Capturing vulnerability in Trump’s new America

Andrew Kass shoots an exclusive photo series that explores new ways of coping with an unfamiliar world

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Andrew Kass for Dazed Digital
Photography Andrew Kass

According to writer Kurt Vonnegut’s “canary in the coal mine” theory, artists are useful to society because of their sensitivity. “They are super-sensitive,” he wrote, “They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realise that there is any danger whatsoever.”

For Andrew Kass, it’s this kind of sensitivity that’s currently missing in Trump’s America. In an exclusive series for Dazed Digital, the NYC-based photographer has created a selection of individual portraits in order to capture the vulnerabilities of US citizens following the 2016 presidential election. Placed alongside monochromatic photographs of City Hall, the intimate stills juxtapose the idea of political black-or-white rhetoric with the technicoloured complexity of human feeling.  

We spoke to Kass about why he believes it’s important to capture vulnerability during times of socio-political tumultuousness, and why engaging with such feelings can create a dialogue that helps subvert anger, blame, and extremity.

Why did you want to snapshot this current climate of feeling?

Andrew Kass: For me, it’s that idea of vulnerability – not overlooking it, but trying to understand it. That’s what will ultimately lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and others – taking the time to try and understand why people are feeling vulnerable and to create space that can open up that conversation.

The way I look at portraiture is the same way a writer would look at interviews. I didn’t want to speak for people on the political issues – it was more like experiencing and trying to find that in other people. This experience of feelings.

Do you feel like the more we engage with social and cultural vulnerabilities, the less susceptible they are to manipulation by political forces?

Andrew Kass: I think that when everyone is focusing on the extremes, like the anger, it just creates further distance or separation between everyone and everything. If you think of the vulnerability of others instead, it opens a conversation that’s already more sensitive – it creates a sensitivity between people, which I think is what truly understanding each other is about. Thinking about how angry we might be at certain outcomes or situations ultimately just tears us apart unless we try and understand the core feelings behind them.

“If you think of the vulnerability of others instead, it opens a conversation that’s already more sensitive – it creates a sensitivity between people, which I think is what truly understanding each other is about” – Andrew Kass

How did you choose the people in the portraits?

Andrew Kass: I did cast these people, in a way. They weren’t just models, it was people who were close to me, in this community in New York City or downtown culture. I reached out to a bunch of people. I think that a lot of people in the photographs expressed some sort of vulnerability in regards to these political events.

I did try my best to have conversations with everyone without being too over-emphasising, or overly direct. I didn’t want them to be portraits with a quote about politics – I wanted it to be deeper, getting at these issues in subtle ways, using the concept of feelings and sensitivity to try and reflect what’s going on and how people interact. When it becomes too overtly political, we use that sense of feeling.

What did you find they were feeling?

Andrew Kass: I don’t want to say confusion, but the only way I can describe it this sense of uncertainty. A lot of people just kind of fall back and defend themselves with anger or aggression when they’re uncertain. It’s a good defence, but it also leaves us isolated from others. It doesn’t allow much room for understanding. 

Why did you choose to juxtapose the portraits next to pictures taken in City Hall?

Andrew Kass: After I photographed City Hall it became deeper in the sense that every element of creating an image became apparent – the colours, the focus, and the lack of them in the City Hall images. It became quite technical, in a sense. I made a point to photograph these images in black and white, bringing out this idea of colour in the portraits against the monochrome of the municipal spaces in City Hall. Shooting it in black and white became a representation of what I find those political spaces to be. 

It’s showing that politics operates under this idea of black and white – monochromatic. You can use the same for a situation or a debate, when it’s reduced down to a choice between fixed, clearly defined principles – it’s double-edged in that way. I wanted to represent the photographic idea of these spaces – while using it as a metaphor for these extreme, opposing views – and to put them next to the portraits in order to bring out this contrast of colour. The representation of people is that it isn’t black and white at all – the colours are filled with everything else, every spectrum. 

Why did you choose City Hall specifically?

Andrew Kass: It was about the politics of space – it was interesting to be in these spaces that have such conflicting dynamics. They are these spaces for political conversation, but at the same time, they’re established to represent the people. I found that the disconnect is quite drastic with that. Even just pairing the City Hall images with the portraits created this disconnection between the spaces that represent us and the we the people they’re supposed to represent. 

What comes next in Trump’s America?

Andrew Kass: I guess a lot of it comes from actually not knowing what’s coming next in terms of politics. It’s important to be aware of what comes next, but also be present with each other. The uncertainty of what comes next isn’t as important as the understanding of right now in the present. That is ultimately what will be more productive in creating a stronger foundation for whatever might try and come at us next politically. 

How important is it that we separate ourselves from these reductive, dichotomised spaces of political rhetoric? 

Andrew Kass: A lot of the vulnerability comes from the idea of not being in control. That’s what politics will lead us to feel – we aren’t in control. Now is the time to create things that can inspire people to talk about these uncertainties, welcome them, and then do something productive.

See more work from Kass here

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