And yes, the inaudible spreads across state lines.
It’s called backing away from the face of America.
Bloodshot eyes calling on America
that can’t look forward for being called back.
America turned loose on America —
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
To engage with Jasmine Clark’s work is to engage with a complex mixture of issues that serve to both define and divide the United States at this particular moment. What is the nature of our military might, presence and mission in the world? What is it to be a person of color that has dedicated their life to national service in a nation that is so loudly, bitterly and lethally engaged in holding onto economic and social models of systematic racism and oppression of that self-same population? How is the notion of God mixed up in that defense of our national values? What are our national values, exactly, and how shared can they be at a time when everyone seems entrenched in their contradictory stances and stakes? What is it to be patriotic today? How different is patriotism from a very powerful form of propaganda, and if they are similar, to what or whose ends is that propaganda manifesting?
People with lives and families in the military lead different daily lives than those of us who reside in the general civilian population. An obvious enough statement, with some less-than-obvious realities, such as this: enlisted or reserve U.S. military personnel are not afforded the same constitutional rights to freedom of speech as those whom they defend and protect to maintain. Among certain context-based restrictions are these: Article 88 of the UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. 888, makes it a crime for a commissioned military officer to use contemptuous words against the President and Congress, among others. The Department of Defense has also expanded this rule to include all military enlisted personnel. Violation of these codes would include publicly criticizing the President, administration policies, or protesting these, the military itself or any military action. And “public” would also include the use of something as ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous as social media.
Growing up on the Twentynine Palms California military base, the daughter of two career Marine officers, Jasmine Clark has been carrying out a specific and special kind of project that deliberately plays with the legacy of that prohibition. While active or reserve military may have to curb their tongues, the law does not hold true for their dependents. For the past several years, Clark has been using the camera and her life experiences to understand, give voice to — and yes — personally express what her lived “in-but-not-of” status grants her the power to do.
The photos depict both the Marine base upon which she grew up, as well as a more recent focus upon a visual investigation of Middle America; a place in which the symbology undergirding much of these structures intersects with politics and people in number and in ways that are more than worthy of contemplation. In her artist’s statement, Clark writes:
“It is important to depict, normalize, and understand Middle America. My work probes how American patriotic identity manifests when its symbols are conflated with complex and polarizing issues such as religion and nationalism.”
Her photographs juxtapose place and space, symbols and the absence of any attached meaning to them, and make subtle and sophisticated comments regarding the inevitable futility of over-identification with any one or combination of the elements she is calling into question. One quiet image depicts a series of roughly painted white crosses set on a support of imitation gold leaf. Clark titles that row of crosses displayed on that background simply: “Pyrite.” Fool’s gold.
A watchful disciple of Robert Frank, her images comprising both the military community of Twentynine Palms and of Middle America weave crosses and flags, just as the Swiss artist did as he assembled his edit for his seminal accounting of a post-WWII Middle America. Also in sympathy with Frank, Clark allows plenty of breathing room for anyone that comes upon her work to encounter it how ever they are so inclined. In an interview on strangefirecollective.com, she told interviewer Jess T. Dugan:
“I do not want to completely dictate how someone reads the work, though I am deliberate about my attempts to open the dialogue about the implications of what I include in the frame.”
Thus: what I see in a photograph by Jasmine Clark may not be the same thing that my opposite-party voting immediate family member might see, and would most certainly mean different things to us both, though we are regarding the same accumulation of objects, colors and place. To each his or her own.
In purely formal terms, the spare, quiet quality of Clark’s After Eisenhower series subtly deceives the eye. You may think that what you are looking at is the faded trace of some patriotic homily, which has since become worn by sun and neglect; or that you’re simply gazing upon a small town scene of a local dive bar’s karaoke night. However, a low hum of disquiet and discontent pervades these images both singly and serially. The light and color of each image may seem straightforward enough: the pretty early dusk gloaming of a deserted street corner in Twentynine Palms, light thrown against a large mural commemorating Operation Desert Storm; the uniformly flat, soulless fluorescent lighting over a gun display; the filtered natural light suffusing the still comfort of the corner of the artist’s childhood home. As these images are viewed in succession, however, and our consumption of the works and their meanings builds by a process of accretion, there is a growing sense that the light in these works are by design meant to be seen theatrically: what we are viewing is a stage, or, more precisely said in military terms: a staging area. The fact that the scenes are also depopulated adds to this sense of holding one’s breath, of waiting for something to happen. Absent of anyone to look at, we are instead invited to insert ourselves into these Middle American settings; views that we have become desensitized to from our chronic over exposure to them. Excised by Clark’s mind and eye, though, we may see ourselves there, perhaps walking underneath a doorway atop which is pronounced in paint, “I SUPPORT OUR TROOPS,” and wonder: have we just become anointed with the empty platitudes of that sentiment, complicit with it by virtue of our entrance, or both?
The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.
Interested in submitting to Exposure? Read our submission guidelines here.
Find out more about SPE here, or learn about the many benefits of membership here. Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2018 Annual Conference “Uncertain Times,” to be held in Philadelphia, PA here.