What is American Power? – Mitch Epstein

In 2003, photographer Mitch Epstein was commissioned to do an unusual job.

“I had been hired to photograph a town in the process of being erased. The American Electric Power Company had paid residents of Cheshire a lump sum to leave, never come back and never complain in the media or in court if they became sick from environmental contaminates spewed out by the AEP plant. The company was buying itself a lawsuit-free future.”

Having completed the project, Epstein could not get Cheshire out of his mind and embarked on a project called American Power. “I wanted to photograph the relationship between American society and the American landscape, and energy was the lynchpin.”

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The result of the project is a set of images of the creation and consumption of power in America. The images starkly show how both energy production and its consumption are inextricably intertwined with everyday life in America.

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Some of the images serve as somber reminders of the perverse ways in which America uses its power and its cultural relationship to these uses. One such photograph is that of a now disused electric chair affectionately known as ‘Old Sparky’.

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Other images show the huge and irreversible impact that power generation has had on the landscape.

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Just as revealing as the photographs themselves are the difficulties that Epstein encountered as he toured the country creating these images. He describes ‘systematic harassment’ as he tried to photograph power plants and other installations: “Law enforcement officials more than once ran me out of town when I had done nothing remotely criminal. The result was that from 2003-2008 – a span that coincided with the Bush era – most of where I went in the United States to work I went in fear.”

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And, in case harassment was insufficient, here is a description of one incident when he was stopped for questioning: “..an unmarked car arrived. A middle aged man in a suit and tie stepped out and flashed his ID : FBI. “You know,” he said, “if you were a Muslim, you’d be cuffed and taken in for questioning.” Long live the land of the free!

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The project is now the subject of an interactive web site that aims to collect people’s views and start an online discussion around the question – What is American Power?

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