“America, Again” is a year-long project by the photographers of VII, an exploration of some of the most important issues facing American voters as they head to the polls on November 3rd. This is Chapter 6: American Imperium which includes essays by Suzy Hansen, Anthony Loyd, and Jill Filipovic as well as photo stories by Hector Guerrero, Stefano De Luigi, Nichole Sobecki, Valentina Sinis, Leonardo Carrato, Forough Alaei, and two essays curated for this chapter from the VII archive.
Introduction essay by Suzy Hansen
In May of 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent his vice president, Richard Nixon, to visit Latin America. By then, over a decade into the Cold War, the Americans wanted to win hearts and minds in the so-called Third World. But when Nixon toured Venezuela, a crowd erupted in protest. “Get out, dog!” they cried, “We won’t forget Guatemala!” The protesters threw rocks at Nixon’s car, shattering the car windows. Eisenhower recognized that the Americans had a public relations problem. In a meeting with his national security advisers, the president observed that “capitalism, which means one thing to us … clearly meant to much of the rest of the world something synonymous with imperialism.” He suggested they come up with new phrases for the American project. Among them were “free enterprise,” the “free world,” and “freedom.”¹
If American propaganda failed to convince Venezuelans, or Iranians, or Chinese, it succeeded in shaping the collective worldview of its own citizenry. Of the many ways the United States government has insulated its citizens from responsibility for their role in the world, the use of language may be the most pernicious. It is still common, for example, to hear pundits, journalists, and politicians attribute the invasion of Iraq to “idealism,” the genuine belief that the Americans could bring the Iraqis “freedom.” Rarely in these discussions are Americans compelled to consider what that word had come to mean by 2003, or its long, deceptive history. James Baldwin once identified that white Americans and Black Americans had different “systems of reality;” a similar condition exists between Americans and the rest of the world.
Americans still not only rarely hear how the world speaks of American power, they know little of its effect on individual lives, not only from wars or invasions, but economic policies, international laws, and political whims. The photographs in this series address this gulf: Iranians separated from their loved ones because of Trump’s travel ban; migrants lured by America’s promise trapped at the border; women whose bodies are politicized by American policies; the possibility that China and the U.S. could enter a Cold War with as deleterious repercussions as the one with the Soviets. The photos not only help to understand the way American actions impact millions of lives across the globe. They remind us that the Americans and the rest of the world are connected by American power, that every U.S. election affects the world as much as Americans, that we live in a shared reality.
It is striking how many of these photos of today’s America do not echo the story Americans like to tell themselves about America: the melting pot, Ellis Island, bring me your tired. These photos often tell a story of exclusion. Today, America’s president uses words like “freedom” to mean the liberation of the American people from the humanity beyond its borders. One series of photographs here, however, remembers WWII, when Americans left their own shores to assist a foreign people against a fascist foe. Superimposed on the photos of American war veterans, and American gravestones, are the jarring, isolationist words of America’s current president. The effect is sobering, and of course, might inspire Americans to feel nostalgic for a more honorable time. But I wonder if we might also look at the composition as an act of questioning: What was in that honorable history that was a myth? What was lurking within us that led us to Donald Trump? Might the rest of the world know something about ourselves, our long history, our shared reality, that we Americans stopped being able to understand so long ago?
Photos and essay by Hector Guerrero
IN FRONT OF THE WALL
It is 4 p.m. in an area known as Playas de Tijuana. This is Latin America’s north corner, the last stretch of land that starts in La Patagonia ends here with a towering wall, which day after day is becoming higher, stronger, and impenetrable. Near the border line, there is a couple kissing. Next to them, a man with his daughter and son is making a video call to relatives living on the other side of the map.
THE WALL THAT DIVIDES EVERYTHING
The way is too long, endless. There are moments when all I can see is white sand, the desert sand of Baja California. In the middle of nowhere, I see a group of hard-working men. This is the famous wall President Trump announced during his political campaign. The “high and beautiful wall,” as he referred to it then, has arrived to the desert, in a lonely place where nothing has arrived before.
VIOLENCE KNOWS NOTHING OF COVID
It’s a warm Monday at 7 p.m., time for a traffic jam in the city of Tijuana. Inside the Red Cross station, Ulises Rodriguez, a paramedic, waits with his colleagues to answer emergency calls. They rush to crime scenes; they deal with victims with gunshot wounds, victims who are bleeding out. There are no hospitals that can take them. They are filled with COVID patients. Violence doesn’t stop for the pandemic.
