The Photo Issue: The Real Americana

Images that capture joy and pride — and speak to the true American spirit

Dorothy Williams of St. Louis holding one of the few significant items she has left from her father, Isadore Banks: his American flag. He was a wealthy World War I veteran and businessman who was found dead in 1954 four days after leaving home to pay farmworkers. His body was burned and chained to a tree. The people responsible for his lynching were never held accountable. (Vanessa Charlot)
Photographs by Brian Branch-Price, Vanessa Charlot, Chris Cook, Hector Emanuel, Shuran Huang, Tailyr Irvine, Yunghi Kim, Joshua Lott, Amy Sacka, Jamel Shabazz and Andre Wagner
Introduction by Robin Givhan

In Andre Wagner’s single image of a Black child gripping a small, wrinkled American flag in one hand while the other rests pensively on her chin, Wagner tells the complicated story of America. That Star-Spangled Banner is crumpled, as if it has been rolled up in a pocket, tucked away, its usefulness uncertain but nonetheless protected. This child, with the decorative beads in her cornrows, is dwarfed by the adults who stand on either side, by the enormous backpack, by the meat counter in the background. Her expression is sober, as if she’s considering weighty matters. A child with the brooding demeanor of an adult. A complicated child. An American child. A Black American.

The symbolism of this country relays the story of our national identity not always as it truly is, but as we would like it to be. Americana, the souvenirs and totems, memorialize the beautiful myths that we tell ourselves about how the Republic came to be and how we define our relationships with our fellow citizens.

The archetypal American cowboy with his broad-brimmed hat, his saucer-size belt buckles, his dungarees and boots evokes the openness of the West and the raw individualism that we value. Similarly, our muscle cars and hot rods recall the halcyon days of our industrial might, as well as machismo and the glorious freedom to cut loose, burn rubber and race into the horizon. And our baseball diamonds — where this slow, meandering, tedious game plays out — offer a picturesque setting for long stretches of conviviality in the outdoors in big cities and small towns from coast to coast. We call it a national pastime even if it’s a poor reflection of America’s demographics, both on the field and in the stands.

These tableaus are meant to stand for the American spirit, in a quaint, unified way. And throughout the flag waves high. It’s a symbol of our patriotism. Of our ambition. Of our history. But in this century it has become difficult to view the flag with untainted wonder and admiration. The flag is fraught; it can be frightening. The more ominous associations may disappear on the Fourth of July, when it decorates board shorts and beach towels, but they become part of the very fabric again on those days before and after, when “real” Americans fly oversize ones from towering flagpoles in the middle of their considerable acreage, when folks pair it with a rebel flag and call it a celebration of Southern roots, when the aggrieved wrap themselves in it at a political rally fueled by anger and vitriol, when insurrectionists use the flag to battle their way into the U.S. Capitol.

MAGA Republicans, right-wing extremists, white nationalists have all laid claim to the flag to represent their version of America. They’ve planted it on their toxic soil, where they foment lies, disinformation and hate. They’ve managed to muscle Old Glory away from too many of their fellow citizens — sometimes without much of a fight.

The liberals, the Black folks, the women always seem to be talking about leaving the country. They muse about decamping to Canada; they root through their family history in search of an ancestor whose name they could drop to gain citizenship in Ireland, Italy or perhaps Britain. They listen soberly as Ghana promotes its “year of return,” and they dream of going back to the West African nation — even if that’s not at all where they came from. They’re leaving in anger, fear or disappointment over an election or a legal ruling or some terrible act of violence. America has failed them, and so they wonder if they must go, before it’s too late, before the country stops arcing toward justice and is simply lost.

[The Case for Leaving America to Escape Racism]

But for the mostly White men and some White women who have signed on to the MAGA belief system, their ownership of this country is ferocious. If they feel that the tenor of the country is not to their liking, they vow to take control. They are not leaving. Sometimes, they arm themselves with guns and go to their state capitol in anger and Second Amendment bravado. And they hoist the American flag high. They literally wrap themselves in it, turning it into armor and salve.

