The cover photo of the Jan. 22, 2017, New York Times Magazine is a portrait of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), emblem of the United States. This photo, by Dan Winters, is meant to introduce an article by Wyatt Williams titled “National Burden,” a look at how legislative protection of this species has so increased its numbers that in many farming and ranching areas, the ferocious raptor (also featured on the U.S. Presidential Seal) is widely regarded as a pest.
The same weekend that “National Burden” was published was also, in case you need to be reminded, the first full day of the Donald J. Trump presidency. Times Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein wrote of the cover shot that “this bald eagle … is a Rorschach test for how you feel about the inauguration weekend.”
Amid the grand panoply of balloons, martial music, rhetorical flourishes of politicians and pundits, inauguration balls and the avalanche of signings of executive orders, hundreds of thousands of Americans celebrated the inauguration near the steps of the Capitol, while millions of others worldwide took to the streets to demonstrate their concerns over the rights of women in the face of what they feared would be a hostile executive branch. The next day, tens of thousands more descended on airports to express disapproval of an executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from the homeland of the bald eagle. The trash, which had accumulated on Washington Mall and in the streets during the celebrations and the protests, had barely been cleared away before confusion over the executive order began to emanate from network broadcast booths — and even from the President’s press secretary. That Sunday morning, Americans opened their newspapers to read of celebration and chaos.
Further back in the same issue of the Times Magazine is a photo essay by English news and conflict photographer George Georgiou. It features seven single-page and double-page photographs of American holiday parades, including Mardi Gras, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the MLK Day Parade in Los Angeles and a rodeo parade in Tucson. The photographs of Americans across the country grouped on sidewalks to quietly watch the festivities was a startling counterpoint to the images that played on our television screens that weekend.
Georgiou wrote of the genesis of his American parade photographs:
Three or four years ago, I was traveling around the United States, assisting my wife, Vanessa Winship, who was taking pictures for her book about contemporary America. That gave me a chance to get to know the country. My idea was to explore the politics of the road as a way of thinking about America’s various segregations — not just racially, but socially and economically as well. I visited various Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards and Streets. But that was too complicated, and there were so few people walking around the streets. I felt like an alien.
Titled “Where Americans Still Stand Together,” Georgiou’s photographs would at first seem, despite our current fractious political polarization, to be a non-controversial sop to one of the great unifying images of America: our melting pot of citizens lining the streets of towns, small and large, in a feel-good celebration of the freedom of expression we all espouse.
The first indication that something more telling might be at work is that Georgiou’s photographs are all in stark black and white, not in saturated, celebratory color.
The second hint is predicated on whether you know Georgiou’s other photographic work. I confess that I didn’t. Born and raised in London, he is the child of Greek Cypriot parents. After graduating with a degree in photography from the Polytechnic of Central London, he began a career as a photojournalist that has taken him to many of today’s most contested hotspots and conflict zones. He has worked extensively in Anatolian Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia and Kosovo. He aimed the same penetrating, uncompromising lens used in this international work at his hometown, London, in a memorable series of candid images titled “Last Stop,” a wide-ranging photo essay and book; he made these images from a city bus as it passed through the socio-economic enclaves of the city. Dozens of his photographs of conflict areas and the gentler color photographs of London have been published on his website.
Singular and most disturbing — at least as much so as the harrowing photographs made by James Nachtwey in a Balkan orphanage in “Inferno” — are the several dozen photographs titled “Hidden,” which Georgiou made in three psychiatric hospitals in Serbia and Kosovo. The residents were not only desperate, ill-attended mental patients, but also the war damaged, a legacy of the 1990s Balkans civil war. I must warn you in advance just how upsetting they are, but perhaps they can serve as a visual counterpoint and prolegomenon to Georgiou’s more accessible holiday parade images. You can view the 40-image slideshow of this heartbreaking and compassionate work here.
The New York Times website features 18 of Georgiou’s parade images, 11 more than in the magazine. I include them all in this post, along with some very personal observations, fragments within the images that may or may not have been seen fully by Georgiou at the moment he tripped the shutter during the gaps between the parade marchers and floats.
