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‘Divided we stand’ – Journey through a polarised United States

Last year, Swiss photographers Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer travelled across the United States to meet people, hear their stories and take their pictures. Ahead of this year’s presidential contest, we talked to them about what they found and learned along the way.

During the 2016 election, the couple was living and working in New York. They could sense the stark divisions among the American population.

In 2019, Braschler and Fischer went on a four-month road trip across the US, travelling through 40 states, passing through suburbs and housing projects, big cities and small towns. They converted their van into a mobile photo studio and invited people they met along the way to be photographed.

swissinfo.ch: What inspired you to go on this journey?

Monika Fischer & Mathias Braschler: The United States has captivated us for many years. We travel a lot for our work, but we haven’t spent this much time in any country besides our homeland, Switzerland. When we witnessed the election of Donald Trump in New York on November 8, 2016, we were as surprised as many Americans. How was it possible that a man like Trump was elected the 45th president? What had led so many people to elect a populist who had very few qualifications for this high office? We wanted to find out what moves people between New York and Los Angeles, what their concerns and hopes are. So we decided to explore the country once again to get a deeper insight into the soul of the United States.  

swissinfo.ch: What draws you to the country?

Fischer / Braschler: The nature as well as the cities are really beautiful! The fascination also lies in the contradictions of this nation, the extremes, the vastness, the openness and spontaneity of the people. Of course, it hasn’t been true for a long time now that this is the land of unlimited possibilities, but when you want to do something, you’re free to pursue it.

swissinfo.ch: How did you decide which people to ask to sit for portraits?  How many portraits have you done altogether?

We only researched and arranged portraits with a few people ahead of time. They were people from the military, the navy, or public service. The other portraits were taken spontaneously during the trip. Of course, we took care to feature people from different backgrounds, regions, professions, and social classes. In total we made 115 portraits.

swissinfo.ch: Was it difficult to get people in front of the camera and to get them to talk to you?  

Fischer / Braschler: No, not at all, we received practically no cancellations. As soon as people realise that you are honestly interested in them, they are fully involved. Some of them talked about themselves for up to three hours. 

swissinfo.ch: Have you / would you ever do a project like this in Switzerland?

Fischer / Braschler: Yes, we did. We made a book called “Die Schweizer”- The Swiss. We also planned a road trip, but there you come up against certain limitations. In Switzerland it’s completely different, there people are much more timid and have to pull out their schedules to arrange a portrait session ahead of time. As soon as an appointment is made, it doesn’t have the same spontaneity anymore; people think about what to wear, what to say. Especially the women in Switzerland are reserved. There is a different kind of modesty, where they say “Why are you asking me to do this? There are much more exciting people.” That doesn’t occur to Americans at all.

swissinfo.ch: Back to the US – You decided to take your photos in a studio. Wouldn’t it have been even more meaningful to show the people in their real surroundings? At work, in their homes, or on the street? 

Fischer / Braschler: No, that’s exactly what we didn’t want. The intention was to visually democratise the people. As soon as you see them in their environment, for example in a small, untidy apartment, a different picture immediately emerges. We were concerned with the fact that everyone should be treated equally so that the viewer can concentrate on the person.

swissinfo.ch: How did you react to people you met who thought differently than you, made racist statements, got particularly close to you or maybe needed help?

Fischer / Braschler: We completely withdrew ourselves. We were spectators and listeners. This work is absolutely not about our point of view. We wanted to capture and portray exactly these extremes.

swissinfo.ch: What social issues came up when you talked to people? 

Fischer / Braschler: The nation’s deep division caused by the president is very much on people’s minds. Both Trump opponents and supporters alike regret this division. People also work a lot and still have meagre incomes. The American Dream has given way to hopelessness. Drugs are a huge problem, which is completely underestimated [by observers] in Europe. Opioid addiction is incredibly widespread, it varies from region to region, but the extent of the problem is enormous. Homelessness has also increased dramatically.

swissinfo.ch: Do you think that this division will deepen or do you have hope that people will become willing to talk to each other again?

Mathias Braschler: That depends on what happens in the elections. If Donald Trump is re-elected, this division will deepen even more, since his policies are based on the sides playing off each other. I am quite sure that Trump will lose. He has angered so many centrist voters with his coronavirus policy. If Biden wins, he will work to soften this polarisation. For me, Biden is the right man for the job. Because he is a bit boring and moderate, he has this chance.

swissinfo.ch: You have lived in New York and Switzerland for a long time. Now you have given up your apartment in the US. Do you miss it? 

Monika Fischer: We had to give up our apartment because of coronavirus. At the moment nobody wants to live in New York and it is a good year to be in Switzerland. Our son Elias and I miss the city, for the first time we are living in a very rural area. Right now it only exists in our minds, because we can’t travel there. Before, [when we were away], we knew that there was still the apartment in New York.

Mathias Braschler: Right now I don’t want to live in New York. I would immediately take a road trip through the country [though]. The vastness and openness are wonderful! 

“Divided we stand” will be shown at the Stapferhaus Aarau until November 19 and at MASILugano until November 22.

Braschler / Fischer (photos)