your hat. Oh ok, now I know what you think.” That is so fucked up. What is with the hats, and the slogans, and the signs?
André D. Wagner: And that’s all over the pictures. It’s all over everyday. Even when I walk down the streets right now. And that was true even before the election, people were wearing their hats and their t-shirts, and somebody is walking towards you and you are just trying to see what it reads, “Make America Great Again, or Read Again, or Gay Again.” It’s like you’re constantly trying to figure out, “Who are you?”
Debra: That is why everyone voted for those hats. What does that say about our culture, that how easily, through social media, everyone was manipulated? It’s a frightening world.
André: Meanwhile, Trump is actually putting down the real news organizations, saying they are fake news. And we are only really worried about what a sweatshirt is saying?
Debra: Well that is his game that they perfected. I think that is something that your work talks about a lot, and Annie’s work talks a lot about it too, that people aren’t just a slogan. Annie’s work is so full of empathy for people that there is so much going on. There is also a lot of emotion going on in your pictures too, but I think in a very different way. It is always about an interaction you as an artist are having with a subject matter, but I think in a kind of different way.
André: It makes sense that people like the slogans. The quick and easy things are the things that catch these tidal waves.
Debra: And as we saw, also, the view we had being there was not what people saw on TV. The whole inaugural event was very different on the ground than the images we saw later on the news. Even the inaugural parade itself. Nobody marched in any parade. It was just super-mega-armored cars with darkened windows and they drove by so fast.
André: So fast!
Debra: Nobody saw anything.
André: We got one picture. It’s like you couldn’t advance the film fast enough because they were going so fast.
Debra: All you would have seen was a limo with blackened windows. The Super8 got it though.
André: And then to see the disappointed faces in the crowd after like, “That’s it?”
Debra: They were pissed off. They said, “We could have watched this from home.”
Annie Morton: It was incredibly anticlimactic. They had all of these great expectations of what the day was going to bring.
André: I wish I could have been there to see Obama’s inauguration, just to see what the difference was. Because people were like, “Hold up, now he’s gone? We don’t get to see him? He’s not going to get out of the car?” They were like, “Oh he’s going to get out and come back down.” I was thinking, “If they drove by why would he get out and walk down again?”
Debra: And they were all watching…and they all had their phones in their hands in a certain way. They were not on Twitter, they were all watching Fox News as they were standing there. They all had to just keep watching Fox News. But let’s talk a little more about the generalizations about what the vibe was like when we were there. It was very strange, like you were saying, “I wonder what other inaugurals were like?” My guess is, from people I know who were at Obama’s inauguration, that first one, it was just sort of elation, unbelievable joy, a feeling of community, all of that kind of stuff. That is not what it was like at this thing at all.
André: It was so cold. Everybody was trying to figure out who was who.
Annie: Yes that was really interesting to watch, seeing the difference in the people. The Trump supporters standing right next to people who were there protesting, and it was all peaceful protest, which is another thing to mention. There wasn’t anything violent about the protests. It was a quiet, “grassy knoll” kind of experience. That was the one thing that stood out to me more than anything else; it was so quiet, it was so incredibly quiet. Where was all of the sound? For the amount of people, it was so quiet.
Debra: And if you didn’t have a hat on at all, then it was like, “I don’t know where to put that person. I don’t know what to say about that person.” Also, I really hope this comes out in the pictures, that it was a good 50/50 mix between people. That’s what was so crazy, that it was one person with a Trump hat standing right next to, shoulder-to-shoulder, sort of smashed up against, someone holding a “Putin’s Puppet” sign.
I witnessed and listened to conversations between sign holders and parade goers, who were not die-hard crazy alt right Nazi types, or should I say, White Supremacists, and even they didn’t really know how to talk to each other. This woman said, “I don’t understand. You guys had your parade with Obama the last two times. This is our parade.” And in the nicest voice like, “Why are you here? That was your parade. This is our parade. Why can’t you guys just let us enjoy this parade, because this is our guy, and our guy finally won?”
André: And because Fox News doesn’t cover any of those reasons why.
Debra: It was very creepy and weird, like nobody was cheering, there was no feeling of elation, you know what I mean? Everyone is at a parade and you could see, even the people who had been there since six in the morning, lining up and waiting, there just wasn’t a sense of elation.
For instance, take that moment with the crying girl that you both photographed. I remember that moment when they were singing The National Anthem, I remember you and I had sort of split off from Annie for a second, and we were going back and forth, and when they started playing that it just…we all got very emotional. It was a very emotional moment.
Annie: I was walking back down the parade route and I noticed this woman crying, leaning up against the street pole, and I felt really bad for her, and I wanted to just go over and give her a hug, and I looked behind her and there just happened to be all of these men proudly pledging allegiance to the flag. And it was a really powerful moment, especially being a woman and seeing this woman in this situation, crying her eyes out.
Debra: I think everybody thought that someone was going to swoop in, like Superman was going to show up, and the nightmare was going to be over.
André: I remember when The National Anthem started, and when that moment happened, I knew that I wanted to walk around and photograph because everyone was still, and obviously all of the emotion was on people’s faces. So I was walking around taking these people’s pictures, and there were these two guys who I had seen earlier and they had their “Make America Great Again” hats on but it was like a camo version, they had their boots on, and one guy said to me, “You’re not going to take your hat off? You’re not American?” And I just looked at them, and I wanted to say so much, but I just kept my mouth shut. I just kept walking around photographing. That’s when I think I ran up to the woman leaning against the pole crying and the guy really hysterically throwing his hat up in the air. I think that picture says a lot because that is the contrast of the whole event.