I Miss You, America
Photos and essay by Stefano De Luigi
Since 2017, I’ve had this feeling of loss. I have lost a good friend — more of an older sister, actually — someone I’ve always turned to when I’ve needed help finding balance in life. There have been times when I’ve disagreed with her, but I always acknowledge her and what she means to me. She is the North Star of democracy. I am European. I learned what democracy is from her, from you, America. You saved us 75 years ago, from the worst of all nightmares.
I walk among the graveyards of Normandy, where a generation of young Americans and others from Allied Nations sacrificed the beauty and unfulfilled promise of their 20-year-old lives for ideas like freedom, unity, solidarity, and democracy. I feel the loss of you, a loss made even greater by what’s happening in America today — by a president who has destroyed so much, who had the nerve to call your brothers-in-arms “losers” and “suckers.”
What’s happening to you, dear sister? What’s happened to your care for the world, to your ability to listen to the voice of your own people? These were the things that made you great, truly great. This trust that your people have in the idea that America is the best possible example of a common destiny — and that you must lead by example. What has happened to that?
I long to feel close to you again. I am afraid these days. But I am also confident that one day I’ll find you have come back again, my great sister America. I am confident that these dark moments will be erased by the strength you’ve always shown in the toughest times, by your resistance and balance, qualities written in your DNA.
Today you seem unable to listen and to talk. You only scream and shout.
I hope that soon it will become only a bad memory.
“Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty (Open Skies) so until they adhere, we will pull out.” — President Donald Trump told reporters outside the White House. CNN. May 21, 2020
“I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state is so clearly not serving America’s interests.” — President Donald Trump to General Director of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom. May 21, 2020
“I have just given an order for our National Guard to start the process of withdrawing from Washington, D.C. now that everything is under perfect control. They will be going home, but can quickly return, if needed. Far fewer protesters showed up last night than anticipated!” — President Donald Trump on Twitter, June 7, 2020
“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” — President Donald Trump on Twitter, May 31, 2020
“As President, I can put no other consideration before the wellbeing of American citizens. The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” — President Donald Trump official speech on the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, White House Website
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over…” — President Donald Trump on Twitter, January 7, 2019
Essay by Anthony Loyd and photos from the VII Archive
The fighter in the rocks with the gun in his hand had jail time in his memory, shrapnel scars in his gut, and said he was tired of killing but was ready to kill some more. A mid-level Taliban commander, whose war alias was Khalid Agha, he said that he was sure of victory, and there was no compromise in his narrative of impending triumph.
“We haven’t been shedding blood all these years with the intent of sharing power with the Kabul government,” he said, tapping his PK machine gun as dust devils whirled across the Afghan plain. He laughed too, though the noise sounded more like contempt than mirth. “We fight for sharia, for the Islamic Emirate, not to make deals with democrats in the time of our victory.”
Just nine days earlier, on February 29, 2020, the Americans had signed the Doha Agreement with the Taliban to lay down the conditions for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. As these images bear witness to, made by VII photographers across more than three decades, there was no shortage of reasons to end the war.
Afghans were exhausted by four decades of conflict and deserved the peace they craved. Over 100,000 civilians had been killed or wounded in the past decade alone. Understandable too was the U.S. wish to leave its longest ever conflict, which across 19 years had cost it more than 2,400 American lives and a total investment of up to $2 trillion, for so little obvious result.
Yet the Doha Agreement seemed flawed from its inception, a charade advertised as a peace deal yet likely to precipitate further violence. Essentially, the agreement acquiesced to the Taliban’s main demands, without giving anything concrete to the Afghan government. Women’s rights? Democracy? Human rights? They had no meaningful mention in Doha.
Gifted the narrative of victory over a superpower, in the wake of this accord the Taliban’s mood was boosted from one of dogged endurance into a belligerent triumphalism. The sons of men who had fought the Russians saw the Doha Agreement as little more than a fig leaf to allow the Americans to withdraw before the Taliban recommenced their fight to seize the country, much the same as their mujahideen forebears overthrew the Afghan communist government in 1992, three years after Soviet forces had withdrawn from Afghanistan.
“We have just defeated a superpower,” smirked Khalid Agha, his men gathered around him.
“I made this photo as part of a series of images taken while wearing a burka, trying to see the world from the point of view of a woman in Kabul. I used one of the earliest cellphone cameras made, pre-iPhone (the Sony Ericsson P910). I held it pressed between my eye and the tight-fitting screen of the burka and couldn’t see the image I’d made until after I’d taken it. The file size is 166 kb. I was repeatedly stopped by security police who could tell by the way I walked in the burka that I was a foreigner.”
