The American Dream for Mexican Immigrants

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Updated: Jun 26, 2022
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The misfits, the degenerates, and the uneducated. Sometimes with street photography, it seems obvious that the photographer is an outsider looking in. Like a spectator merely passing through for a short length of time to snap some photos, with the subjects essentially being exploited, and then the photographer returns home to their comfortable middle-class life. Zoe Strauss is unique in that she relates to her photographs. The people and the backgrounds that she captures are of her own neighborhood. While there is an obvious focus on the South Philadelphia area, Strauss has stretched outside of her local neighborhood and into other parts of the country to document the timeless struggle of the trying to achieve the American Dream.

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Her photographs are mainly of the people she meets along her artistic journey and they are the indirect inclusions of the rest of humanity by way of the signs (textual photographs) and broader urban landscapes.

She does not display breathtaking scenery, but instead, we are shown realistic, sometimes grotesque and often uncomfortable photographs to look at. Zoe Strauss is a self-taught artist whose work focuses on the overlooked and unrepresented aspect of America, mixing the struggle and beauty that coexist in everyday life. Zoe is a self-proclaimed lesbian anarchist who was born and raised in rough streets of South Philadelphia. She was the first person in her family to graduate high school. On her 30th birthday, she gifted herself a camera and started snapping photos of life in her working-class neighborhood. Before even owning the camera, Zoe had the idea to start a ten-year project, so between 2001 and 2011, she exhibited her photographs in a yearly exhibition titled ‘Under I-95’, which featured her prints adhered to columns under an elevated section of Highway I-95.

The images displayed were meant to be her gift to her neighborhood, her friends, to Philadelphia, to the world, and not just your typical art lovers. Under I-95, Strauss was adamant that her photographs remain affordable to all so $5 copies is how she began selling them in 2001, and how she ended ten years later. Plus, the digital print versions, the larger, higher-resolution versions, which she hung as the exhibition on the pillars under I-95, were free to anyone interested at the end of the one-day exhibit, and they, too, never got more expensive. Daddy Tattoo, Philadelphia 2004 The photo above is one of Zoe’s most famous photos from her I-95 project.

At first glance, one might think this woman resembles the late singer Amy Winehouse. Adorned with oversized dark hair, a black bra showing through her stained white crop top, and audaciously made-up eyes and lips. Initially, it looks like the woman is trying to seduce the camera; but looking closer she’s an incredibly young and vulnerable pregnant woman. The piece is called Daddy Tattoo because of the tattoo on the woman’s arm. Monique showing black eye, Philadelphia 2006 Two years later, as luck would have it, Strauss was able to capture the same woman staring back at the same lens— however this time she is referred to as Monique. Her eyes are both black, the right one nearly swollen shut, and left eye is peering into the lens with a sense of anguish.

Her mouth is slightly opened with bewilderment and there are other signs of being beaten and abused on her face and body. If it were not for the tattoo on her arm Monique would be almost unrecognizable as the same woman in the first photograph. Without any text, these two photos side by side tells a sad, and common story of the struggles women face in marginalized neighborhoods. We may not know Monique’s full story, but it’s safe to assume that she is a victim of domestic abuse and these photos do an excellent job at shedding light on an issue happens all too often but rarely recognized in our society, and in art especially. Strauss is not afraid to push the envelope which often results in ‘ creating an epic narrative that reflects the beauty and struggle of everyday life.’

Sexy with strawberry, Kelly Harper 2007 Here we see a strong black woman standing on the street somewhere. She is large breasted and scantily-clad, wearing what appears to be either a bikini top or bra that she is pulling down on one side to expose the tattoo on her breast that says ‘sexy’. Her face is quite interesting because she looks almost caricature-like with very exaggerated features such as her cheekbones and lips, presumably both enhanced surgically with silicone. Again, Strauss exposes her viewers to issues such as body image and to the real streets of Philadelphia, women such as this one are not who you would typically see in an exhibit or museum. Vanessa, Philadelphia 2006 This photo is very simple and yet, artistic. It is a close up of what one presume is an African American woman, but it’s not exactly clear.

Gender fluidity is another common theme in Zoe’s creations. I believe it was her intention to make us stop and wonder whether ‘Vanessa’ is a male or female. Vanessa is glaring into the camera with a slight smirk on her face. Her mouth is slightly opened just enough to let the smoke from her cigarette escape her lips, which creates an interesting resemblance to the cloudy sky in the background. Her eyes are what really catch my attention, even though they are just tiny slits they seem to pierce through me and exude a sense of confidence. While Zoe’s i-95 project was still in the works, she released another project in 2009 called “America” which was published by Ammo Books. Perhaps it is the nostalgia, but there seems to be something unique about seeing a tangible photograph in book form that seeing it on a screen can’t quite capture.

Street photography books, while fairly common, are not just a delight to flip through to appreciate the magical moments the photographer has caught, they’re also an awesome way to sharpen one’s artistic eye and examine the strategies used that make gifted a street photographers work so dazzling. Not many works by modern photographers are destined to be classics, but Zoe’s book is one of them. It is often compared to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ which was published 50 years earlier but in my opinion, it is a more intimate view of modern-day America that it is just as well seen and brutally honest. Posing with Christmas Present, 2009 At first glance, this photo is rather jarring. Zoe’s camera focuses on a young boy, probably under the age of ten if I had to guess, who is brandishing a rifle, his finger on the trigger, whilst staring directly into the lens.

