Photographing the American Dreamers
When we asked Atlantic readers to show us what a successful life looks like, we received hundreds of submissions from around the country. Then, we smashed them up.
The dream with a capital “D,” of course, cannot be contained in a single photograph or a simple phrase. The dream is all these things at once, to everyone. It’s a proud cacophony of cultures that intersect and challenge one another, and below you’ll find images just like that. EchoSight's Daniella Zalcman and myself have sifted through all the Tweets and Instagrams to find the loudest images, and then mashed them up with images louder still. We also asked the photographers to tell us a little about their photographs and their dreams, which are included below each montage and have all been condensed and edited.
Some of these images and quotes will speak directly to your ideas about America; others may force you to look again. That’s part of the point. After all, struggling with the American dream is an awfully American thing to do.
The American Dream is often interpreted as a life of comfort and success, but the concept is subjective. Some may believe the American Dream means becoming rich, while others might simply be content with happiness. My images reflect the American Dream of the Midwest, capturing the lifestyles of small, rural towns in Northeast Nebraska. This dream comes to fruition through a strong sense of community. My photos show holiday celebrations, softball games and county fairs; these events are staples of American culture. Their dream is happy, innocent, and genuine.
Sometimes, an American Dream can be as simple as living in the warm city of Los Angeles and finding a strong wave to ride.
I’m always looking for a moment or situation that I can label as “Americana.” I’ve learned that’s not as easy as I once thought. The word is forever changing, and things we may not associate with the word are quickly becoming more prominent than the old-timey scenes we think of. My images represent a more classic vision of Americana—whether it a classic car or a cowboy preparing for a rodeo. There is a lot of tradition and history in the way people live in Northeast Texas and Southwest Arkansas. These moments aren’t the big, life-changing events of this country, but just quiet scenes of everyday people living out their American Dream.
Ali Kate Cherkis
To me, the American Dream is an idea. It is big, it is grand, and it is beautiful. And it is something we’re all trying to figure out. If you’re on on the street and you look for it, you can see the pursuit all around you. Everybody is trying.
What’s more important to me than anything else in the images I create is authenticity. The most beautiful face is the one unprepared to be photographed. The most interesting environment is the one you are surrounded by. I’m constantly looking through ever-shifting surroundings for that perfect moment when everything aligns into a balanced composition worthy of painting. It’s so easy to be overwhelmed with day-to-day worries and negative news (particularly during election season) that you forget to look at the beautiful life right before your eyes. So my American Dream is to capture these spontaneous moments to the very best of my ability and hope these images remind people that paintings are being created before their eyes every day, often where they least expect it.
I believe that the American Dream is what you make it, but in all honesty, I think that the phrase is rather outdated. The “American Dream” has changed so much since James Truslow Adams popularized the term in 1931; for decades the phrase was all about financial security, buying a house, getting married, starting a family, etc. Now, so much has changed, and I feel as though more and more people think that receiving a post-secondary education is the most important factor in achieving the American Dream. On one hand, I agree with that, but on the other hand, I think that common sense, motivation, and practical education (along with good health) are more important, but it needs to be on a national level so everyone is treated equally. Mind you, I think that we are much better off today than our parents’ or grandparents’ generations, but we still have a VERY long way to go.
Nili R. Blanck
It amazes me how often I hear people talk about the American Dream, as if it was a monument in Washington that still stands and we can visit and see for ourselves. For me, the “American Dream” is a myth that is not only outdated, but never really existed in the first place. Of course certain individuals turned abject conditions into empires encrusted with their names, but I do not think that a few brilliant people sanctify the existence of something we talk about in universal, seemingly timeless terms; indeed, these are people who, with ceaseless hard work and intrinsic ingenuity, finished at the head of the race—but only after starting miles behind. They are products of their own creativity and persistence, rather than outcomes of a system in which everyone starts out with the same types of boots that have the same length of straps. As the United States looks onto a fork in the road that reads “apocalypse” to the left or “evolution” to the right, I think it is crucial for us to reconsider the institutions that determine for whom the American Dream is something as unimaginable and distant as walking on the moon. I believe it is equally important to interrogate the standards of “success” we admire as a society: Being a good friend? Driving a foreign car? Taking care of the Earth? A degree from a school decorated with ivy on the walls? When we talk about the American Dream, perhaps what we need to talk about is the American reality: The norm, not the exception; the systems, not the loopholes; the inequality, not the equality.
My beautiful, brilliant aunts, who were together for over 20 years before they were able to get legally married in Maine, on their wedding day on October 13, 2013.
The American dream is many things to many people. It’s a big house with two cars in the garage and a white picket fence surrounding a large yard. It’s a big, loving family. It’s a fulfilling, and well-paying, career that allows one to do whatever one wishes in the pursuit of happiness. While that’s decidedly not the dream for many, that is how it’s marketed. Or how it was to me, at least. While all of those things are absolutely attainable, the dream is a nearly unachievable realm of the sublime.
When I think of the American Dream it makes me think of those ideals, but also how far removed they can be from the American reality. Upon reflection, I suppose this image represents the unremarkable, everyday experiences that inform and shape each of us while we achieve or maintain our own version of that dream. This scene is America the almost. America the getting by. America the occasional disappointment. America the Thursday. America the trying, we're doing the best we can. America the beautiful dream.
