As we inch closer and closer to the American midterm elections, the unfortunate reality of the country’s troublesome, repetitive history seems daunting as ever. The now-infamous slogan for the current US president – “Make America Great Again” – continues to beg the question: “Great” for whom? While the Declaration of Independence promises to protect the American Dream, systemic barriers have always prevented equal access to this alleged potential. Marginalized people across the United States continue to be erased from mainstream narratives of their country, and their voices continue to be silenced in favor of oppressive whitewashing.
For photographer Oluwasegun Oladele-Ajose, America’s discrimination is reflected in its historical photography just as much as its historical texts, and his series Story of Man addresses the visual cues of this inequality with blunt precision. “The United States of America, which is supposedly the greatest nation on earth and the land of the free, was founded on racism and brutality,” the artist explains. “The land itself was occupied by Native Americans and Mexicans. The stories of America’s independence from Britain overshadows the lives and families that were lost in the process of gaining that freedom.”
In a series of diptychs, Oladele-Ajose compares himself to photographs of powerful American figures. Each diptych features an image of a white man from the 1800s on the left, and a self-portrait of the artist on the right, mimicking the poses seen in the original photographs. Dressed in his own contemporary attire, posing with his own symbolic props, the photographer invites viewers to question the codes embedded in these historical images, and why we are conditioned to perceive them as authoritative evidence of justified power. He explains, “In this photographic series, I attempt to take back power by emulating the poses of these men. As a black man, I represent the minorities whose stories are absent from history, intentionally written out by governments who create policies that favor a select few.”
This act of visual reclamation is a powerful one, and Oladele-Ajose’s commentary is made even more effective through his precision and skill as a studio portraitist. By engaging with this series, the artist hopes viewers will stop to question not only the recorded history taught to Americans across countless education platforms, but how we should interpret the visual documentation of that history as well. “This work touches on the continuing struggle of so many to remain equal in a world that has the tendency to create divisions,” he says. “My hope is that someday in the near future, ‘All people will be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’”