In a barren valley in Idaho, a man sits and reads the newspaper on a plaid couch engulfed in flames. The front of his newspaper contains a picture of the inflamed piece of furniture, making it look like the man is reading about the fire raging next to him. The photograph, State of the Union, was staged and snapped by New York artist and activist Levi Jackman Foster. For Foster, the picture is an artistic interpretation of America’s relationship with the media. Instead of reacting to the drama unfolding right in front of him, the man focuses all of his attention on reading a journalist's interpretation of those events.
With the rise of social media and online news outlets, Americans have begun to curate their exposure to news so that it reinforces their already established worldview. According to a data study cited by VICE News, “results suggest that even as voters have instant access to more information and perspectives than ever before, they segregate themselves into clusters of like-minded people often with little connection to those with other views.” Foster seeks to address this divisiveness through his art and inspire fellow citizens to confront their own opinions as well as ideologically different ones.
State of the Union is Foster’s latest viral photograph. When it was shared with his +200,000 followers on Instagram, it spread across multiple social media platforms amassing more than 12,000 ‘Likes.’ The Creators Project spoke with Foster to talk about some of the issues State of the Union addresses:
The Creators Project: What sparked the idea for State of the Union?
Levi Jackman Foster: I had actually seen a different artist set a doll house on fire, which I thought was interesting. The narrative wasn't necessarily similar. I think it was more of just a visual stunt. But the more I thought about it, I started to consider all the parallels. Initially, I felt like it could be the White House—obviously I don’t condone terrorism or think the White House should be set on fire—but it made me consider everything that’s going on in our country politically and the many social issues being confronted in strange and divided ways. […] There’s so many instances where people are not really seeing eye to eye, and I feel like it’s really tearing the country apart. I think a lot of it comes through education and people not taking the time to know where their news comes from and not taking their time to grasp that they’re part of the situation.
Yeah it’s crazy how much blame is being put on the media over this election.
Absolutely. I feel like this divisive language and this selective hearing is dividing people in a way that I really think is destroying us. I personally feel that Trump’s victory was a huge setback for our country. […] Because he essentially did what I think was done in Nazi Germany. You select an other, and the other is causing your problems. That's where I think our sofa is on fire. I think that we’re sitting back, like the picture very clearly depicts, we are reading the news of this, while our situation in itself is corroding. We are part of the issue, but instead of understanding that we're part of the issue, we're just reading about it, which I think is such a bizarre notion.
And the model in the picture isn’t even acknowledging that there is a fire next to him.
He’s unaffected. He's not even getting up. We’ve become so unaffected. When Eric Garner was strangled to death, I organized a lie in. And people’s response was, "Ugh, this is so inconvenient. You know you’re blocking our way home, in rush hour?" And it’s like what’s inconvenient is that a man lost his life.
I think we’ve become desensitized to these crucial and critical issues, because if it doesn't affect us directly, then for some reason it doesn't affect us at all. In the picture, I'm trying to show where it’s starting to affect him directly. The problem may not have been on his doorstep yesterday, but today it’s on his sofa.
And in the picture on the paper, the couch looks like it’s completely engulfed.
I actually just cropped the half that was on fire. I tried to make the photo look as minimally edited as possible. It's real. He is sitting next to an actual fire. That’s actually the very last frame I got before he jumped up. I had three people standing adjacent with fire extinguishers and a big bucket of water. It was the fastest shutter speed I could do, by just holding down the trigger and getting an accurate light reading so I could take the image. That couch was made of polyester or something and I put gasoline on one half of it. The second shot is of him jumping up and the paper actually catching fire as he’s jumping up. It’s kind of flying behind him.
I didn’t want him to catch fire, obviously, and I didn't want to start a forest fire. I was really careful about being able to put it all out quickly, and he was totally fine. It was a piece I planned out for quite a while. I traveled out to Idaho to take it because I had family near there. I was looking in areas where I had relatives or something so I would be able to use a car to buy a used sofa and drive out to the middle of nowhere, but also be on land where I’m not breaking any rules to create the image. Out there I was able to find this area where there are no regulations.
Did the location serve any aesthetic purpose?
Initially, I was looking in California, but I didn’t find any place where I could legally create it. I really wanted dry brush. I want to show that there’s a drought and everything around the sofa is flammable. That was very much a part of the image and the narrative: "This fire travels fast."
I think that it’s a parallel to society today and this alt-right movement. I’m terrified that this is going to catch on, […] and I feel like a lot of conservative people are leaning towards the alt-right because they're inundated and sick of hearing about [issues like race relations and climate change]. They feel like [people advocating for these issues are being] cry babies instead of these being real issues that need to be addressed. They feel like their personal issues aren't being addressed and so are asking themselves, "Is the other’s situation that dire? My situation is pretty bad. I’m making $20,000 a year and I’m struggling to survive." I think people are starting to rationalize, in my opinion, disgusting thoughts, and I'm afraid that it's starting to catch fire. I’m afraid that this alt-right movement is going to spread a little bit more than we thought was possible, in the same way we didn’t think Trump getting elected was possible. I feel like the country is taking this really strange turn.
How do you feel visual media can incite change and impact public opinion?
I think that today, with millennials and the way that we share memes and GIFs, we’ve become addicted to instant gratification through imagery. I think that for a message to be listened to and accepted by mass groups of people, the image comes first. And I don't think that’s necessarily a new idea. We’ve had front page images on newspapers for how long?
We as artists have to make something shocking that really captivates someone and makes them look further, and dig deeper, and not just read, but get involved. It’s something I’ve worked really hard to do. I used Instagram as a way to sort of discover myself as an artist, and I learned really well what grabs people. The first cause I joined up with was AIDS/LifeCycle and I was able to raise $160,000 through Instagram for that charity. I’ve partnered with other organizations, as well, for various causes and have been able to actually get people to take action. And that starts with imagery.
See more of Levi Jackman Foster’s work on his website.