Humans of the cold civil war

Talking to photographer Adam Ferguson about returning from foreign conflict to document America's roiling battle within

It is not a good omen for a country when Adam Ferguson wants to take pictures of it.

He is one of the great war photographers of his generation, by his own admission hooked on documenting conflict and chaos, and eminently talented at doing so. A self-described “anti-war photographer,” he makes the human beings at the center of conflicts human and visible, not Other but just like you, except for the war.

Originally from Australia, now (sort of, briefly) based in New York, he made his name documenting the “forever war” America launched after 9/11, but has reported from virtually every corner of the planet. Even if you don’t know his name or follow his Instagram, you have seen his images in National Geographic, New York magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, Wired, and beyond.

Because of his record, I was both alarmed and excited when, not long ago, Adam told me he was setting off across America to document a country dangerously fracturing. I couldn’t wait to see what he saw of us, to the extent that “us” is still a meaningful idea. But I also found it darkly telling that Adam no longer needs to get on an airplane to do the work of documenting a people falling apart.

So today a special treat for you in The Ink: the first glimpse of my friend Adam Ferguson’s America series, accompanied by a conversation with him — all below.

And I must tell you that Adam has started his very own, excellent newsletter, where he takes you behind the scenes of making pictures, detailing the technical how of it, doing walkabouts with other photographers such as Daniel Arnold, and sharing candidly about how he realized that, in spite of his anti-war feelings, “the work I made had a life far beyond my intentions. Instead of negating the war, it reinforced it.”

All of that below. But first, as always, consider becoming a paid subscriber if you enjoy getting these posts. Your support makes this experiment in independent media possible.

And I’ll be back with my regular Zoom live chat — today at 1 p.m. New York time, 10 a.m. Pacific time, 6 p.m. London time. Details to arrive shortly in subscribers’ inboxes.

“The thing I was looking for was common ground”: a conversation with Adam Ferguson

ANAND: You've shot photographs all around the world, often in conflict situations and wars. Generally speaking, I feel like if Adam Ferguson is showing up in a place, it's not a good sign for that place about the situation in that place. Why did you decide you wanted to travel across America and take pictures?

ADAM: Last year in America felt like such a polarized, intense moment in U.S. history with the possibility of another Republican win. I wanted to travel across the country to understand what that looked like on the ground. Given the pandemic, I wasn't traveling like I would be historically to conflict zones and other parts of the world. I was grounded in many ways. 

So it felt like the right moment to turn my eye on America and move across the country and try to put some meaning and humanity to this struggle that America felt it was going through. 

ANAND: In the writing version of a project like this, you may start with a kind of hypothesis, and then you go talk to people, and then you revise that hypothesis and come up with some kind of final analysis. 

How does that work in photography? What were you looking for? Were you trying to prove something? Were you trying to illustrate a particular concept? Are you just looking for images that strike you?

ADAM: For this particular project, the thing I was looking for was common ground. The larger narratives that were playing out in the media around the election were so polarizing. I wanted to go out and find images that somehow defused that polarization. 

I think that became the guiding principle of this work: to try to find surprising images that defused a very inflammatory argument.

Even with the picture of the Trump twins, somehow there's a tension there — there's something a little vulnerable about the fact that these twins are so naively dressed the same and participating in this thing. I didn't see them as evil; I just saw them as people mixed up in a conversation.

Prescott, Arizona

ANAND: Tell me more about that image — what was going on.

ADAM: That's in Prescott, Arizona, at a Trump rally. I went to the rally, and I wasn't allowed in because I wasn't on an accredited checklist. I tried to line up as a civilian and go in with my camera and they didn't let me, because I had this large analog camera with me. 

So I just wandered around in the carpark and made pictures outside. And these twins left early. I actually spoke with one of the twins at first. I didn't realize she was a twin. I saw her and asked her to make her portrait. I think just because of the youth and the symbolism in her attire, the ripped jean shorts, this Trump T-shirt — it was a fashion statement in a way that I found interesting. The symbolism and that kind of very mainstream, generic fashion and how it played out in a political context. 

Then, as I started photographing her, she screamed out to her twin sister, and all of a sudden, I had two identical twins in Trump shirts. Which was an extraordinary moment.

ANAND: And there's another pair of twins, right? Tell me about that one.

