While covering the Middle East as a photojournalist, many people in the countries I cover have asked how citizens of the United States see democracy. Most of them have wrestled with the concept in their own country, experiencing protests, revolutions or war.
In Iraq, the first person to ask me this was a prostitute. Halla styled herself from posters of Brittany Spears. She turned to prostitution after her civilian husband died in 2003— the result of a US bomb—to support her two kids. I answered her by mentioning ideas from the bill of rights. But, since then, the question has haunted me. To many people across the globe, democracy is intertwined with capitalism and money. To others, it means the ability to vote or freedom of speech. But the word democracy often is influenced by their own experiences with the US military, drones, and corruption.
After covering failed and fledgling democracies in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, I am intrigued by the definition of democracy in my home country. I see a disconnect between US citizens, the government and how people cling to the word democracy.
I felt compelled to return home to produce “Our Democracy,” a long-term ethnographic study of democracy in the United States— a multimedia piece providing an intimate window into how the country’s citizens see democracy and the roll of government in their lives. A project meant to push people to pay attention to the politics that shapes their lives. A visual record that documents the state of democracy at this moment in US history.
Reconciling thoughts between political theorists and what people believe has been a challenge. Taking advantage of my time at Harvard for the Nieman Fellowship, I picked the brains of many of the most dedicated minds on this topic. I invited professors from Harvard and activists from Boston to my tiny Cambridge apartment for “Democracy dinners” where intense conversations on democracy unfolded.
There were disagreements and allegiances. Professors and authors who had never before met contributed their expertise and experiences to help find an answer to what democracy means today, and suggesting questions for the people I will meet while on the road for this project. We discussed where I should go, what metrics to use and what questions to ask.
The “Our Democracy” project began.
It started immediately after the U.S. Presidential elections, and will move to a different community each month, living with members of the community and using visual and audio storytelling to explore experiences and thoughts on contemporary democracy in the United States.
You can read more about the democracy dinners at Nieman Reports, here.