Robert LeBlanc has spent the past six years devoted to shooting the following book: A New America. To capture such an expansive study of America required time and patience, and Robert — a documentary photographer and skateboarder from rural Montana — gave it just that, spending many a night sleeping in his car as he travelled from state to state focused solely on producing these images.
“It was hard to decide when this project would be completed because it could be one of those things that never ends,” he says. “More and more things always seem to pop, especially in 2020, but I feel very strongly about where it’s at and I think it paints an authentic experience of America today.”
Looking beyond its classic landmarks and landscapes, Robert hones in on the individual characters that make up the USA’s myriad communities; particularly those pushed to the margins by poverty, drug abuse and a broken criminal justice system. From cowboys to the capitol, strip clubs to streets filled with civil unrest, A New America distils much of the ills and injustices plaguing Americans right now; many of the sharp edges a new president cannot merely smooth over and “heal”.
“I love the challenge of constructing an image amidst the chaos,” Robert adds. “You can’t control the environment; all you can do is read it and try to flow with it. It’s a delicate dance between timing and pure luck, and when it’s timed right, it’s a very rewarding experience.”
There’s a Bruce Gilden quality to your imagery, but then the idea of photographing a big expansive trip across the USA will always be tied to what Robert Frank did. What kind of references did you draw upon?
Robert Frank was a huge influence for me in younger years, and I still look at his body of work. The Americans is a huge inspiration for me. He picked a time when America was going through a huge shift after WW2 and the depression. I felt that America is currently in that same situation, and I think 50 years from now people will look back at the last 10 as a historic moment in American history.
Alex Webb and Eugene Richards also have a huge influence on me. Alex Webb’s colour pallets and compositions are unmatched, and he is a true master of photography. His images have so much complexity; you have to spend time really looking at his images to see all the details. Eugene Richards’ raw and intimate images are unbelievable and really give a lot of emotion. I’ve always believed the closer you get the better your image becomes, and I think Eugene is a big reason why I believe that. He’s also so unapologetic, which is extremely important in photography. It’s raw, real and heavy… just the way I like it.
**A lot changed in the six years since you began, did your approach to this story change? Did you seek out particular locations, or did you just follow the wind?
**A lot has happened over the last six years, for sure! My approach hasn’t really changed, but the layers of the story keep building. Pre-2020, I would just go follow the wind and keep my days open to unexpected moments. There were a few stories I really wanted to cover for the book, like the serpent-handling churches in the applications, or the AI sex doll factory. I would spend more time hunting those moments out because it took a lot more finesse to gain access. Besides those few specific moments, I wanted it to be a pure experience and a collection of unexpected and authentic moments. 2020 changed that completely and I couldn’t just float around and be a nomad, it took a lot more of a subtle touch and responsibility.
As we know, 2020 was a year that America cracked. As someone who has studied it in such detail now, what’s your relationship with the country? I think you describing America as cracking is a perfect description. I don’t think my relationship with America has changed much, I’ve seen a lot more than most, and because of that it takes a lot to surprise me, but I do feel a bit more embarrassed about how we handle ourselves on the world stage last year. I won’t lie, though, it was a good year for photographers.
There’s a big emphasis in these images on the less documented aspects to American society: drug use, violence, obesity, alongside lighter, more hopeful moments of family and activism and change. How did you go about sensitively doing this?
I wanted to show both sides of America. There’s this side of America that is beautiful, fancy, and full of opportunity, but there is also the very dark side where most of us live. I felt that if I didn’t show both sides, then I would be doing this whole project a huge injustice. I want people to feel something, and sometimes it involves taking them out of their comfort zone. I also wanted to show the weird and strange side of America that most don’t see. Culturally we are so diverse, with countless groups of unique people into unique things, and I really love that aspect. Even though I’m very attracted to the darker side of our societies, I try to sprinkle a little humour in my images and make an effort to show the lighter side as well. I’m a happy pessimist.
**Is there an image in this series that means the most to you or was the hardest to achieve?
**I think one of the images that still, to this day, really hit me is those of the young child standing in the doorway, guarding the home with the toy machine gun after Hurricane Irma. That neighbourhood was mainly migrant workers who worked on the farms in surrounding areas. After the hurricane, they were completely forgotten about and left for days without water and supplies. I could drive to the rich neighbourhood 10 minutes away, and the whole neighbourhood would have power and be back to life as usual, but this whole community got just pushed to the side and forgotten about, when in reality they were the ones who needed the most help. That was a moment that has always stuck with me.
All images courtesy Robert LeBlanc