Traveling throughout the American South and battleground states, Italian photojournalist Alfredo Chiarappa’s animating question for those he encountered was “How is America now, and what do you think will happen?” At first photographing voters to capture the mood in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Chiarappa still feels he has more work to do. His project, Divided States, took him to a barber shop in Florence, South Carolina, a diner in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, a homeless shelter in Brunswick, Georgia, and many other places he might never have otherwise seen. His aim throughout was to educate himself and hear all sides — his request to the viewer is to give each subject a chance. Now, he’s particularly interested in returning to the industrial Pennsylvania towns of Braddock and Johnstown, where he felt the fear and apprehension was most evident. For Polarr, I spoke with him about the project.
Emily von Hoffmann: How did you become interested in photographing people in the U.S. around the election?
Alfredo Chiarappa: Back in November, when I was in New York covering the US Presidential elections, I got an assignment from an Italian newspaper. They asked me to follow their US correspondent to Kentucky and Pennsylvania, reporting on the victory of Donald Trump for a special issue of the paper. I travelled around the two states, interviewing people and taking their portraits, trying to capture the mood in the aftermath of the election.
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Photographer note: A man driving his drone in the street. Vero Beach, Indian River County, Florida. With 29 electoral votes, Florida is the biggest prize of the battleground states. The line between victory and defeat in the Sunshine State is often very thin. In 2012 Obama won Florida over Romney by just over 0.9%, and there are currently about 4.4 million registered Republicans and nearly 4.6 million Democrats. Donald Trump won over Hillary Clinton by just over 1.2%.
When I went back to Italy, I realized I wanted to go deeper in the story and get to its core. I started to make a map of the road trip I had in mind, crossing places that I thought would help me better understand what had happened — places where people decided to give Trump a chance.
In Italy, where I live now, there is a great debate about the rise of populist parties. I think people are frustrated about a lot of things they don’t understand — economic recession, unemployment, immigration — and have lost faith in institutions. We started a kind of witch hunt to determine whose fault it is, and politicians who point fingers and find scapegoats usually win the debate.
Photographer note: Lawrence, Cleveland, Ohio. I asked Lawrence to talk about Donald Trump and he told me: “Before Trump there was a lot of respect for the [office of the] President, but with all the issues with Trump and those around him…I don’t know!”
EvH: Do you think you were better able to cover and discuss the election with people because you’re not a U.S. citizen? Or did that pose challenges?
AC: In general, when I approach people I want to photograph, I first try to make them comfortable in a conversation and I never judge them, whatever impression they make on me. For Divided States in particular, I don’t want to portray American voters as caricatures — especially Trump voters. I always want to give every person I meet a chance, and I want whoever looks at my work to do the same. For example, while shooting this project I wasn’t asking people direct questions about who they voted for, but wider ones such as “How is America now, and what do you think will happen?”
Photographer note: A scene from a barber shop in Florence, South Carolina.
The first thing the men asked me once I entered the shop was ‘Are you a Muslim?’ That was just because I had a long beard. They told me they were Republicans and wanted to give a chance to president Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump won South Carolina by 14.5 percentage points, more than Mitt Romney that won South Carolina in 2012 by 10.5.
Even though I’m not a US citizen, I don’t think these elections are not are my elections: the US holds the balance of power, and what’s happening here now will have consequences everywhere. However, not being involved emotionally in something can give you a privileged position when talking about a topic with people, because a lot of them want to help you understand a situation and get less confrontational if you’re a foreigner. For me, it’s not a debate but a conversation.
In one barber shop in South Carolina, you were asked if you are a Muslim. Were there other instances where you felt uncomfortable or unwelcome at all?
AC: It was an isolated case: I was wearing a long beard at the time and I realized it made the people in the barber shop a bit uncomfortable. As a result, opening up a conversation with them was difficult.
Working in the US sometimes is difficult for me for a simple reason: I always work in places where the streets are full of people and most of the daily life happens in the streets. In the US though it’s different: outside of the city centers, people are always driving and there’s almost no one walking, so I find that a bit frustrating. In some of the places I visited there was no one out in the streets, so it took me longer to do the kind of work that I want to do.
Photographer note: Alexander is an homeless man and he lives in a shelter. I asked Alexander to talk about Donald Trump and he told me that Donald Trump has a black aura behind him. Brunswick is a city in and the county seat of Glynn County, Georgia, United States. Trump won Glynn County over Clinton by over 31%, and Georgia by over 5%. Brunswick is included in the counties where the KKK is known to operate today.
EvH: Are there any images in particular that stand out in your mind as favorites, or that you feel especially proud of? Can you share the story behind them?
AC: I don’t know if proud is the best word to explain how I feel about this work, and I missed a chance to shoot many of the pictures I had in mind, so I feel I’m not done yet. I want to continue working in Pennsylvania, Ohio and the rest of the rust belt, focusing on the rise of populist idea in those state.
Two small industrial towns in particular are still on my mind: Braddock, near Pittsburgh, and Johnstown, right in the center of Pennsylvania, where I took a photograph of a woman holding a purse. That’s where I felt the current climate of American depression, a mixture of fear and apprehension, was most evident. I want to go back there to continue my work.
Photographer note: Bruce and Jessica, Fredericksburg, Virginia. I asked Bruce to talk about Donald Trump and he told me “Trump let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”
EvH: What are some conscious things you do, as a photographer, to make people comfortable or otherwise help create the conditions for a great portrait?
AC: What is important for me is understanding how to gain the trust of the people you want to photograph, and talk with them and listen to what they want to share with you. I always have them pose in a few different ways, to see which one makes them more comfortable, and try to help with light and background. I’m very receptive of what people are trying to tell me, but ultimately it’s always my vision of who they are that emerges in the portrait. A good portrait won’t give you an answer, but more questions.
Photographer note: Hannah, from NY on Trump Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C.
Every person I met helped me understand a little more. Sometimes I’d hear the same stories on and on, but with a slightly different angle. I usually I try to mix what people tell me with my own experience of a situation. Photography for me says more about the author, the photographer, than about the people photographed. Photography is the reflection, not an objective truth.
EvH: This was a highly emotional time and subject for many people, and to me there’s hope and despair in the images — how did working on this project make you feel?
AC: I didn’t necessarily see the subjects of my portraits as either hopeful or despairing, just as I didn’t want to only label them as Trump or Clinton voters (in fact, I initially didn’t want to use captions at all in the project.) I’m discovering a country that’s completely foreign to me, at a complex time of history; starting this project made more curious about meeting a variety of people with different opinions and listening to all sides.
Photographer note: Kim and Amelia, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Kim lives with her family in Johnstown. In Johnstown poverty rate is 34 percent, more than double the national figure, and in the last years Johnstown suffering from a rapidly declining population. Cambria County, home to Johnstown, chose Barack Obama during the 2008 election, but went heavily for Donald Trump in 2016 and Mr. Trump won for over 60% of preference. She hopes that Donald Trump does well, but she told me that people wish him to fail.