An outsider’s eye, an instant camera and America seen anew


Through the lens of an instant camera, through the eyes of an outsider, oft-neglected corners of America take on a very different cast.

There is beauty in the swing ride at the Mississippi State Fair, seats suspended against an azure sky. There is humor in the giant statue of a hotdog alongside a highway in Lesage, West Virginia. There is desolation in a street scene in Cairo, Illinois.

Photographer Maye-E Wong was part of an Associated Press team that drove the backroads during the run-up to the 2020 election. She illustrated stories about currents of racial tension that still ripple through towns that once expelled Black people, about how claims of a gentler political culture in Utah turned out to be far more complicated than the folklore, about people in coal country who were isolated from COVID-19 and race issues and so much more.

But Wong, raised in Singapore, also brought along an Instax camera that made prints immediately, without the complications of her professional equipment. Fully in the moment, she used that camera to compile a visual diary — “a collective portrait of a dysfunctional family,” as she describes it.

There are photos of the many people they met, from the Mississippi man whose wife had been put in a medically induced coma to the unemployed casino workers in Las Vegas struggling with poverty. Some supported Donald Trump and some didn’t, and so many opened their arms to the visitors.

But the Instax photos — tangible, color-saturated art-on-the-spot — also capturing slices of American life and the American landscape: Youths playing basketball on an outdoor court in Mississippi. A pig race at the state fair. Women collecting water at an old trough in Ohio.

Exquisite images of a Mississippi cotton field and bison grazing in Utah give way to shots that are less so — a Dollar General in Kentucky, abandoned cars in Meridian, Mississippi. There is irony in a Superman statue, usually a favorite spot for tourists to pose in Metropolis, Illinois.

In these pandemic times, there is no one around. And Superman wears a mask.

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