On a recent trip to the United States, Panos photographer Graeme Williams tried to get to the root of the apparent contradictions in the country's psyche that have led to the deep divisions within the society. Born in South Africa, Graeme was puzzled how Americans could meld their ingrained passion for individuality and space with a yearning for, what he construes as, excessive regulation of their daily lives. Arriving in New York and surveying the cosmopolitan worldliness that epitomises America's most outward looking city, he realised that he needed to find his way to a different kind of America. He hired a car and drove West, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a city Forbes magazine rated in 2010 as the second-best place in the US to bring up a family. What he found as he explored the city, was that only a select few of Harrisburg's residents were living this dream.
In an election year, the United States is deeply divided nation with recurring violent confrontations between police forces, accused of racism and brutality toward African-Americans, and rights activists campaigning on the platform of "Black Lives Matter" that was born out of numerous black deaths at the hands of the police. Economically too, politicians of all stripes have tried to exploit the extreme inequality of the world's largest economy where 1% of the population controls 99% of its wealth. Both Bernie Sanders, on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and Donald Trump, on the right of the Republicans, have drawn large crowds of disaffected citizens who want to see change.
Having grown up in Apartheid South Africa, Graeme was reminded of the deep divisions of South African society. In the 1990s leaders such as the late Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging's (AWB) Eugene Terr'Blanche, exploited the poor white community in order to destabilise the country during it's tricky transition to democracy. Today in the US, as then in South Africa, battle lines are being drawn along the deep divisions in society that will determine the country's future in years
to come. Today's South Africa has once again become a fragmented society, highly unequal and plagued by incompetent and corrupt government. Deep scars from 46 years of Apartheid and colonial rule have left their indelible mark that could take generations to heal.
In his youth, Graeme's live's soundtrack was mainly American - Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and thousands of American pop songs. America seemed like a Promised Land, a blueprint for a better type of country where millions gathered to fight for civil rights and brave journalists could constitutionally depose a president for corrupt practices. In his whites-only school, America was presented as an ideal society , 'We were shown American-made educational films that presented modern farmers planting genetically modified crops that would save the world from hunger and scientists building massive computers'. The country, to him, was a place to admire and a dream to pursue. His work on America is an attempt to reconcile the dream with today's reality.
In Harrisburg, America's divisions are glaringly obvious to the outsider. Wealthier residents have moved out into
the suburbs where property companies are creating seemingly limitless identical housing developments that are designed to evoke a 'homely' atmosphere but feel sterile and claustrophobic. Poorer Harrisburgers who live in places like The Hill and Uptown, in contrast, complain of unemployment, social exclusion and the widening gap between haves and have-nots. Many eek out a living below the poverty line.
Coincidentally, Pennsylvania has long been a state where different ideologies and politics intersect. It was on the fault line in the civil war and is considered a swing state, fluctuating between Democrats and Republicans. The state is a living metaphor for America's divisions and the very different lives people live.
These images, part of a longer project called "Diverging Dreamlines", comprise two parts. The claustrophobia of the middle class suburbs and portraits of people living in parts of the city which are affected by poverty, unemployment, crime and a general feeling of despair. A full text by Graeme Williams is available on request.