I live life through a viewfinder. I am a guy who seeks to photograph democracy and the common man, a guy who fell in love with America, first as a history teacher and then as a photographer. I didn't start out in life with the idea that I would ‘photograph democracy,’ but that’s what happened.
I grew up in St. Louis dreaming of places I’d like to see and photograph – the beauty and history of Virginia, the white picket fences of New England and the majesty of Monument Valley in the west.
From my Midwestern roots, a love for our founding fathers, and a passion for capturing the great spirit of our nation, I asked myself, ‘what is the central fiber of the American system?’
The answer for me is democracy. If you can figure out a way to photograph that, in essence, you've captured American civilization.
From my Midwestern roots, a love for our founding fathers, and a passion for capturing the great spirit of our nation, I asked myself, ‘what is the central fiber of the American system?’ The answer for me is democracy. If you can figure out a way to photograph that, in essence, you've captured American civilization.
That is what I have tried to do for the last 30 years, as a visual storyteller. My story in many ways is the American story.
It takes time to cross all 50 states but doing that is how I have been able to put the pieces together.
To create a portrait of an American spirit, you need many different elements – themes of the world we live in, like multiculturalism.
One thing I've attempted to capture are portraits of all of the world's people living in America, because I think that is one of the things shaping today’s America.
To tell part of that story, I might go to downtown Los Angeles to shoot the Korean Festival, to a Latin festival in Miami, or to a Chinese New Year celebration wherever I happen to be. Images from those major events combine into a gigantic puzzle, and then a larger mosaic portrait starts to emerge.
In the early days, I’d drive my RV down open roads. I didn't have a cell phone because they weren't invented. I had paper maps. And I spent about 40 percent of every day being completely, totally lost.
I found wonderful accidental pictures that way, along with many that I obsessed over because the themes were so important – like the autumn leaves in New England. I didn't know you could have a bad autumn, but New England did. It had five bad autumns in a row. So I had to go a sixth time.
Those years reminded me of the fun and serendipity of being a little kid – I grew up right off of Route 66 near the banks of the Mississippi River and we’d take daylong bicycle rides trying to get lost – and how grateful I was to be an adult making a living at what I love. Being an independent photographer is the ultimate bootstrapping endeavor, so my work as a stock photographer for photo agencies such as Shutterstock is critical to me.
This year of course my photographic canvas is in large part dominated by the presidential election, which I have been photographing since the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992.
Perhaps more than anything, U.S. presidential elections weave the world’s most diverse country into a national fabric, even at a time of political polarization such as this.
A presidential campaign is a technicolor expression of the vibrancy of our nation – political theater, across the 50 states. It’s then-Senator Obama driving a bumper car at the Iowa State Fair. It’s Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton inserting themselves into a stranger’s wedding picture. It’s that large group of Republican Party hopefuls lined up at the presidential debate last September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, with Reagan’s presidential plane as a backdrop.
When we look at the map as a country of red states and blue states, it's all the more important to experience things that bring us together.
When people see my Visions of America multimedia work, they see a mixture of Republicans and Democrats, and the one thing they all appreciate is the beauty of America, the amazing symbolism of all the icons and the memorials.
E pluribus unum – out of many, one. That motto on our national seal is a fitting reminder of why it’s so important to capture the American spirit.
Joseph Sohm has photographed the 50 states over 30 years and been published more than 400,000 times in major publications. His photo of President Bill Clinton is featured on the back-cover of his book "My Life" and in his presidential library. Sohm’s images are featured in Frederick J. Ryan’s portrait of "Ronald Reagan, The Great Communicator"; Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film "An Inconvenient Truth"; NBC’s 9/11 memorial, Concert for America; in “Night at the Museum,” and on John Grisham’s "King of Torts" cover. In 2009 he published “Visions of America – Photographing Democracy” which features Paul Theroux’s foreword. His book won a Gold (“IPPY”) and Silver Medal (“Nautilus Book Award”) and three Telly’s for music-videos based upon the book. In 2009, he also produced, photographed and wrote, “Visions of America – a Photo Symphony Concert for America.” Joseph and his wife Leslie Plimpton reside in Ojai, California. Learn more via Joseph’s website, www.joesohm.com.