Photos of the United States from an outsider's perspective – The Washington Post

Photographer Yu-Chen Chiu’s project “America Seen” is a personal exploration of the United States in an attempt to understand that elusive thing, the American Dream. The black-and-white photos in the project come from an outsider’s perspective, someone trying to come to grips with what the country and its culture are about.
There is a real poignancy and lyricism to Chiu’s work. As she told In Sight, she wanted the work to be “a visual poem about the social landscape of the United States … and [it] was born out of what America means to me and what is the American Dream.”
The nuanced, sometimes oblique, scenes that Chiu presents are definitely ruminative. They’re little slices, not unlike stanzas you’d find in poems.
It’s always been an interesting exercise to try to figure out what exactly this concept of the American Dream is. I imagine there are as many answers to the question as there are people asking it. It’s a subject that many photographers, artists, journalists and filmmakers have been chewing over for decades.
I know the question has always been a source of fascination, if not frustration, for me. I can scarcely believe that most Americans or newcomers wouldn’t be interested in the question, too. After all, it’s a concept that has been hammered into our heads through so much writing and other forms of art that seek to explicate the American experience. And let’s not forget all the things we’re taught and fed through school and even our media consumption.
One of the most well-known examples in photography circles of the quest for the ever elusive American Dream is, of course, Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” Many have followed in his footsteps. He more or less created a paradigm for multitudes of photographers after him. The sheer number of people who have attempted this is really too numerous to list. But it’s almost always a fruitful enterprise, even if it doesn’t achieve the iconic status of Frank’s work.
Right now is an especially interesting time to embark on such a project, as the United States seems to be in a more turbulent time than usual. There are so many fissures in the facade of what may have traditionally been thought of when asking what this country is all about.
Having gotten her green card only in 2015, Chiu is acutely aware of this. She has picked up on the myriad ways U.S. life has been upended in the few short years she’s been living in New York. And you can feel the questioning in her photos. With images of flag wavers and protesters, bucolic scenes and some poignant reminders of our scars, Chiu has picked up on some of the things that make this time so complex and even uneasy.
She told In Sight:
“In this time of political unrest and uncertainty about the future, these themes have become magnified and made me take a closer look at my second home: matters of race and gender; privacy and patriotism; violence and understanding. This is one of the most turbulent times in American history, and my outsider’s perspective made me want to capture the spirit of the era.”
Chiu’s quest was the magnet pulling on her camera and lens. That pull led her from the concrete canyons of Manhattan to the verdant Florida Keys, with detours to the plains of the Midwest and the wide open vistas found on the West Coast. What Chiu ended up seeing was a multiplicity of this vastly variegated land.
As she told In Sight:
“Through my explorations of the land — from the spectacular cityscape of Manhattan to Florida’s tropical keys, Middle America’s sprawling plains, and at last, west to the bygone town of Bombay Beach, California — stark contrasts came to life. I witnessed the heights of glamour and the depths of decline, the scale of the land, and the diversity of race and culture.
“These differences are striking for someone who grew up in Taiwan, a small island country that is ethnically similar with a collectivist culture. The differences between the everyday souls I encountered on my journey were just as stark: from the happy dreamers to the lonely wanderers. Through photography, I realized my curiosity about the country is the reflection of its identity. While looking for the all-American scenes, I am searching for my own memories of Taiwan.”
“America Seen” is Chiu’s attempt to document this particular time and place. She invites us to come along and see for ourselves what she discovered as she wandered the country up, down and coast to coast. The lack of captions for the photographs invites interpretation to do as she asks and, ultimately, see for ourselves.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
You can see more of Chiu’s work on her website, here.