Essay by Jill Filipovic and photos by Nichole Sobecki
For hundreds of millions of women the world over, their safety, options, and opportunities hang in the balance of an election they don’t get to vote in.
The Trump administration has transformed America’s handling of international women’s rights, and its treatment of women themselves. For women fleeing extreme violence — a common “push” factor for women leaving Central America, where women are often the victims of domestic abuse, rape, and murder, and where police do little and sometimes participate — Trump’s America is not a safe haven. The administration’s cruel family separation policy ripped children from their parents, leaving some children and their mothers alike vulnerable to abuse behind bars. The president’s attorney general, William Barr, tried to remove domestic violence as grounds for asylum; Trump’s proposed new rules for asylum-seekers would end gender-based asylum claims, allow judges to refuse grants of asylum without a hearing, and make an already complicated system even more Byzantine.
One of the first things Trump did in office was reinstate, and then radically expand, what opponents call the Global Gag Rule. Under the rule, U.S. funds are cut from any organization abroad that provides abortions with its own non-U.S. money, refers women for safe abortion services, or advocates for safe, legal abortion. It doesn’t apply to U.S.-based institutions, because in America, it violates First Amendment free speech protections. Groups that provided family planning tools, HIV treatment, prenatal care, even malaria treatment and aid to orphans lost U.S. funding for engaging in work that is legal in their own countries, and would be legal in the United States. We don’t have hard numbers yet, but the Trump cuts have likely translated into millions of women losing access to contraception, which means that millions of them became pregnant when they didn’t want to be. Many have had children they can’t afford to feed. Many have had abortions, some safe and many not. Some have died.
While U.S. funds were being pulled from basic development work in some of the world’s most fragile places, the Trump administration was also undermining the ability of the international community to even discuss women’s health: After a UN Security Council meeting in 2019, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN announced that the U.S. would not accept the use of the term “sexual and reproductive health.” While abortion has long been controversial among UN member states, the objection to sexual and reproductive health — a widely-recognized need, not to mention a thing that simply exists — was a stunning and Orwellian change. The U.S. delegation to the UN has objected to basic women’s and LGBT rights at nearly every turn, often siding with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers to fight any advocacy for women and sexual minorities. One State Department report on global human rights took out all references to reproductive health and rights, and even removed statistics on maternal mortality.
American politics reach so wide they circle the globe. When U.S. voters cast our ballots on Nov. 3, it’s not just America’s future we’re voting for — we’re shaping the destinies of women we’ll never meet, whose bodies are politicized and whose rights are so often up for debate, and who have so much more to lose than an election.
Made in China
Photos and essay by Valentina Sinis
With China’s efforts to become the world’s economic superpower, the U.S.-China battle has been underway for years. Four years ago, Donald Trump came to power as a deal maker. He even claimed that trade wars are good and that he is the master of winning them. But in reality, he hasn’t won this battle; instead, the tension between the two superpowers is at its highest in years.
I’ve lived in China for the past 15 years. I watched the country and its youth move closer and closer to the West. For nearly half of that time, President Xi Jinping has talked about a Chinese Dream of global dominance, a return to the grandeur of past dynasties that inspires many Chinese. But from what I saw and experienced among Chinese millennials — particularly among the artists’ circles I was part of — the American Dream holds far more influence on young people than past and future visions of Chinese greatness.
As China and the U.S. move toward a new Cold War, I worry about them. I fear that Chinese millennials are trapped between two worlds — and that any wrong move could destroy their fragile dreams.
Here Without You
Photos and essay by Forough Alaei
“My hopes for a new fantasy life, suddenly became a nightmare,” my friend said, while her eyes filled with tears. Maryam had married her classmate, an American citizen, and she planned to go with him to the U.S. after their wedding in Tehran. But the newlyweds’ plans ran smack into the travel ban imposed by Donald Trump as one of his first acts after taking office in 2017.
After hearing Maryam’s story, I began to look for the stories of other Iranians whose lives had become entangled with the political views of the new president of the United States. There are literally thousands of people in my country whose visa applications have been refused since the ban was imposed. Many are seeking waivers, a procedure which may take years, while they are separated from their loved ones.
They are families, ordinary citizens, whose lives have been turned upside down by Trump’s foreign policy. They include the baby girl who has been in the U.S. for medical treatment while her father still waits for a visa; the mother who sleeps on her son’s bed, just to remember his scent — something she has done since 2015, when he went to Boston to study mechanical engineering; the family of four who can only gather via Skype. There are so many more.
