We previously spoke to German photographer and filmmaker Diana Scheunemann about her probing debut film, Love American Skin, which documents a road trip across America and the many contrasting characters and viewpoints that make up one of the biggest nation’s in the world. Compelling watching, the film throws up opinions that may ruffle a few feathers but adds to our understanding of the vastness of the country, and the differences that one encounters from state to state. And now the film and accompanying book are the main focus of the Hauser Gallery’s new online exhibition, also titled Love American Skin.
WHAT INSPIRED THIS PROJECT, WHERE DID THE FASCINATION COME FROM?
Me and my partner had been living in NYC for a few years. You hear all these partisan views on the TV but we wanted to see for ourselves what this country we now live in is like, and form an opinion based on our own experience instead of from Hollywood movies and charged news commentators.
WHY DID YOU THINK THAT THE AMERICAN NATION LEANT ITSELF SO WELL TO THE PROJECT?
We found nearly all of the Americans we met to be really open. Everyone was welcoming and shared their stories with us. It may have been because we were foreigners, and therefore outside of any local prejudices. I also think it helped that we were doing a road trip project. Road trips are a kind of traditional part of popular American culture, many Americans identify with the wanderlust.
WHO WAS THE STRANGEST CHARACTER YOU MET?
We met many unique characters with many contrasting (and sometimes conflicting) viewpoints, it’s hard to pick one as the strangest. Although I suppose meeting a hippie in Texas with a collection of over 40 firearms was quite strange. And another man we met had lived on the streets for 18 years and in that time had cycled from Philadelphia to Phoenix – that would be like cycling from London to Baghdad.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE COUNTRY IN THE TIME YOU SPENT DOCUMENTING IT?
The country is fairly homogenous, in that most communities are based around parking lots and shopping malls, but there is also a huge disparity between areas. Many places are just derelict, particularly rural towns where the manufacturing base has disappeared. It’s not hard to understand why rural and urban areas are in conflict politically. There are also incredibly wealthy areas, like large mansion estates, often only blocks from trailer park ghettos. But although these societal divisions do exist, people are generally focussed on their day to day lives – just like most of us. Almost everyone showed us incredible hospitality, regardless of background or status.
WHAT WAS THE MOST SHOCKING OR WORRYING THING THAT YOU DISCOVERED ON THE TRIP?
Definitely the gap between rich and poor neighbourhoods, and their proximity to each other, that was surprising. The level of obesity, particularly in the South, was staggering. The prevalence of extreme views in more remote rural areas, often rooted in religion, was difficult to comprehend.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES OF UNDERTAKING THIS PROJECT?
There are some states where you can be shot just for stepping on someone’s property. Earning people’s trust in those first few minutes was sometimes challenging. Also, sometimes the viewpoints people expressed were difficult to remain impartial about. We encountered quite a lot of racism in the South, both from black and caucasian subjects, which we had to navigate before uncovering the more personal stories.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE PEOPLE WILL LEARN FROM WATCHING THIS FILM?
That people are people. Despite the persona that America has developed on the world stage and in the media in recent years, most Americans are people that you could meet for a drink, have a meal with, share stories with. The country, and it’s people are far more diverse and intricate than you would imagine. A larger amount than you would think struggle to live day to day. And like all people, they experience tragedy, hardship, joy and success. The thing we took from the people we met was tolerance, we hope that people will take that from watching the film.
DO YOU THINK THAT ANYTHING IN AMERICA NEEDS TO CHANGE WITH REGARDS TO HOW TO COUNTRY OPERATES, OR ITS MINDSETS?
We set out to be as impartial as possible with the film, without any judgements. But on a personal level, I agree there are many things that don’t appear to help people: unaffordable healthcare, major dietary problems, the manufacturing diaspora, corporate greed…
America is a resolutely capitalist country, so any potential changes need to be based in a financial incentive, or there would need to be some kind of significant political evolution. Capping political party funding and reducing corporate lobbying power would perhaps be a good place to start.
TELL US WHAT YOU’RE WORKING ON NEXT?
I will continue working on personal projects that inspire me. Please check my website for new work!
Diana’s accompanying photography book, Love American Skin, is available here and watch the full film here.
Love American Skin is available to view here until 31 Jan 2015.