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Searching 80,000 miles for the American dream


Photographer Ian Brown travelled more than 80,000 miles around the US, trying to discover the meaning of the so-called American dream.

“The idea of the American dream has always been rooted in the mythology of American culture,” he says.

“It is really just a vague concept that most would assume to mean that if one works hard, there is opportunity to better one’s life.”

Setting off in 2006, the Canadian travelled to each of the 50 states, asking his subjects to write down their dreams and aspirations.

“Some told stories of their struggles,” he says.

“Some wrote about their hopes and dreams.

“And others wrote about their own failings and misgivings.

“The results were heart-breaking, provocative, inspiring, beautiful and often compelling and very raw – much like America itself.”

While politics and ideologies changed throughout the 12-year project, the photographer found the notion of the American dream remained constant.

“What has become evident is that the idea of the American dream offers a unique tether to each and every person throughout the country,” he says.

“It transcends political and cultural divides.

“It can be made more difficult.

“But it can never be taken away or denied.”

Here is a selection of Brown’s portraits and excerpts from his subjects’ own American dreams.

Punhele DeCosta – Maui, Hawaii

“As an indigenous woman, it is hard for me to watch the land to be so disrespected.

“Indigenous people know the land the best.

“We have taken care of it forever.

“And, in turn, it cared for us.

“Now as we have been colonised, we have an impending climate crisis.

“What was seen as progress was really only progressing us into our own doom.

“Indigenous voices have always been speaking.

“And it’s time those in power listen.”

Antoinette Harrell – Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana

“I am a person of African descent in America.

“And I’ve seen the many faces of injustice for people of colour.

“My American dream is to end poverty.

“My American dream is end slavery in all forms.

“My American dream is to end police brutality.

“My American dream is to see my grandson grow up.

“My American dream is bring the missing children home.

“My American dream is to end homelessness.

“My American dream is to end the pipeline to prison.”

Greg and Ellen – East Liverpool, Ohio

“The American dream to me is growing up not worrying about where the next bit of money is coming from – having the ability to find a job that takes care of everything you need, so your spouse doesn’t have to work.”

Sura – Salt Lake City

“Before I came to America, I thought that I could save money, that I could have money to change my family’s life.

“I thought I would be working and earning enough money to save.

“But after I came here, I realised that it’s hard.

“We don’t know how to start.

“I have a dream I hope to achieve in America.

“I hope to take a certificate of… skin health and… have my own work.

“I believe I will have a successful business.

“And it will be big and have a multiple branches everywhere in the world.

“Then, I can help my family and everybody [who] needs help.”

Gary Green – McCarthy, Alaska

“I would have been good being born in 1850 and being part of the westward expansion, exploring new and unsettled land as a hunter, trapper and prospector.

“I discovered the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska as a young man and pursued that dream looking for and finding gold, guiding hunters, and trapping in the winter.

“Building a home and living in wilderness areas has been my dream as long as I can remember.

“Now as these mountains become more settled, I use my bush plane to visit the more lonely lands.”

Maria Castro – Immokalee, Florida

“My American dream is built on the backs of my immigrant parents.

“Growing up we didn’t have much.

“What I knew of the American dream was on the TV – the white faces with the white fences.

“But looking back, my American dream is filled with the smells of chemicals – you know, the chemicals they put on tomatoes to make them look nice.

“While my parents were just simple farmworkers that worked below minimum wage and were looked at with disdain because of their tomato-stained clothes, they showed me what the American dream is.

“It’s sacrificing everything for a ‘better life’.

“My American dream isn’t monetary.

“My American dream is a feeling.

“I want to feel true happiness.

“I want to look around one day and say, ‘Yes, this is why my mom, my dad, and my grandparents crossed the Rio Grande.'”

Art Tanderup – Neiligh, Nebraska

“Growing up, the American dream seemed quite simple – get a great education, work hard, raise a wonderful family, be productive, and make this country and Earth a better place – seems more like a fairy tale now.

“In the time that I have left, my American dream is to stand up to the forces that divide us, to empower the people, to save our clean water, and to protect the Earth.”

Justin Lansford – Tampa, Florida

“I served two tours overseas with the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

“On my second deployment, I was severely injured in combat.

“I proudly served our country and willingly poured sweat and blood while defending and protecting a single idea – the American dream.

“It’s funny, because until now, I’ve never actually thought about what exactly that dream means to me.

“I’ve seen places in this world where people don’t have the luxury of dreams.

“Places where an individual’s sole purpose is to stay alive and where even that is done in constant fear of those around them.

“In the United States, we truly are free – free to set our own goals, free to succeed, free to fail.

“The opportunity in this country is such that the only obstacle between us and our goals is ourselves.”

Johnson family – Centuria, Wisconsin

“Our American dream is simple.

“The rewards are not things.

“They are experiences – a meal, a conversation, a walk, a hug.

“Our American dream is not easy.

“It requires grit, persistence and drive.

“Our American dream is not exclusive.

“In our American dream, no-one is left behind.”

American Dreams: Portraits and Stories of a Country is published by Ten Speed Press.

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