The rifle looks incredibly large up against the boy’s small stature, which makes one question what is an innocent child doing holding a weapon in the first place? The boy is standing in a yard with overgrown grass, there are several items scattered about the yard and behind him is a mobile home. I think what Zoe is trying to represent in this photo is our love guns in this country. Christine, 2006 I am also alarmed by the photo of this woman, who is using a broken eyeliner pencil to apply her eyeliner. I imagine that the woman most likely knew of the dangerous condition of the pencil, however, she kept on utilizing it. I believe that the crushed pencil is symbolic of the troublesome life that this lady has encountered but she has the strength and determination to make the best of things and continue on.

This may be the most ideal approach to portray most of Strauss’ intimate representations; they are a declaration to resilience and survival. Additionally, a key takeaway of ‘America’ for me is there is an inclination that the places during Strauss’ travels that she is drawn toward and the general demographic she wound up focusing her energy on is the place her customary range of familiarity dwells. She appears to have a solid compassion for the individuals who are on the brink of society as she frequently mentions that she isn’t of the mainstream straight world. She is by all accounts ready to make deep connections that enable people to undress themselves once in a while graphically, for example, the lady below who unfastens her jeans and pulls up her shirt to uncover a long surgical scar while yet standing transparently in the road.

Individuals appear to identify with her and enable her to come closer whether to demonstrate a tattoo over their bosom or a fresh bruise on their face. Zoe does not judge the subjects that she takes portraits of, and she doesn’t allow the viewer to either because she captures the moments in a way that seem to speak for themselves. Victoria’s Hysterectomy Scar, 2005 Once her i-95 project came to an end in 2011, the exhibit entitled Zoe Strauss: Ten Years came into fruition and was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show was considered a mid-career retrospective, building off of Strauss’ decade of creations during her I-95 project. Zoe described this opportunity as her “most intense fantast, a show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art “, something she’s dreamt about since the age of 6 or 7. Strauss used epic poetry to figure out how the photos would move up against each other in the exhibit.

The 2012 exhibition was the first critical assessment of Strauss’ ten-year project and was accompanied by a 250-illustration catalog, which again was entitled Zoe Strauss: 10 Years. Two Women, Camden, NJ, 2006 Although these two women do not look exactly alike, they appear to be a mother & daughter. Their body chemistry is quite interesting. The older woman whom I would guess is the Mother has her arm around the younger woman, presumably her daughter. The daughter is slightly pulling away from her Mother’s embrace. The older woman’s face is what initially caught my eye. The best way I could describe her face is that the left side is off-kilter from the right side. It’s hard to say if this woman has a birth defect or a result of long-term alcohol & drug abuse. What I do know though, is that it makes me uncomfortable to look at her.

If I were to see this woman in person I would have to try to avoid staring at her because that is considered rude. Strauss does an excellent job at documenting the people that we feel uncomfortable staring at. Half House, Camden NJ 2008 Zoe Strauss does not only photograph people though, she also captures peculiar architecture and landscapes. Below is an image of half of a house, it was taken in Camden, New Jersey. I have to say; I’ve never seen half of a house in standing condition. What’s even more interesting is that the house appears to be lived in because there’s several different wind chimes hanging on the half front porch. I’m not quite sure if there’s a metaphor to this photo or not. It leaves me questioning why is there only half of a house in the first place?

Does this represent poverty? Could the owners only afford to build half of a house? As part of the exhibition of Ten Years, Zoe Strauss and the Philadelphia Museum of Art started The Billboard Project which was a series of 54 billboards featuring Zoe’s photographs. Zoe has said that the project is loosely inspired by the themes of the Odyssey, telling an “epic story about journey and homecoming.” The billboards displayed photographs from Strauss’s travels around America which is meant to feel inclusive both visitors and locals, encouraging everyone to create their own perception and story around these images. In addition to the underlying themes of the Odyssey, the billboards also touched upon the topics of immigration, mystery, wealth, and struggle, “Antoinette Conti, La Corona / The Crown,” Philadelphia, PA Above is a portrait of Antoinette Conti that was displayed on a billboard for 2 months.

Antoinette is a second-generation Italian-American immigrant. Below, on the same billboard is Fernando Trevino, he is Antoinette’s next door neighbor and Strauss lives directly across the street from both of them. Fernando is a first-generation Mexican-American immigrant. Zoe is a fourth-generation Eastern European Jewish-American immigrant. I think Zoe’s message is that in some way, we are all immigrants. “Fernando Trevino, La Corona / The Crown,” Philadelphia, PA Mattress Flip, 2001 This is another one of Zoe’s most famous photos that was displayed as part of the Billboard Project and Ten Years. The photograph is entitled “Mattress Flip” which captures a demonstration of athletic ability embraced on a grim city street.

The young boy is inverted in mid-flip with his arms out to his side and appears to have jumped off the heap of rotting mattresses behind him. The mattresses are extremely beat up which leads me to believe that these neighborhood boys have been practicing their acrobatic acts for a while now. Zoe Strauss is a true street photographer by nature. The foundation of her work is her capacity to make deep and personal connections with outsiders, and take riveting pictures. In spite of the fact that she has been criticized for shooting poor people and also the uneducated individuals in society– she gives them a voice. She associates with them. She makes them a part of her projects. 

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The American Dream For Mexican Immigrants. (2022, Apr 09). Retrieved from