Amid a political and economic landscape that’s utterly hopeless, “hope” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot lately. That’s because it’s a word we need: no matter how misplaced or unrealistic it may be, in our Brexit-faced, Trump-ruled climate of fake news, false friends and unfavourable prospects, hope is the one thing saving us from plummeting into existential meltdown. In the face of such adversity, it’s the young in particular who seem to be keeping positivity alive — such is the message of Marie Tomanova’s hope-filled photo series, profiling the New York City 20-somethings defining their own American dream.
From Bronx rapper Quay Dash to Gucci model Alton Mason, the people that populate Tomanova’s photographs are held together by the city they call home. Hailing from different backgrounds, many of which transcend U.S. borders, each of her subjects has had to grapple with the complicated concept of what it means to be “American” in such turbulent times. “The inspiration was the people themselves,” Tomanova says of her 200-strong image series, “the youth who push things forward and fight for change.” As her portraits go on show in the city in which they were taken, we caught up with the Czech-born New Yorker to talk about the vibrancy of youth culture and what it means for America.
What inspired this series? What did you hope to capture in this portrayal of American youth?
This work is really a portrayal of humanness. I hope that people can look at these pictures and see themselves — I see myself in them. I would do a shoot and spend a lot of time talking and getting to know the people I was photographing and when I went back and looked at the photos, I could see this special sense of something. There is an emotion, a depth, an openness, an honesty, a realness. And I hope people see that we are all just that: people, with the same human core. I think this is so important.
Who are the people in your portraits, what’s your relationship to them? How did you decide who would feature?
They are all people who inspired me in many ways. I met most of them in NYC — at the openings, parties or backstage at New York Fashion Week, or over Instagram. I became dear friends with many of them and, for me, it’s one of the most precious things about photography — it becomes a tool for me to meet people, to connect and create special relationships.
You’re originally from former Czechoslovakia, what inspired you to move to the U.S.?
I got on a plane in early February 2011, thinking that I’d only be here for six months. It’s now been over seven years, and I see NYC as my second home. I didn’t know how to survive as an artist in the Czech Republic — I didn’t feel like I was valued as a female artist and there was definitely no room to explore female identity and sexuality without being constantly dismissed. I spent my first year in North Carolina and the second in upstate New York. After that I moved to the city on my own and really started the journey towards my American dream. The freedom and creative energy in NYC is so intense and inspiring that I totally fell in love. That day when I got on the plane, and left my home, changed my life forever.
You’ve lived in New York throughout a very formative period — what have been the main shifts since the beginning of Trump’s tenure?
I appreciate this question in some ways and in some ways I want to say that I’m tired of giving Trump any more attention at all. He’s just really horrible, and as an immigrant myself, the thing that Trump has brought to the US is fear. At the same time, his election seems to have made people really stand up and say something and continue to do so, and I think that is really important.
Would you say there has been a generational divide?
I think there’s always a generational divide, and I hope that it’s the youth who continue to push boundaries and are less content to accept things the way they are. I think this is an important part of youth culture and its significance. The youth move things forward. They are not afraid of challenging accepted norms. We need that. The world needs that.
It seems that there’s still a lot of hope and promise — or a kind of determination to fight back — among young people, not just in the U.S. but globally, how have you seen it manifest in New York specifically?
I see people standing up for who they are and not shrinking from it. This is inspiring — it gives courage to others to be who they are. This was a really important part of this work for me and it came across very strongly for me at the opening of the show. Everyone was so happy to see themselves in that way. These are unglossed, real images — they really say that it’s OK to be yourself; that you’re great just as you are.
Young American is on display New York’s Czech Centre until August 10. Find out more here.