The central focus in the above photo is the unlikely juxtaposition of the seated obese man and the sleeping infant, the arms of the baby carrier a near echo of the man’s sprawled legs. Is he the parent, or is it the bubble-blowing woman whose daughter is looking distractedly down while most everyone else is turned to the right in anticipation of the next float about to break into the frame? This photo is the only one in the series that shows a figure holding an American flag. There is irony in several figures standing behind a barred and chain-link fence below a re-election poster for the local sheriff.
The photograph of a row of beaded, gay women in Dallas for a Pride Parade is a kind of chorus line of real-life American female body types, the visual center of which is a black-suited, oval-faced woman, her right leg bent like a Botticelli maiden. Several on the far left are checking social media; no one seems to be looking toward the oncoming parade participants.
The Cranberry Festival parade in Wisconsin seems, appropriately enough, to be happening in the rain, with tarps over several structures, including the central figure of the woman on a scooter, who is looking intently at the seated girl, whose adjacent mother may be reaching protectively toward her daughter. This photograph seems stuffed with a haphazard array of Breughel-like figures, each concerned with its separate scenario. If it weren’t for the nominal theme of “Parade,” you’d never guess the reason for this assembly, which is so unlike the line of young women in the Dallas Pride photo.
What could be more representative of the rich diversity of America than the photo of white Wisconsin at the Cranberry Festival and this one from the Algiers ward of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, an image chockablock with African-Americans eagerly looking toward the line of baton majorettes just breaking into the right edge of frame, along with a single young woman more intent on sipping from her friend’s Go-cup. Here is how Georgiou describes the event:
Last January, I returned to the United States to start taking pictures of parades around the country. In New Orleans, I photographed six Mardi Gras events, the most parades in any place. On one day, I shot two, which you can see on these pages, that made me feel as though I were in two different countries. One was early in the morning, at 9, just across the river from downtown, in Algiers, an African-American neighborhood known for its musicians. Everyone on the floats was black, as opposed to all the others I went to, which generally had white people on the floats. I was kind of expecting, maybe because of the music, a really mixed crowd to come out for this parade. A lot of black people came into the neighborhood from outside, but I saw maybe only 20 white faces the whole time. I was really shocked, especially for New Orleans.
Across town, in another Mardi Gras parade, a distracted, less visually composed image shows a number of white residents of the Garden District, heavy with trinket beads. The image seems to have no focus except for a monochrome-suited blonde boy holding his mother’s hand while staring directly at the photographer. These two photographs, taken in the same city on the same day, celebrating the same holiday, bear silent witness to race in America. Here, Georgiou describes the site of the Garden District parade:
The lunchtime crowd at the other parade — which went through the upper class Garden District along what’s kind of the main route for the biggest parades going into the French Quarter — was almost completely white. The amount of things like beads and shoes thrown from floats into the crowds was 10 times as much as at the morning parade.
Less than a week later, on Feb. 13, 2016, little more than an hour’s driving time to the north, Georgiou took an almost Walker Evans-like photograph of several figures looking in opposite directions during a lull in a Black History Month parade in Baton Rouge. Georgiou has said that he prefers these portraits of a few people to the tighter, stuffed groupings. The inclusion of the fire hydrant and power pole between the two human figures seems to reinforce the figures in a grouping of four verticals.
Here are nine more of Georgiou’s studies of Americans at rest, stories within stories, waiting for the viewer to speculate on many possible hidden narratives.
The only photograph in the series that includes open sky and a sense of the great American space is the one below, from a rodeo parade in Tucson. The human figures in a quiet horizontal array across the frame seem to be mere graphic elements in the overall composition, with the contrasting, receding line of an abandoned railroad more than a bit reminiscent of the topographical photographs of 19th century American photographers like Watkins or O’Sullivan. The piles of horse droppings foregrounded on the highway tell the story of the passing parade as the patient Western desert folks await the next burst of equine glory.
Group portraits of people standing around, just waiting. Maybe that’s when our guard is down, when we are most exposed — not when we’re hell-bent on some public display of solidarity, like a sports or concert event, but when we are simply present. Maybe, despite our vaunted social-media connections and our boasts of American tribalism, we Americans are mostly “alone together.”