The American Dream is a faith in the ordinary, the common, and the close. It's seeing dignity in small moments and in routines. It’s a belief that if you do your part—whatever it may be—America will accommodate you. In open spaces, away from the coasts, it can be easier to place oneself in an America. Flags are more common. And the decline of small towns and family farms are reminders that the American dream buts up against more certain forces like aging and economics.
Having had the opportunity to grow up in the South as well as live on both coasts, the American Dream in 2015 is that we are not really all that different, regardless of how you identify yourself and regardless of what political forces are saying. Race, gender, political and religious beliefs, these things are used in ways to keep us at odds with each other, but through my travels, I have found that we all want the same things in the end. What are those things? A sense of community, that our families and friends are being taken care of, and that we are being treated justly.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, my grandfather didn’t have many options for work. After being drafted during the Korean War and serving at a Chicago hospital, mi abuelo worked many blue-collar jobs to support his wife and four children. Taxi driver, factory worker, and medical technician are just a few of the titles he held. Now he is forgetting his American Dream because of the dementia he suffers.
This image represents the wide variety of people who are proud to be Americans. It’s not just successful businesspeople, or immigrants who’ve worked hard, or military personnel who stand guard to protect our freedoms. It’s also the aging hippie who can ride a cruiser bicycle barefoot down a sidewalk in Florida on the Fourth of July with a flag bandana and matching swim trunks. We are one. We are all living the American Dream.
Every year, Jesse Christensen and his son Colter take a week-long horseback-riding trip through America’s first National Park, Yellowstone. When I made this image, the two had just finished working for about 35 minutes to wrangle their horses to load them into the trailer. After a hard morning rounding up the horses with his son, Jesse gave a relaxed look around his 40 acres of property that rests in the Yampa River Valley on the west side of the Continental Divide. The American Dream is about happiness through hard work, family, and simplicity. This image represents that.
“America’s drama, writ large,” Studs Terkel said of Chicago. That’s still the America I know.
The American Dream is a nostalgic look at a country that worshipped two-car garages and white-picket fences. A dream built around a economic structure that would lay a solid foundation for well being and community. However, it was a dream built for a certain economic class and it didn’t shape up the way it was supposed to.
John Thomas Collins
I contemplate the icy morning breaking apart, tepid light revealing shadows concealed along the street. The dank scent in the air is heavy; the yawning city rumblings pierce the lingering darkness. The heart of the streets come alive a footstep at a time. The syrupy light bends and weaves among the towering sentinels, then striking weather-beaten faces; they bow their heads and walk familiar paths. I wait for these moments, capturing the narrative of the city’s transient lives. I dwell in the faces and the movements of those who walk the streets. They activate the city and give it gritty and enlightening purpose.
Born in a country that ceased to exist overnight, I was too young to understand the implications of a drastic change in the color of our Soviet Union flag, which had waved ever since I could remember. As far as I was concerned, I no longer had to hide my fascination with all things American, including but not limited to Disney, Snickers chocolate, and—last but not least—jazz. Locked behind the bathroom door of our small Moscow apartment, I’d spend months mimicking Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
The United States was another planet on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The American dream was a concept I grew up admiring and craving from a distance, vowing to make it a reality of my own.
Now as an American citizen, living and breathing the madness of the Big Apple, not a day goes by when my love affair with New York City is not blooming, captured in snapshots from all possible angles. It always feels like the first time. Watching the magnitude of the city and its multi-layered “powerhouse” architecture through the lens of my phone camera, I never tire of its contrasting views. No two photographs of a landmark are ever the same.
The American dream, though many claim it has vanished, lives on. The inspiration and energy in New York City, in its every breath and every heartbeat, is still alive and up for grabs for those who believe in its power. “America the Beautiful” stands strong, and every snapshot, no matter how amateur or professional, whether in high or low resolution, captures the very essence of the dream that can be interpreted by each pair of eyes in a unique way.
There is no one set representation of the American Dream; it is forever adapting to the ideologies of popular political and social movements. The message is for people to work together, to treat others equally and to recognize one another regardless of the color of their skin or their social status. It is more than materialism—it is about the dream of living a simple, happy and fulfilling life through faith, equality, and freedom. This is the American Dream.
The Freedom Tower has been a beacon of strength for Americans since it took over the New York skyline. Built for honoring memories and pushing forward, it shows the never-ending support Americans have for one another. The dream is all about reaching higher and striving to achieve what may be unachievable. As a child of an immigrant, I grew up watching my father and grandparents do everything in their power to achieve something that I now work towards myself. Yet there are still many others who have not gotten their American Dream and may not ever have a chance. Just as the tower disappears into the clouds, the American dream can vanish.
The American dream is still alive, even for those who have only ever seen the United States in photographs. Just like the skyscraper in my photo, the American dream propels people toward the highest point—but is no longer a clear and safe journey. It is dark, full of contradictions and accidents. We can still get close to the heavens, but at what price?
The beaches of the Pacific Northwest are not soft, comfortable beaches. They are cold, rocky, and jagged. And like the Northwest coast, my parents’ experience of immigrant life in the U.S. has not been soft, nor has it been comfortable. The difficulties they faced frightened and confused me during my childhood, and I wished furiously that all our hardships would vanish. Looking back, however, with the added maturity of age, I see that our past trials have not been without purpose, as they have shaped my parents into forces of nature with extraordinary grace and beauty. This is the American Dream: To be tested, to endure, to emerge with character, and to look upon the trying past and unknown future with dignity, serenity, and wonder.