Their interpretation of the flag isn’t as a symbol of people striving, evolving, learning. It’s a sacred cloth. It’s nonnegotiable. But for so many others, the flag is a living distillation of America. It can be rebuked and challenged for its failures; and doing so is a sign of commitment to this country. Their devotion and pride in America are fierce. The patriotism runs deep and against all odds. Because it isn’t always wrapped in the flag, it often goes unnoticed.

In these pages are pictures of men and women who have not given up on America and its potential. They are rooted in some of this country’s rockiest soil, and even if they don’t flourish there, they survive. They find joy; they create beauty. They glide on roller skates through a downtown street in a reborn Detroit as if they are in a private reverie. They wave from a parade, dance at a house party or sit astride a horse. Each picture is a reminder of the subjects’ unrelenting grip on America.

The Black cowboys photographed by Brian Branch-Price are so evocative of the mythology of this land. They face his camera in their fringed jackets, plaid shirts, their jeans and hats. One holds a long gun. They look content and proud. They are the essence of the American bootstrapper. The Black cowboys cherish and respect the land, even if this country too often disrespected their story. To see the flag draped around a Black girl’s slender waist or serving as a monumental backdrop for a child’s portrait is to see hope come alive. These pictures are not a revelation. They are natural, effortless and true. They are real Americans.

The subjects in these photographs are rarely doing anything exceptional, which is a relief. Too often, Black and Brown people must be in the midst of some exceptional moment — scoring a game-winning touchdown, performing before a stadium-size crowd — to be noticed. These people are participating in the quotidian life of America with delight and dignity. Even in the worst of circumstances, we see everyday Americans pressing on in the belief that tomorrow just might be a little better, a bit more just. They have faith in America’s promise. And they’re holding the country to it.

Michael Irvine hunting with son Michael and grandson Andrew on Thanksgiving 2021 on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. The Irvines, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, hunt on Thanksgiving and meet for a meal but do not celebrate the history of the holiday. (Tailyr Irvine)

Steve O. in New Orleans. (Amy Sacka)

Butahnii in Abiquiu, N.M. (Amy Sacka)

A mourner and sign remembering the victims of the 2019 mass killing at a Walmart in El Paso. (Hector Emanuel)

An ocean baptism in Asbury Park, N.J. (Brian Branch-Price)

Pedestrians in Brooklyn. (Andre Wagner)

The Photo Issue — The Real Americana — Harmonies

Doña Lucrecia Villalobos’s 60th birthday party in Kent, Wash. (Hector Emanuel)

Sandy Sanchez of the Mariachi Azteca in Lexington, Ky. (Hector Emanuel)

A Christmas gathering in Dover, Ohio. (Hector Emanuel)

Ebony Ciuilus and Lexi Shields in Detroit. (Brian Branch-Price)

DJ Duce Martinez, center, and Midi, right, in Newark. (Brian Branch-Price)

Peruvian Independence Day Festival in Paterson, N.J. (Hector Emanuel)

Shuffleboard in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Amy Sacka)

Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. (Hector Emanuel)

El Piketon Restaurant and Lounge in Kent, Wash. (Hector Emanuel)

Christmas in Reading, Pa. (Hector Emanuel)

Dogs in Atlanta. (Brian Branch-Price)

Washington Square Park in New York. (Amy Sacka)

New York’s East Side. (Brian Branch-Price)

A skateboarder in Detroit. (Amy Sacka)

The Photo Issue — The Real Americana — Frontiers

A member of the Crazy Faith Riders (a horse-riding club) at a cowboy celebration in Flemington, N.J. (Brian Branch-Price)

Members of the Crazy Faith Riders in Edison, N.J. (Brian Branch-Price)

Aaron “Arod” Hutchins and Destinee Fowler in Port Republic, Md. (Brian Branch-Price)

Michelada Fest in Louisville, Ky. (Hector Emanuel)

Spectators at a rodeo in Cody, Wyo. (Amy Sacka)

Andre and Aciana in Cleveland. (Amy Sacka)

Indigo and a friend in New York. (Amy Sacka)

A makeshift memorial to victims of the 2019 mass killing at a Walmart in El Paso. (Hector Emanuel)

A memorial service for Javier Amir Rodriguez, the youngest victim. (Hector Emanuel)

The Photo Issue — The Real Americana — Communities

What does it mean to live in a country for years, even decades, where you don’t speak the dominant language? Shuran Huang photographed D.C. residents who find themselves isolated from English speakers yet form tightknit communities with one another.

