Opening: November 13, 18:30
Duration: November 13 - December 1, 2013
Photographer: Ewan MacDougall
Curator: Alina Komisar
The purpose of this project was to reconnect with home. As a diplomat, Ewan MacDougall represents his home, the United States, by living far from it. Built into our overseas postings are periods of “Home Leave,” where the only requirement is that we spend a minimum of a full month in the United States to reacquaint. These photographs were taken in 2017 during a long home leave in between two overseas postings.
During five years living abroad from 2012-2017, the impressions of America Ewan received from foreign news and social media seemed dissonant with his own personal understanding of the country he’d grown up in. These fragments formed shallow caricatures behind which it was easy to discern various types of bias: media – in some countries state-controlled and -censored, in some cases populist or just parochial – peddled a narrow range of themes that cast a thin, pale portrayal of his homeland. These outlets seemed intent on reducing the entire country to a few divisive issues, a process Ewan saw reflected in countless student groups “studying” America and op-ed pages purporting to explain it. A handful of issues dominated: battles over gun rights, illegal immigration, religion, foreign wars, blue states vs red states, identity politics, and so on. By early 2017, even many American media outlets, when they were at their most candid, confessed to focusing so narrowly in their reporting, that they had overlooked major trends.
So Ewan returned to America to see it again for himself. From Venice Beach to Montauk; from mountain top to canyon floor; from city to desert; from red state to blue, he tried to see, meet, and learn as many different Americas as time would allow. This exhibit shows some of the highlights. There were plenty of lowlights, too, and they were often more instructive, if less photogenic. This selection captures cityscapes (the accretions of civilization over centuries) and landscapes (the accretions of geology over millennia) that reminded him: beyond the flittering headlines and social fads lay a more deeply rooted, enduring understanding of America. It reminded him that uncritical acceptance of anything you see/read/hear is the road to misunderstanding and manipulation. And, just as with these photographs of iconic scenes, it reminded him that often the decision about what’s not presented is most revealing.
You can see more of this story on Instagram @ewanmacdougall
I moved from the countryside to New York City when I was young. I loved the city’s energy and density, but I missed being surrounded by nature. Ever since then, I’ve sought refuge and adventure in nature to renew, recharge, and challenge myself whenever life’s other demands have allowed.
My profession as a public servant has deployed me across the planet from Hawaii to Guam – the long way around – and on every continent save Antarctica. I’ve lived and worked in the world’s most devastated conflict zones and its most developed societies, in booming megalopolises and remote landscapes where I didn’t see anyone for days. The work, while meaningful, has often been humbling but always fascinating, opening windows of insight into the human condition, where I can explore questions of history, culture, and politics and then allow those questions to bear on my understanding of the present. Photography has given me a vehicle through which to behold other visual dimensions of our planet’s beauty and complexity.
With my camera, I find myself more attuned to the details of life: studying lighting and weather conditions; awakening at unusual hours; tracking odd units of time like moonset and Milky Way rise; seeking out beauty in the world around me; exploring it from different vantage points to heighten my appreciation; and lingering longer, fully immersed in a setting, to savor the experience. The preserving powers of photography allow me to recall, revisit, and relive the experience – or a stylized representation of it – endlessly.
You can join me on this journey on Instagram @ewanmacdougall
Ewan MacDougall is a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State.