Houston, Texas

ADAM: I was in Houston. I was driving around, and I ended up pulling up at this park, and these twins were in the park. They had their brother taking photos of them for their social media channels. 

They are young influencers who are really participating in that youth influencer culture and have started to have a bit of success around it and develop a significant following. It felt like an interesting reflection of America, and I found it fascinating that these young kids from a relatively low socioeconomic segment of society in Houston have an out through the internet. That was indeed their grand plan, to transcend poverty by becoming internet famous.

ANAND: And did you put them on the road where they are, or that's where they were already?

ADAM: I did put them on the road. They were such lovely young women that I ended up hanging out with them for a couple of hours and made a few portraits of them in the park, in the neighborhood where they had grown up. I ended up putting them on the road because I liked the symbolism of the median lines going under their feet, like standing on something that was moving almost.

I asked them to stand on the road, and they were very comfortable; they didn't really require much direction from me. They had a whole suite of Instagram and YouTube moves, a whole bag of tricks with the way they pose for their own social media audience. So they just unleashed those and performed.

ANAND: Is that something you've come across a lot, that because so many people now are so conscious of how to take photographs of themselves, when you make portraits of people, they have an opinion or they have experience of it that they may not have had some years ago?

ADAM: I think you're right. There are people who are very conscious of their own image, and people more and more have control over the way their own image is disseminated. I think a lot of the time it hinders the thing that I try to do as a photographer, because the kind of imagery that I'm making tends to try to break down any sense of superficiality. 

I'm always trying to look behind the curtain into someone's life and make them feel comfortable in a way that they show me something that feels personal and intimate. But, in this case with the twins in Houston, their social media personas and this ownership of their own image work because it becomes part of their personal narrative. In this case, that thing that I normally try to break down as a photographer, I actually just let it live its life in front of me.

ANAND: Tell me about the picture with the young boy.

Near Louisville, Kentucky

ADAM: The young boy is the son of a fundamentalist Mormon. I was up in Louisville for some of the Breonna Taylor protests on Kentucky Derby day. I was walking through the crowd, and I saw this old-looking farmer with a big beard and a pistol on his hip, and these two young men with fatigues and assault rifles chaperoning him, and the resemblance was very clear to me. And I just found it fascinating that this farmer had these two sons, almost like bodyguards with assault rifles, patrolling the streets of Louisville.

I approached him and said hello. I was intrigued to learn more about him and what brought him onto the streets that day and where he was from. He lived about 40 minutes outside of Louisville on a farm. I asked if I could come out and visit him on the farm. So he invited me out. I think the only reason he did was because I was Australian and he was very curious about the fact that I was Australian.

He was very much from the right wing, very skeptical of the media. But I wasn't there on assignment for a news organization, per se. I was working on a personal project, so I kind of pitched it like that, and he let me come and visit him on the farm. So the boy is his son. 

I did a long interview with the father, and then I made some portraits of him and his two older sons, who were very skeptical of me, and kind of accused me the whole time of going and making them look like right-wing, country, gun-toting freaks. So the teenage boys were very much already aware of that narrative, but then one of the youngest sons was just there playing with his dog, under this porch with this American flag, and all of a sudden it felt like that was the most interesting picture from the scene. It was this young boy growing up under this flag and under this ideology.

ANAND: I wonder if you ever worry that the medium you work in is so inherently humanizing that it can be dangerous. You can serve to humanize a movement that is fascistic, whether it's the MAGA twins or this family with the guns. Do you think there can be a danger in humanizing people who are part of certain currents?

ADAM: Most photography has an opinion. It's not an impartial medium. I don't feel like it's a danger to humanize somebody, because I think in a documentary context, which is where I primarily exist as a photographer, one of the aims is to humanize. I'm never really attempting to demonize anybody. 

For me, communicating through photography is about creating a deeper understanding of the people I'm photographing, or a deeper understanding of history. And we're all human at the end of the day. There's a complexity to historical events and the people swept up in them that is not two-dimensional. So I think my role in it all is to create information that makes something more three-dimensional.

ANAND: Who's the person in the extraordinary outfit?

Gallup, New Mexico

ADAM: That's Eric-Paul Riege. He's a mixed-race Navajo artist from Gallup in New Mexico. I was working on a story out there for The New York Times, and I interviewed Eric's dad, who is a white veteran. And I interviewed him because he manages a hotel and he has a veterans museum in the lobby of this hotel, which I found quite interesting. 

