One photographer’s perpective on the election and American exceptionalism
I get it. I am a 59 year-old, white male. I work in a field that once provided me with a very good living, a field that has been decimated by changing technology and globalization. The work that I used to get paid good money to create is now done by people overseas, or by others in America, who get paid much less than I ever would accept, or by machines. But I am still troubled by the recent election result because American workers, like me, have been displaced by changes in the economy and labor market for decades if not centuries. Adaptability to change is a hallmark of what has been dubbed “American exceptionalism”. So what changed in this election?
I am a publication photographer, having worked early in my career for newspapers and later for magazines/web-sites. The work that I was once paid to perform in the developing world for American organizations is now performed by “locals” who live in the kind of places I was once sent to photograph. They earn considerably less than I did when I was sent abroad to do my photography work. Domestically, publications thrive today on what is called “user provided content,” which means the average person giving away images to publications for free or minimal payment. A job that once provided me a very good living has been vaporized by technology, just as happened for buggy whip makers, typesetters, switchboard operators, riverboat pilots, and on and on and on.
Many of my peers, who used to be “masters of our little universes” have left the field of commercial photography, retired early, or have been left stumbling along depending on their families, spouses, etc. Unfortunately for us, no retraining programs have been made available by the government. Unemployment compensation has never been an option for us, since most of us spent our entire career as self-employed, small business people. So, I can understand the anger of those who saw change destroying their livelihoods.
Before writing me off as part of the problem, as part of the “media”, remember that my role as publication photographer has repeatedly brought me face-to-face with Trump supporters, Tea Party members and their predecessors over the years. I know them, having photographed them for publications, as they struggled to live the American Dream. I know them as the family of six I photographed living in an old yellow school bus outside of Fort Worth, Texas. I know them as the four young men who joined the Marine Corps together, and the two who graduated as Marines, having survived the grueling basic training. I know them as the husband and wife mill workers in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who lost their jobs to automation and outsourcing. I know them as the Quahoggers (shell-fishermen) of Narragansett Bay struggling to support their families by doing a hard day’s work in hope of earning a decent wage.
I know these men and women as good, hard working, motivated people striving to do the best for themselves and their families. I know they have been occasionally kicked and beaten down by the winds of change, but I, also, know that every single one of them is tough enough to work their way back. Each one has come back stronger, often reinventing themselves as something new, just as I have been forced to do. They were looking for help, not a handout, which is all I have asked for as I have slowly rebuilt my career as a videographer and photo-workshop teacher. So, I know first-hand, in my own experience and through that of the people I have worked with closely, that American life requires hard work, initiative, tenacity and courage.
What I don’t get is how those same American strengths propelled Trump to the White House. Yes, a sizable part of the electorate didn’t like Clinton. Yet, Clinton clearly had the policy and government experience. Whether that was a strength or weakness was up to each voter. For every scandal that a voter might tag Clinton with, an equally disdainful one was easily attributed to Trump. So they were neck-to-neck in their strengths and weaknesses, and yet the old white male won again. I am less convinced that the polls were wrong than the fact that there was something else, something that ordinary Americans would not say out loud to pollsters (or even to their friends) which has to be sexism or, god-forbid, misogyny.
I come to this insight as something of an outsider, having watched the end of the campaign from Morocco, where I was teaching two photo workshops. The Moroccans I meet were universally horrified to know that my fellow Americans sent Trump to the White House. No, Moroccans do not have any say in our election. Still, they are right to fear a President-elect who has overtly advocated banning Muslims, like them, from entering our country. The irony that seems lost on most Moroccans, and most Trump supporters, is that Moroccans, who live in a notoriously gender stratified culture were perfectly comfortable with the idea of a woman leading the most powerful nation in the world.
Having been self-employed my entire career as a small business person, I have lived out the American ideal of self-reliance and entrepreneurship. Knowing first-hand how many Americans struggled to adapt in this new age, I get what many voters worried about in this election. I knew we wouldn’t agree on everything, as Americans rarely do. But I expected better of America, better than the latent, hidden and understated sexism or misogyny that explains why Trump won. The only way we can help and move forward is to say, out loud, the M (misogyny ) or S (sexism) word and admit that we still have a long way to go.