Seven Washington Post staff photographers traveled to every state and Washington, D.C., to ask that very question: What unites us? Using a traditional framing device — a backdrop that normally isolates a subject — its transparency also revealed the diverse settings in which our subjects live and were photographed.
From Hawaii to Alaska, from the streets of skid row in Los Angeles to the ranches of Wyoming, from a 98-year-old lobsterwoman in Maine to a 17-year-old “dreamer” in Louisiana, our photojournalists visited restaurants, people’s homes and public parks. We captured people in their environments and spoke to them about the things that mean the most to them, and we heard from people of all stripes; we aimed to represent the U.S. population by using the latest census data to create a national sampling that matched the country’s distribution of race, age and gender. The results of those conversations and photographs can be found here.
While our questions were open-ended, unifying themes emerged. For Sunny Hegwood, 34, of Woodward, Okla., and a member of the Comanche tribe, a sense community and empathy unite the nation. Fifty-nine of those interviewed brought up this idea. We found that they value a sense of togetherness built from compassion for others and believe most Americans share that notion. But for John Chan, 66, of Woonsocket, R.I., and 49 others, we are united by our diversity. “I’d like America to be an open country. This country was founded by immigrants, so I think it should stay that way,” he told photojournalist Ricky Carioti. But for those like Pat Thompson, 40, of Wright, Wyo., we are actually united by our fear and misgivings about the current direction of the United States. “A tweet can spread coast to coast in minutes,” Thompson told photojournalist Matt McClain, and if media “have a bias that they want to push, it kind of makes it scary to dig into what’s out there. I’d like things to get to the truth — and the Constitution.”
Toni Sandys, who photographed 16 people, says she “was surprised that many of my subjects answered along similar lines. That America was the land of opportunity. Even those that could feel disenfranchised from the system agreed that that was what made America special.”
Ricky Carioti, who photographed 21 people, felt similarly: “Most people’s needs and wants are exactly the same. Whether you live in a big city or a flyover state.”
But for Marvin Joseph, who photographed, 17 people, he found the shared experiences upbeat and enlightening. “With so much negativity in the news, it was refreshing to hear and feel the positive vibes people have about being an American,” he said.
Here are some of the people they photographed.