Mitch Epstein’s book Property Rights (Steidl) is a stark but sensitive examination of American life and land under the Trump administration. Over four tumultuous years, Epstein’s book moves across the country — from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to the US-Mexico border to the streets of New York City — to capture pivotal points of conflict between the American government, the people, and the land. Property Rights pairs Epstein’s detailed, dignified photos of activists and their actions with selections from his interviews with protesters, humanitarians, and environmentalists. Epstein’s gut-wrenching but graceful project urgently exposes the grave stakes we face today, while also reminding us that our current turbulent moment has precedents in earlier American history.
Epstein has photographed cultural divides in the United States for 50 years, but the roots of his latest book lie in the 2016 presidential election. The sudden groundswell of resistance when Trump entered office recalled, for Epstein, an earlier era of protest. “Not since the sixties protests against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement had I felt such civic power in the streets,” he writes in the book’s epilogue. Property Rights immerses us in the deeply felt reasons why ordinary people protest today. Each chapter introduces viewers to a different set of Americans who exercise their civic power during Trump’s presidency, often in defense of the US government’s forced confiscation of their land.
Citizens, police, and the landscape are the protagonists of this book, and Epstein photographs the tension between them with clear, crisp consideration. Shot with medium- and large-format cameras, Epstein’s precise, carefully composed pictures allow us the space to enter and to empathize. As we watch activists inhabiting makeshift camps, clashing with law enforcement, and getting arrested, the book’s texts connect these people and protests to larger struggles related to race and privilege. Mashanaposhe Camp, an Indigenous activist at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, tells Epstein, “Our people have been in this struggle since our first contact with the Wasi’chu (European colonists). Every generation in its own turn has to face bad things that come towards our people, and that is the sacred responsibility of a warrior — to protect our water, our land, our future generations.”
Throughout the project, Epstein hones in on the local impacts of big policies. On the US-Mexico border, he draws our attention to the government’s seizure of the National Butterfly Center’s private property for the construction of a border wall that will endanger countless species of insects, animals, and birds. He also covers less-widely circulated events, like Indigenous Hawaiians’ protests against the construction of a massive telescope on the sacred Mauna Kea volcano, and a small Pennsylvania community’s demonstrations against a corporate pipeline. “These photographs were an effort to describe a moment in time where our willingness to protect nature also revealed a bond that we share with one another, often across great distances,” Epstein says in the book’s press release.
Property Rights opens with luminous shots of Bears Ears National Monument, Escalante National Monument, and other parks that have been drastically impacted by the Trump administration’s decision to open millions of acres of federal public lands to drilling and mining. The serene pictures are a sort of prelude to the human conflicts that follow, alerting us to the value we risk losing when we no longer care for our land. The book argues that the way we treat the land in this country is intimately connected to how we treat each other. If we easily destroy our natural landscape, Epstein suggests, we are less willing to protect each other.
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