Hope (and Despair) We Can Believe In

Black and white, hope and despair.
Black and white, hope and despair. // Matthew Frye Jacobson/Historian's Eye Project and Creative Commons

As a former (and drop-out) Directed Studies student acutely familiar with the program’s weekly lectures in the Whitney Humanities Center, I found “At the Crossroads of Hope and Despair: America since the Crash” to be an appropriate title for an exhibit hosted in the building’s hallway and gallery, but that’s not just because the exhibit is feet away from suffering freshmen. Featuring black-and-white photographs from Yale professor Matthew Frye Jacobson, “Crossroads” develops a complex but focused portrait of America circa 2009-13 and attempts to capture the promises and failures of the nation as a whole.

The exhibit’s first image subtly hints at the topic matter at hand. Viewers are greeted with an American flag, pinned proudly behind a window, which has been cracked but not yet shattered. Spider-web fractures crawl over the stars and stripes. The flag is hope; the cracks, despair.

Jacobson interlays quotes amidst the photographs, which carry key themes throughout the exhibit. An unemployed office worker comments on a scene of empty storefronts in the Upper East Side. A hedge fund manager blames the entire financial crisis on “greed run amok” to the right of a photo in which protestors rally against bailed out banks.

The next images show empty parking lots, graffiti and closed buildings for rent. More than anything else, these photographs convey a sense of eerie vacancy. Each one is devoid of people, with the exception of two insignificant blurs in one photo. Jacobson then transitions from these unoccupied spaces to iconography of President Obama, seen for the first time on a poster in an empty BBQ kitchen in Oakland, Calif. The next set of photos all feature the president in some fashion, though never in the flesh. In one instance, his famous mug (shown literally on a coffee mug) stands a symbol for hope and change. In another, man holds an “IMPEACH OBAMA” sign, and seems to question whether the president has stood for those ideals.

Images of dog tags from the Iraq and Afghanistan War Memorial are followed by images of protests against those wars, further casting doubt on the Obama administration. Along with photographs from other public demonstrations, including criticism of the government from the left and the right, the exhibit showcases constant, almost-universal dissastisfaction. Moving from picture to picture, hope seems to shine in each individual protest, but despair takes over when as you reflect on their scope and sheer number.

If a picture itself is worth a thousand words, then how much is a picture of words worth? The best photos in the exhibit focus not on the people in them, but the words that surround them: “Do I Look ‘ILLEGAL’?” written on a sign held by a glaring woman; “Guaranteed” printed on the window of an abandoned business; “Live Happy” spelled awkwardly on a shutdown theater; “Rise of consciousness” misspelled and smeared on a cement floor. These sorts of images recur throughout the exhibit, constantly reminding us that things are not what they appear to be. We are living in history, and in one in which hope and despair depend on and co-evolve through each other.

These images are not extraordinary or novel. We expect protestors with angry signs at Occupy movements. We see “LEASING” and “RETAIL SPACE AVAILABLE” on an average walk in New Haven. Their effect, thus, depends on the simple revelation that there are patterns, and larger meanings, in what we see everyday. Jacobson presses us to notice parallels to his work in our daily lives, and even encourages visitors to submit their own photos online.

The exhibit concludes with one of my favorite pieces. On the ground, a discarded protest sign declares “Reclaim our democracy,” the words on it written roughly with a paintbrush. The sign’s handle is an empty paper towel roll. A gate imposes thick, black lines over the entire sign, as if the message itself is behind bars.

We are indeed at a crossroads, one in which we can no longer stand still. In one way or another, Jacobson’s work alludes to a sense of movement, whether in rallying masses or emptying businesses. Is that movement for progress or escape? Is it an embrace or an exodus?

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