One photographer’s perspective 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 at worst, 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.

Look at it this way. One candidate has the most experience of any presidential candidate in modern times while the other has the least experience of any one ever elected to high office. One candidate has a life long track record of working to expand gender equity across the country and around the globe. The other has a well documented track record of sexism (at best or misogyny at worst.) The only way we can heal 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.

One response to “One photographer’s perspective on the election and American exceptionalism”

  1. Hello David, I know this is kind of late to be responding to but I just found it. I’d like to say thanks for publishing it. It’s a great perspective on what is going on in America. Like you I had a great career vaporized by technology. I was a graphic arts film product manager for Agfa then Anitec and finally Kodak. That’s right film. Long before it started disappearing in the commercial photography market it was replaced in the graphic arts market. I was also born in a low income working class family that struggled to make a living. I had to help support the family at the age of 10. I know the people you are talking about and it still stuns me that anyone voted for Trump. There are many people who struggled more than me and my family who did not vote for him. I feel there is something else going on here. A deep seated anger. A fire that the right wing party has fueled against the most vulnerable people in our society. Villainizing them for the benefit of their careers. It’s not a new concept. Irish, Italians, Mexicans, Jews and Afro-Americans, to name a few groups, have been demonized in the past. Trump, always the marketing man, simply capitalized on this fire more intensely than any right wing politician ever dared. It’s not the public that’s to blame, it’s the politicians that deceive them into thinking there is a common enemy which is to blame for their troubles. When in reality its just people like them trying to survive in an ever changing world.

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