Looking At Americans Here - Phil Eidenberg-Noppe

Looking at Americans Here


I live in a self-selected bubble. I chose this bubble as I was finishing graduate school in my late 20’s. I sought a place: in vicinity of either the east or west coast, that had cultural amenities, where it was easy to access the outdoors, and that had “progressive values”. I worked to make this happen, and yes, the opportunity to self-select this place involved some privilege.

In the almost 30 years since I moved to Seattle many people have selected this same bubble. In fact they continue to come to Seattle in droves, regardless of some of the highest real estate prices in the country. Almost all of them seek Seattle for the same reasons I did, perhaps most interestingly the “progressive values” that are espoused by its citizens.

Living in a self-selected place with others who are like you does not afford many opportunities to get to know people who are not like you. However, as a documentary/street photographer, one of the subjects I’m most interested in is people who are not like me. So I seek them out, wherever they are. My photography practice is centered on better understanding the human condition, the lives of people different from me, and in particular – their cultural rituals and political beliefs. That is what lead me this past summer to the Omak Stampede, NASCAR at the Evergreen State Fair, and a Mariners game in downtown Seattle, three events in parts of Washington State that have widely divergent cultural rituals and political beliefs.

The Omak Stampede takes place in Omak, Washington. Officially known as the “Omak Stampede and World Famous Suicide Race” – the suicide race part involves around a dozen horses and riders that race down a 200 foot-high near vertical (62%) riverbank, across the river and into the rodeo grounds at the end of a program of more typical rodeo events. It is also known as the “Deadliest horse race in the world” and is deeply opposed by animal rights groups. When I told a friend about the Suicide Race she said “Why in the world would you want to go to that?!”

Attending the rodeo before the suicide race, I found myself looking through my telephoto lens at the people seated in the stands across the rodeo arena from me. I saw people who appeared to be relaxed and focused on the entertainment – in their “candid state”. It occurred to me that the view I saw might in many ways reflect the demographics of people from the Omak area – a rural area in North Central Washington State some 240 miles from Seattle.

While viewing the images after I got home from the trip to Omak, I thought it might be interesting to visit other spectator events in other parts of the state with differing demographics to capture additional sets of photos to compare and contrast with those I took of the Rodeo fans in the stands at the Omak Stampede. I subsequently attended a NASCAR race at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe, Washington – which is 33 miles northeast of Seattle, and a Seattle Mariners baseball game at Safeco Field in downtown Seattle.

It is now common knowledge that we are a deeply divided country. Washington is a deeply divided state. One only has to look at the county by county election results from the last 16 years to see how this plays out in Washington State. Generally, counties that include the I-5 corridor in the vicinity of Puget Sound vote democrat and the rest of the state votes republican. A further geographic determinant is whether you are on the east (Republican) or west (Democrat) side of the Cascade Mountains – which run north south through the middle of the state.

When you meet someone you don’t know, whether they share your outlook on life or not, one of the first things you do is look at them. It is the first step in information gathering that might lead you down the path to whatever relationship you may or may not have with them. In American culture, it is considered rude and intrusive to stare at people you don’t know, and it may even be considered a hostile act. This is particularly true if the person on the giving or receiving end of the stare is of a different sex, race, ethnicity, economic bracket etc, etc, etc. Yet how can we get to know people different from ourselves if we aren’t able to take that very first step, to look at people as they are, in their “candid state”?


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