America In Crisis: The DOCUMERICA Project

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This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #17.

A controversial Republican figure has been elected to sit in the White House. Tensions between the USA and its fellow superpowers are beginning to rise, with some political analysists proclaiming a third world war could soon begin. A heavy reliance on fossil fuels, a level of contamination in the nation’s water supply and rampant urban decay throughout the major cities, environment scientists are voicing their concern that America is beginning to crumble but their pleas for action are falling on deaf ears.

The above describes the national situation in America in 1972, but with the election of President Trump, fractious and unstable relations with heavily weaponised countries, the close to three year-long and still ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the ever widening gap between the social classes you’d be forgiven for believing it’s 2017.  For forty-five years we’ve seemingly all been Bill Murray, trapped in the environmental equivalent of Groundhog Day, with the same thing happening over and over again with no sign of change on the horizon.

In 1972 the newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to record the changes in the environment in the hope that plans could be made to slow down and eventually stop the onslaught of degradation. The EPA announced the monumental task will take the form of a photo-documentary project known as DOCUMERICA. The results of the project were truly staggering. Lasting almost six years and with the help of 71 photographers over all fifty states DOCUMERICA contained over 22,000 photos.

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The photographers worked geographically, choosing their subjects based on where they lived with some areas of focus being provided by the EPA. This approach to documenting the subjects created somewhat of a living map, highlighting an area’s specific environmental problem in immense detail. The photographers were also tasked with documenting how Americans were living within these issues, or as the director of the project, Gifford Hampshire put it, he not only sought to obtain images depicting environmental issues but also Americans “doing their environmental thing”. It is in these sections of the project, where we see how the person is interacting within their changing surroundings that the gravity of the project is realised. Observing the effects of urban decay within the housing projects of Chicago, juxtaposed with the fuel shortages terrorising cities like Portland, Oregon underline the true vastness of the nation and the range of problems they faced at the time.

These more personable images provide us with a snapshot of life in this time both for the subject and indeed the photographer. With the geographic approach we are not only seeing what the subject is living through but what the photographer is seeing on a day-to-day basis. Their lens becomes our portal into their world. Because of this each section of the project is different, each offering glimpses into different stories.

Take for example the photographer based in Chicago’s South Side who recorded the aforementioned degradation. In 1982 John H White won the Pulitzer Prize for Photojournalism for his “consistently excellent work on a variety of subjects”. A decade earlier he was working for the EPA, capturing the struggles the African American community were facing, like unemployment and cramped housing. Through his images we see the State way Gardens High-rise Housing Project. We see the Robert R Taylor complex of low income houses that were known as home for over 25,000 people. We see a lot of negativity, but thankfully there is positivity that also shines through. We see a black woman sitting on her porch proudly surveying her rose garden. We see young children playing, their happiness forever documented. We see Isaac Hayes performing at the “Black Expo” at the International Amphitheatre, promoting the idea that their surroundings shouldn’t define them and that they are capable of reaching their goals. Through each photographer’s project we’re treated to a kaleidoscopic portrait of their little slice of America.

The startling aspect of the DOCUMERICA project is that apart from changes in fashion very little has changed in the forty-five years since these images were first taken. It cannot be denied that work has been done in an attempt to reverse the problems caused by the mistakes of the past but the fact that there are still examples regularly occurring in 2017 highlight the real enormity of the problems. Although each new leader has promised to bring major change none have been able to convert a population striving for the American Dream to a country that is living it.

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Daniel Eggleston