person laying on a lawn in the suburbs
Identity

Photographing an Isolating Normalcy

To make sense of his new surroundings, photographer Chad Rhym set out to document his experience as a double-conscious outsider: a new home in a new reality.
June 7, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, We’re Reemerging. What Does the World Look Like Now?, which considers in real time how we cope while living through a historic time. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

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In the summer of 2019, a month before I moved to Iowa City from my home state of Georgia, a friend asked me jokingly to point out the state on a map. I responded: “Somewhere, uh, around here, maybe,” as I proceeded to semi-confidently slam my finger on the state of Nebraska. Geography was never my strong suit, but after I got over the self-doubt catalyzed by the persistent inquiry “Why the hell are you moving to Iowa?” from peers and family, there was a persistent excitement about the prospect of embarking on this experience. The notion was thrilling; moving far away to a place that felt like you drew it out of a hat in some obscure game show reserved for those in their early 20s.

red pick up truck with an American flag and bald eagle
crooked basketball hoop in front of a parking lot
person standing in front of an industrial plant

At the end of that summer, my mother and I drove the 13 hours to my new home, and I slowly began to sink into depths of regret. There is almost a physical gut reaction to witnessing a state that is 90 percent white for the first time, a hyper-awareness of Blackness in this community. It’s an energy that was unknown to me, particularly compared to the diverse communities I was accustomed to where I grew up in the South, and especially not present during my undergraduate experience at the historically Black-male institution of Morehouse College.

person sitting near body of water through trees
drawing of two children on the street next to a chair
person watering lawn in the front of a house

Once I realized that this wasn’t merely a “trip” or a hedonistic break from the social world I was attached to just days before, the feeling of excitement and adventure transitioned to feelings of singularity, remoteness, and withdrawal. In the early days of living in Iowa, I had the natural urge to walk. Daily walks for hours, in the morning, the afternoon, the evening; my new home had vibrantly aggressive and almost otherworldly sunsets in the evening, and a glowing magical shine at dawn. And although to this day I still feel the discomfort and can spot the eyes that watched and glared, the people were mostly kind, they moved slowly, they helped, they nodded, they looked forward, they proceeded with their days. As I made sense of place through these daily walks, I began to similarly do what was so familiar to me from the South: I made photographs.

blow up person doll next to trash cans
toy slide in front lawn of a house
broken tree trunk in the grass
dog looking at the street through the window of a house

This experience has influenced my photographic style substantially; inspired by the hyperawareness of my Blackness, there has been a shift, one that is juxtaposed with unfamiliar scenery.

front window of a car with hand cuff hanging behind the rearview mirror
backyard with multi-colored flag hanging
person fishing at a body of water
person standing on the bed of a pick up truck shoveling rocks
pair of shoes hanging on an electric line

I have been largely inspired by Susan Sontag’s On Photography and the work of Stephen Shore, especially in documenting the peculiarity and normalcy in this somber town, to which I try to add the aforementioned emotions of isolation, solitude, and desolation, while also integrating my own evolution of slowly becoming more accustomed to this space. This is a collection of photographs that I hope articulates the sentimentality of the experience of sadness, tenderness, and hope—the attitude of a double-conscious outsider, as framed by W.E.B. Du Bois, making sense of a new home away from their previously known reality. Shore’s work is described as focused on “ordinary scenes of everyday life,” even now, this, I believe, similarly encapsulates my work in Iowa, and my experience of still learning this space a year in. Somehow still, the beauty of Iowa persisted.

Follow Chad Rhym on Instagram.