“What does this historic moment look like where you live?” cultural historian Matthew Frye Jacobson of Yale University wanted to know. He took a 12-month sabbatical in 2009 and 2010 and traversed the country by plane, train, and automobile, stopping in New York, New Orleans, Boulder, and Berkeley, among other places. Like a 21st-century Studs Terkel or Dorothea Lange, Jacobson took thousands of photographs and interviewed unemployed workers, artists, a hedge fund manager, a judge, and dozens of others.
Lifting a phrase from President Obama’s 2009 inaugural address, Jacobson named the project “Our Better History” and posted it on his website, Historian’s Eye. His gritty photos, recorded interviews, and transcripts span the fallout of the recent economic collapse, the BP oil spill, emerging anti-Muslim feelings, two wars, and the politics of health-care reform, immigration, and anti-Obama sentiment.
He photographed “Better History,” a sign painted on a building in New York, that bears graffiti altering it to “Bitter Future,” and Jacobson sees his fieldwork as an attempt to portray that dichotomy. “This has seemed like a moment in American history where we’re about to deliver up either the very best that we have or the very worst that we have, and it could go either way.”
Jacobson, chair of Yale’s American Studies Program, wants students and others to submit photos and comments. Collaborators at UC-Berkeley are archiving cell-phone photos from 2009 student demonstrations over budget issues. “I’m bracing myself to see what the next phase is going to be,” he says.”
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