The one person who is feeling like, “What the fuck?” And the other person who is so happy, so rejoiced, but also putting it on like, “Yes!” Because when I photographed him I could tell that he felt my presence there, and it was almost a little performance. He already had his hat off, and was happy, but it was like an extra performance that he wanted to do. And it’s like, “Damn! You see this girl crying and you still have to perform?” It just expressed a lot, and Annie I think I was standing right next to you, and we both were involved with the scene, and were trying to make a picture of it. And then it was over and the event kept going. That moment before photographing him, I was so angry. I was like, “Who do these guys think they are talking to?” Like saying, “You’re not American unless you take your hat off.” And then I turn around and this is happening.
I’m trying to capture that, so even as a photographer, with all of the emotions going on in me, I was just trying to make images of what was happening. Because the anthem, it just seemed like it happened so fast, and I wanted to try to get a lot of pictures of what was going on. Even walking through the path, back and forth, and hitting different spots, there were some people who were happy to be photographed, and there were some people who would just look at you like, “Why the hell are you taking my picture?” As if they felt like I was attacking them by photographing them.
Debra: Yeah. I felt like there were certain people who were wearing certain hats, let’s say, that when they looked up and saw I was taking a picture of them, I got afraid and I backed off fast.
André: Because they would give you that look.
Debra: It was a look. It wasn’t like they were like, “Give me that camera!” It wasn’t like that at all. It was like somehow they were going to take my name down and put me on a list. And then I did have an experience where I wound up talking to a lot of the people, only because I wanted us to get a spot at the lineup of the parade, and I could see that there were a lot of people already lined up. I wanted to slowly work my way in so that we would have that spot when the parade was going to happen, since we thought there were going to be planes and flyovers, and we thought they were going to be marching. So I did get to spend a good couple of hours talking to Trump supporters
Annie: When I’m shooting, I always try to find the beauty in everybody that I’m photographing. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it in Washington that time. I was looking, and searching, and trying to find common connections. I’m from Pennsylvania, and some of these people are my neighbors, and I would see families with kids, and older grandmoms, and everybody was excited, and they had their Trump hats on, and that’s what they wanted. And they got what they wanted. I didn’t think it was going to be easy to find that connection this time, but I think I did, even though we don’t have the same views about how society should be. I guess it was about understanding how to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Debra: A lot of them, they had a thing about the press, like that whole thing about bad press versus good press. I don’t ever remember that being such a thing. Good press versus bad press. I mean there were editorial pages that you agree with, or don’t agree with, but not in that sense. It was as if they were asking me, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Just because I had a camera around my neck and I definitely didn’t dress up to be there. And they were like, “Are you the good press or the bad press?” And my answer was, “We’re not really the press at all.”
André: I feel like what we were doing, and where we were at, we got a picture of a whole different side that was overlooked. It wasn’t like this super exciting thing that was happening. That was interesting. It makes sense why a lot of people didn’t cover it, but at the same time there is something very truthful in the reaction, and just where we were, and how people were acting towards each other, and just the calmness, and this eerie vibe, and a little bit of happy vibes, and sad vibes. There was something just so much more truthful about what we were doing. I think it is important, and I think this work will stand the test of time because it’s not too climactic, it is something more that you can sit with and look at.
I feel like through these pictures you can look at people’s faces, you can read people’s signs, you can see the types of people who were there, the types of people who were literally shoulder to shoulder, families and their gear. Trump is in office for a reason, so these were the people who actually voted for him. I feel like there is so much that can be taken out of what we did and we should be able to break that down into a larger understanding of what’s going on in America. There’s a lot in the pictures, in the emotion, in the folks, in their faces. It just says a lot about where we are, and where we’re going, which is, you know, who knows?
Debra: For me, the biggest thing about the pictures, what is so evident, is that they don’t make so much sense. There were a lot of real question marks. Those were the conversations I was hearing. It was also really interesting because I never thought for one second that things were going to get out of control. Everybody else saw on the news that there were these riots going on, and there were fires, but where the main event was going on…
André: ...It was so calm. Everybody was so peaceful.
Debra: It was quiet. And everybody was just sort of there. Even when conversations would break out, like what I was talking about, “Why do you have to ruin our parade?” There was the one woman with the Trump hat on who was really getting in the face of the other guy, but even that, I would say they were having an argument. I wouldn’t say it was a fight. They were actually talking about sexual assault. So it was a black woman who was defending Trump against a white man who was saying, “How could you vote for somebody who has sexually assaulted so many women?” That is where we are at right now.
André: There is something very truthful about this.
Annie: It’s true. You do get a lot of information from looking at these photos. Hopefully that is one thing that we could all possibly come to an agreement on.
Debra: You can’t know someone’s heart by their skin color, or their age, or where they live. That is the biggest Culture Crush thing from deck one and day one: the end of demographics as we know them. We’re interested in the world, the actual world, where people are living, where people are getting a job, or not getting a job, or getting sick or not getting sick, or going to school, or not going to school, or having a good day or having a bad day, or that girl is crying and that guy is jumping up in the air, throwing his hat into the air. That is the world we live in, and I guess that is what we are reporting on, sort of, the state of the union. Maybe that is what we should call the story. The State of The Union?
André: I like that.
Debra: I guess that is what this project is. We are reporting on the state of this union. We’re all stuck here with everyone. You can have all of the feelings that you want about your identity, and how you feel, but what does it mean in the real world?