Li Huixia in her apartment at Wah Luck House. (Shuran Huang)

Li Huixia dancing and socializing with fellow residents. (Shuran Huang)

A Chinatown barbershop. (Shuran Huang)

An old photograph of Li Huixia and her family. (Shuran Huang)

The Rix family in Belle Isle, Mich. (Amy Sacka)

The apple harvest in Charles Town, W.Va. (Hector Emanuel)

Workers clear an encampment in New York. (Yunghi Kim/Contact Press Images)

James and Nico with their tent. (Yunghi Kim/Contact Press Images)

A person finds a spot to sleep in New York’s Chinatown. (Yunghi Kim/Contact press images)

A man sleeps on the sidewalk. (Yunghi Kim/Contact press images)

The Photo Issue — The Real Americana — Messages

A protester in Washington. (Chris Cook)

A protester in New York. (Chris Cook)

A young protester in Brooklyn. (Chris Cook)

A “Day Without Immigrants” demonstration in Washington. (Hector Emanuel)

Gallup, N.M. (Amy Sacka)

Big rims in Detroit. (Amy Sacka)

Deja Jackson after a show during New York Fashion Week. (Brian Branch-Price)

Villalba Deli & Grocery in Reading, Pa. (Hector Emanuel)

Girls on tricycles on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. (Joshua Lott)

Horace in San Francisco. (Amy Sacka)

A youth basketball team in Newark. (Brian Branch-Price)

A store in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Amy Sacka)

Marfa, Tex. (Amy Sacka)

Daniel, Raquel and Horace in San Francisco. (Amy Sacka)

About this story

Brian Branch-Price: Branch-Price is a National Headliner Award-winning photographer. He focuses on portraiture, reportage and editorial photography, and specializes in black-and-white photography.

Vanessa Charlot: Charlot’s work focuses on the intersectionality of race, politics, culture, and sexual and gender expression to explore the collective human experience. The purpose of her work is to produce visual representations free of an oppressive gaze.

Chris Cook: Cook is a New York-based artist, born and raised in Brooklyn. Cook has exhibited in galleries throughout New York state, from the Lower East Side to upstate Auburn.

Hector Emanuel: Emanuel is a Peruvian American photojournalist based in Washington. Although he has traveled and photographed extensively throughout the world, his primary interest is the examination of social, political and environmental issues in Latin America and the United States.

Shuran Huang: Huang has lived in mostly diverse yet disadvantaged communities in eight countries. She often confronted the reality of assimilating and adapting to new communities, developing a dedication to elevating and empowering communities through visual storytelling.

Tailyr Irvine: Irvine is a Salish and Kootenai photojournalist born and raised on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana. Her work focuses on providing in-depth representations of the lives and complex issues within the diverse communities that make up Native America.

Yunghi Kim: Kim is a photojournalist who has covered some of the biggest international stories in the past 34 years. Intimate storytelling and giving a voice to her subjects through the camera remain important to her.

Joshua Lott: Lott’s passion for photojournalism and social justice began in Rogers Park, one of Chicago’s most ethnically and culturally diverse communities. He has a deep determination to document inequality and racial injustice through the lens of a camera.

Amy Sacka: Through photojournalism, documentary photography and poetic text, Sacka’s work explores the nuances of being human.

Jamel Shabazz: In 1980 Shabazz embarked on a mission to extensively document various aspects of life in New York City, from youth culture to a wide range of social conditions.

Andre Wagner: Wagner’s work fits into the lineage of street photography that investigates the American social landscape, often focusing on themes of race, class, cultural identity and community.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Additional photo editing by Chloe Coleman, Audra Dosunmu and May-Ying Lam. Design and development by Natalie Vineberg. Additional development by Joe Fox. Design editing by Christian Font. Editing by David Rowell. Copy editing by Angie Wu and Jennifer Abella.