Note: The families included here were photographed and interviewed between 2018 and 2019; some of them have been granted U.S. visas recently. Names have been changed at their request.
(Behzad got his visa in early 2020 and is now living with his family again.)
To Break the Ties
Photos and essay by Leonardo Carrato
Things were going well in Macaé. A small Brazilian city along the Atlantic Ocean, oil was discovered here in 1974, bringing with it rapid economic development and urbanization — and the national oil company Petrobras, which made its headquarters here. Over the next 30 years, Macaé became Brazil’s national oil capital, and while development was messy and unequal, the gleam of prosperity didn’t dim.
Then, in 2014, Macaé came face to face with a two-headed monster: the plummeting of global oil prices, and Operation Car Wash. The embezzlement investigation into Petrobras spanned the country, but its epicenter was Macaé, reducing the city to survival mode. The investigation rocked Brazil’s political and business establishment, leading to the imprisonment of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — a move that barred him from reelection and paved the way for a win for far-right Jair Bolsonaro. A feeling of decay and abandonment took over Macaé.
The operation was hardly a Brazilian-only affair though. A trove of leaked documents — co-analyzed by The Intercept and the Brazilian investigative news outlet Agência Pública — reveal that Operation Car Wash was a secretive collaboration between the Brazilians and the U.S. Department of Justice that may have violated international legal treaties and Brazilian law. The documents also reveal clear misconduct and political bias by the judge and prosecutors who handled the case against Lula, and critics have argued that the U.S. had undue influence here.
For many Brazilians, it’s yet another dark reminder of the U.S.’s history of intervention in Latin American politics, particularly in light of the close relationship between Bolsonaro and Trump. For those left in Macaé, all that remains is a grim reality, and the last, fading vestige of hope.
The Mighty Dollar
Essay by Nichole Sobecki and photos from the VII Archive
The 1950s in America was a decade of suburbia and segregation, the Chevrolet and Mad Men advertising — and the rise of the U.S. dollar as the world’s dominant currency. That America’s role as the sole financial superpower has endured for the past 70 years is remarkable, especially considering that the U.S. economy declined from nearly 40 percent of world GDP in 1960 to just 25 percent today. It’s also given America astonishing, and at times terrifying, power over other countries’ destinies. The images here, made by VII photographers, illuminate the implications of this often misused influence from the symbolic (and waist-expanding) association of fast food with success, the ubiquitous presence of Hollywood and Bieber, the way our national pastime of baseball has championed the values of the American dream abroad, and the high cost to Africa of well-intentioned used clothing donations. And still, the dollar endures. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, there was a record-breaking rush to get dollars, and the U.S. Federal Reserve has been sending billions to banks the world over in a process known as “swap lines” that help stabilize the global economy, and boost America’s financial hegemony. But the images also point to ways in which the dollar’s status will be tested by the rise of China, and President Donald Trump’s heedless use of financial warfare. Abroad, U.S. rivals and allies alike are looking for ways to liberate themselves from the mighty greenback. What would that world be like, and how would it change Americans’ place in it?
About “America, Again”
Exactly one year before voters go to the polls on November 3, 2020 — and three months before Iowans gather for their caucuses — VII launched the first chapter of our year-long collective election coverage, “America, Again.”
This project emerged among a few of the VII photographers with the intention of focusing attention on the issues that will dominate the U.S. election. The VII Foundation and VII Academy have stepped in to support the project in recognition of the importance of critical and independent storytelling in civic discourse. We will produce stories on material issues that people worldwide are wrangling with, not only Americans. We’ll cover issues that are used to divide us, and that allow populist politicians to undermine the values that are foundational to our societies.
- Chapter 1: IOWA
- Chapter 2: The Environment
- In Between: Democracy is Alive and Well…and living in Iowa
- Chapter 3: American Dreams
- Chapter 4: Interrupted
- Chapter 5: American Myths
Introduction by SUZY HANSEN, a journalist based in Istanbul and New York. Her first book Notes on a Foreign Country was a Finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and the winner of the Overseas Press Club’s Cornelius Ryan Award for Best Nonfiction Book on International Affairs.
Essay by ANTHONY LOYD, English journalist and noted war correspondent. He began reporting for The Times during the Bosnian War in 1993 and since then he has reported from a series of major conflict zones, including those in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Essay by JILL FILIPOVIC, a Brooklyn-based journalist and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. She is also a weekly columnist for CNN and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.
Photo editing by SARAH LEEN, former Director of Photography National Geographic Partners and founder of the Visual Thinking Collective for independent women editors, teachers, and curators.