Challenging Minority Erasure in "Romance of the West" for Obvious Magazine
I've been interested in how fashion and beauty can work to improve women's representation in media for most of my career (you can thank my parents who fostered my intersectional feminism from an early age, but that's a longer story for another day). But with the 2016 presidential election and the xenophobist, hate mongering masquerading as campaign rhetoric/promises (and basically everything that's happened since) I started seriously considering what makes an American. The white nationalistic ideology being espoused is in direct conflict with everything I was raised to believe and love about this country. By those arguments 80% of my childhood community would not exist; for that matter neither would I. Maybe it's because I have spent the majority of my life living in two of the great immigration hubs in American history (the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City), but I have always felt that our diversity makes us stronger and more innovative and that's how we move forward as a country. Since I have zero desire to run for government office what do I do as a private citizen and photographer to combat the hate and try to foster change? The best answer that I've come up with so far is to process my political frustrations and examine the themes of diversity and representation through my work. Through creating images that challenge hateful narratives and stereotypes I hope to encourage and connect with people who are working to create equitable change through their work, art, and actions. Even if I'm just contributing to the background noise of the resistance, I believe the effect is cumulative, and since cultural change often drives political change I have my work cut out for me.
The original inspiration for this story came from the fashion's undying love affair with western wear. The idea of the American West is central to so many of the myths that America tells about itself, it's also a deeply problematic part of our past that we've been rewriting since Hollywood started making westerns (again, a long story for another day). Growing up in California and traveling through the southwest as a child I fully understand the magic in the idea of the West: the breathtakingly beautiful and treacherous landscapes that demand strength for survival and attract the underdogs, the strong, the fearless, and the outlaws; a land of opportunity where the brave and adventurous can redefine themselves and forge a new future. It is a romance that persists even though the West isn't what it once was, and as an idea, it is one of the cornerstones of the American Dream. It is a romance that we relive and reimagine each time western wear comes back into fashion, a kind of reclamation of wild possibility in these seemingly civilized times. I wanted to celebrate the current manifestations through the Fall/Winter 2017 collections while challenging one of the key expectations of the theme, namely that the West was white and male (hello John Wayne). In our retellings of the story of the West, history books erase the presence and impact of women in general, and especially women of color, and by casting Ash Foo as my protagonist I wanted to remind viewers of the cultural diversity of the American West. Latino, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, African American, and European peoples made the west what it was and what it is, through conflict and collaboration. It is a complicated and bloody history, but the one thing it wasn't was exclusively white. My hope was that working with Ash might challenge people's perceptions enough to do some research and start a conversation, but this is not about being provocative for its own sake, it's about reframing our history and our understanding of our history. In a time when false narratives are used to reframe and deflect facts, we could all use a more critical eye when it comes to the news and the media that we consume and use to shape our opinions.
So without further ado here is the full story as well as an extended edit of "Romance of the West" for Obvious Magazine. I would love to hear your thoughts on the story and what you do to cope with our current political climate in the comments. Is your resistance political, artistic? Do you think that politics belong in art? What role do you think the fashion and beauty worlds can and or should play in American political discorse? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas.
Photographer: Adrianna Favero
Stylist: Megan Pfiffner
Hair Stylist: Erol Karadag
Makeup Artist: Liz Olivier