Does the American Dream Still Exist?

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Jeff Brouws Motel Drive, Fresno, California 1992
Jeff Brouws Motel Drive, Fresno, California 1992

Photographers deconstruct this idealised view of the USA with a powerful series of images

The American Dream calls to mind never-ending dusty highways, sunset horizons, fast food joints with luminous neon signs and stars of the silver screen with megawatt smiles. An expansive land of boundless possibilities, America has always captured the public imagination as somewhere to live out aspirations, desires and dreams. This idealised view is explored in Looking for America, the theme of Diffusion 2015 at the Cardiff International Festival of Photography. A month long biennial held in a range of venues across Cardiff, it features over 30 international and UK-based photographers whose work confronts and unravels American myths and utopias, landscape and road trips, civil rights, culture and consumerism in relation to their own contemporary experiences in Wales, America and the rest of the world.

Many of the artists aim to show us a more realistic and rounded view of America. Kentucky-born Stacy Kranitz’s challenging and powerful series And It Was Give(n) To Me documents the result of industrial decline in communities in Appalachia. In a collection of assorted ephemera, text and images, Kranitz paints a portrait of the poverty that’s resulted from unemployment, questioning the idea of America as a land of endless opportunity.

Welsh photographer Roger Tiley also documented Appalachian inhabitants, focusing on the coal camp communities in grainy black-and-white. From 1997 to 2002 he had meticulously photographed the civilians of the post-industrial south Wales valleys, and he draws interesting parallels between the two groups.

The religious and social identity of Americans is another prevailing theme in the exhibit. Purity by Swedish artist David Magnussen is a series of soft focus, pastel coloured portraits of young girls with their fathers taking part in Purity Balls, ceremonies in which girls promise to stay virgins until they’re married, and their fathers promise to protect their chastity. Magnussen explained: “To me, Purity is about how we’re shaped by the society in which we grow up and how we interpret the world through the values we incorporate in our lives.”

Elsewhere, cultural identity plays a pivotal role in Clementine Schnidermann’s I Called Her Lisa-Marie. Taken between Tennessee and Wales, it features a range of portraits of Elvis fans with slicked-back dyed black quiffs and chintzy home interiors. Treading the line between fact and fiction, the pictures show aspirational escapism, and invented radiant futures.

Looking for America playfully unravels the hackneyed and clichéd idea of the American Dream, whilst presenting a different reality. A medley of contemporary and vintage photography, iconic images of road tripping, kids in high school and beehive-wearing women canvasing in ’64 San Francisco combine to offer an intimate portrait of an expansive, ever evolving continent.

Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography, Looking for America, runs until 31 October, 2015