This is a series of articles featuring photographs mainly taken in 1990s using a variety of film cameras, ranging from compact cameras such as the Canon Sure Shot to SLRs such as the Pentax PZ-70.
Growing up as a teenager in the 1970s, we watched a lot of American TV shows, mainly sitcoms. I remember my mum watching Peyton Place, then later on Dallas. We kids grew up watching things like All in the Family, Green Acres, Happy Days, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons. Much later on, I remember Eight is Enough, Family Ties and Mork and Mindy. Needless to say, these shows created a mental image of the United States as mainly surburban and white, full of happy, affluent families. America truly was Great.
I started realising Americans actually had black people from watching things like Diff’rent Strokes, and then the seminal mini series Roots. Even then, I wasn’t aware of issues like the civil rights movement until much later. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, America never was completely great. There was the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, Watergate, … But still, America seemed like a magical place, the most technologically advanced and powerful nation in the world, and therefore we all assumed the kindest and most culturally sophisticated.
I have not visited the USA much in the last 20 years (and not at all in the last 15), so I can’t speak for what America looks like today, but I used to visit it regularly in the 1990s, when I was working for an American company and had a visa that allowed me multiple entries into the country and indefinite stays. My first visit was to Los Angeles in 1993 on a business trip, and I was looking forward to Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica, Venice Beach … all these places that I have only heard about until then.
The City of the Angels certainly met my expectations. I was staying near El Segundo, and we would often drive around on weekends. In retrospect, we lived and mingled in an affluent, professional, middle class, white bubble. I remember eating huge portions and gaining a lot of weight in various restaurants, visiting glittering malls, having a good time. However, even then I noticed inequality. Hovels next to skyscrapers. The people who clean the offices, the malls, the hotels.
I did not meet or interact with a single black person until years later on a different business trip. I was filling up my rental car at a gas station in South San Francisco before heading out to the airport to return home. A black man approached me asking for money. I suppose living in my privileged bubble, I probably should have felt afraid. But I wasn’t. He clearly meant no harm. But suddenly I remembered all those episodes from Roots. And the dawning realisation that those kind of events are not just history, inequality still exists in America, and that the reason I have not interacted with blacks before isn’t just due to chance, blacks were still systematically excluded from the bubble I was in, perhaps not by actual segregation but by economics and opportunity.
I felt really sorry for the man. I knew I couldn’t reverse inequality, but I said to him I was leaving the country and I took out most of the cash in my wallet and gave them all to him. He was surprised, but very grateful. The attendant (who was also black) at the gas station saw this and was quite touched. He thanked me and said “There but for the grace of God goes I.”
I stopped visiting the US when I no longer worked for an American company, but there was the occasional trip to visit a supplier, or to attend a conference. We visited the US on vacation in 1997 and did typical tourist things on both the east and west coasts. After September 11, 2001, I remember visiting the US on a business trip and everything had changed. I was no longer welcome in the country, and waited long hours in airport queues along with other “foreigners.” I didn’t like the experience, and haven’t visited much since then. I do remember attending a conference in 2007, but the feeling that I wasn’t entirely welcome was still there, and I haven’t been back since.
I didn’t take a lot of photographs despite all my trips. In those days, film was (and still is) expensive, and not to be wasted on spurious shots. Weight restrictions meant I often didn’t carry a camera, or carried a small compact. However, recently I scanned all my film negatives, and discovered quite a lot of photographs from America. Most were from our vacation in 1997, but some were from business trips.
I have decided to write this series of articles showcasing some of the photographs I found interesting. None of them are good quality, and many suffer from aging artefacts in the last 30 years. However, they depict a period of time that I recall as happy days, not only for myself, but for America (at least, in the bubble I was in). Some of them are of places that no longer exist, and some will have changed dramatically in the last 25 years or so. I hope you will enjoy these articles. As new articles are published, they will be included as links here.