When I was chatting to him, he mentioned his son — that his son, as an artist, had been impacted, like a lot of artists had been, by the pandemic. Exhibitions canceled, and travel called off, and workshops and salons, all these things, being put off for a year or two.

I was curious about how this young man was doing. Instead of having his career develop with opportunities, he was working at a local restaurant called Grandpa's Grill, taking phone orders for home delivery. Eric had learned the art of weaving from his Navajo mother and then was putting that into his practice as a contemporary artist. And the outfit that he made was very much steeped in the Navajo tradition and mythology that his mother had taught him.

One of the things I'm always looking for as a portrait photographer is to present two worlds which create tension. With Eric, it was when I saw this gown that he'd made as a piece of art, and yet he lived in this very simple suburban house in Gallup.

I deliberately posed him in a street, so you see this very bland New Mexico town, yet he's standing on the road in this beautiful gown that he made. And the tension among what America is now and what he is spiritually and the crimes that have been committed against indigenous America — it felt like a very interesting statement about the country.

ANAND: Tell me about the mime.

Knoxville, Tennessee

ADAM: I went to a Baptist church service, and I'm sitting there, and all of a sudden this young man appeared with his painted face. He was a mime. 

I didn’t know about mimes in church, but I think it started developing in the Black church some years ago. It's not an incredibly historic practice, but it's something that is practiced very regularly in parts of America, especially in this part of the country.

I asked the man if I could visit him at home and take a portrait of him at home. This is something that I like to do with a lot of the portraits that I make. Quite often I like to remove somebody from the spectacle of the event — like I did with the Mormons. 

With the Mormon family, I didn't really want to make a picture of people holding guns at an event, because I feel like we've seen that imagery, and it presents something in a two-dimensional way. I felt like this would have been the same, if I had photographed this young man in a church.

I wanted to go home and photograph him in his backyard. So all of a sudden, you're combining this very simple daily life and context, kind of taking the reality of daily life and layering it with the hope of what people dream to be, or the way they express themselves when they're away from home, and putting those things together.

ANAND: One of the things that has changed since you started in photography is the growing awareness about who gets to take pictures, who gets sent around the world. Being white and being a man, you are who you are. But I wonder how that discourse, that growing awareness, has affected how you think about doing what you do?

ADAM: It's ultimately forcing me to reframe my own work. It's forcing me to look back at a lot of the work that I've made and realize that, at the time of making that work, I wasn't self-aware. I was so involved in the work and the process of making that work, and just making a success of my career, which felt hard enough. 

I wasn't being self-reflective enough to understand what my pictures really meant. What's happened in the last few years has really made me reframe the way I see the world and be aware of my own biases. And I think with all the work that I'm doing now, I am trying to bring that into the creative process. I'm trying to be mindful of, "Am I the right photographer for the job? If I am, how do I represent people?" 

It's making me mindful of what is an OK conversation for me to participate in and what is not. Quite frankly, there are a lot of conversations that I've participated in throughout my career where I now realize that I was not the right photographer for that story or that work. 

At the same time, sometimes I do believe we're overcorrecting, because I think some of the best narratives that have ever been created have been made by outsiders or people not from that world.

I think it would be a mistake if we end up in a place where everybody has to have ownership over their own story. But the ownership over narrative has been so far skewed in one direction that I think we're desperately trying to reconfigure that, which is obviously a positive thing.

ANAND: You set out on the America trip to, in a way, take the temperature, make a diagnosis. Where did you come out? What did you discover about the state of the health of the American project that was different from what you thought?

ADAM: It sounds almost obvious to say, but the multicultural dynamic of this country became just so present for me. I knew that America is obviously a multicultural, indigenous nation that was colonized, and part of it used to be Mexico, and there's been huge influxes of immigration. But growing up in white Australian society, with the narrative around America that I'd been fed as a kid, somehow I underestimated the complexity of the multiculturalism of this country. That became just glaringly apparent when I was out there, seeing so many different worlds exist under one umbrella.

Adam Ferguson is a photographer. You can visit his website here and subscribe to his newsletter here. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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Photos courtesy of Adam Ferguson. Portrait of Adam by Kathy Ryan