"America" is a fraught concept these days. At a moment when the government is forcibly separating children from their immigrant parents, partisan justices seem poised to roll back reproductive freedom, and Trump is beefing with China and Europe while cozying up to Putin, not a lot of young people are feeling particularly proud to be American.
But if the country's still intact once Trump is finally booted from office, it won't be up to baby boomers to heal the nation. The mantle will fall to America's youth. And while white haired politicians seem hell-bent on making sure the future sucks for millennials and their Gen Z successors, young people are more politically engaged and outspoken than they have been in decades.
The Czech-born, New York-based artist Marie Tomanova thinks that's something to feel optimistic about. When she immigrated to the US in 2011, America confounded her expectations. It was bigger and more isolating than she'd anticipated. But as she established a life and an artistic career in North Carolina, and then New York City, it was America's youth culture that consistently inspired and renewed her.
Tomanova's primary body of work consists of nude self-portraits in wild, natural landscapes. But over the years, she's also amassed a huge number of photographs of young people in her orbit. From now through August 10, Tomanova is showing 200 of those portraits in a new exhibition, Young American at the Czech Centre in New York City.
VICE spoke with the artist about the new series, the power of youth, and the Trump administration's hostility towards immigrants like herself.
VICE: What intrigues you about young people and youth culture?
Marie Tomanova: It’s their energy and openness to experiment and explore. It’s the courage to feel like they can change the world. It’s the vulnerability and fragility one minute and fierce passion another minute. I think there is a special place in the universe for youth, and their energy is precious.
Just the memory of my youth… Oh my god, it was so painful in so many ways and so great in other ways. I don’t know if I would be able to handle reliving it. It can be a very intense period of one’s life. It was that time when I still didn’t know what to do with myself, where I was heading, or what I want to do. It was the time when I had to try a million things to figure it all out and got to this point. I think there is a huge “something” in this period of time that kids go through.
How'd you choose your subjects? How'd you make sure you had a diverse mix of ages, genders, ethnicities, identities, and parts of America they're from?
Most of the photographs were taken in NYC and over a longer period of time. The New York population is diverse and rich on it’s own, you just have to look around. And that’s what I love about NYC. I have been photographing people at parties, openings, on the street or in their private places over more than three years. I think it is also the places where I chose to hang out that influenced who I photographed. The city is pulsing with young kids at the parties, the art crowd at the openings, all of these events to a certain extent inspired who I met and got to photograph.
How much collaboration did you have with your subjects? Did they give input on where and how they wanted to be portrayed?
Many of the portraits that are included in Young American were shot for a different purpose. For example, when I shot editorials and other projects, there would always be couple photographs that were super strong portraits but didn’t really fit into the fashion story… Those portraits were gradually piling up, until they became this whole new project, Young American.
Once I solely focused on taking portraits for this project, I got even more freedom in the process. The photograph is always a special thing between [the subject and me]. The thing I love best about shoots is that, most of the time, I end up chatting with people who I photograph, and it is always inspiring to hear their story.
Why'd you choose to focus on American youth, versus young people globally?
I think there is a quite simple answer to this. I focused on American youth because that is where I have been living for the past seven years and have been trying to fit in. As an immigrant, the American dream and American youth have always fascinated me, and it has been a great journey for me to have the opportunity to connect with so many amazing people and learn from them.
Living in a whole different part of the world with no family around taught me how to listen to people better, how to stand up for myself, and most of all it showed me so many new perspectives on matters in life and life in general. These series are about “Americans” who are not defined by passport or Visa but that are defined by having hopes and dreams. I relate.
What does "America" mean to you?
America is a special place for me. It completely changed my life. Maybe this would have happened as well if I went to another part of the world, but for some reason I chose the United States. I left my home country one day and thought that I would be back in half a year or so… But I fell in love and never returned. America helped me to find myself, to discover what I love, and what I want to do. It has been tough many times through the years. There were times when I hit the bottom so hard and didn’t have family around to help. I cried, feeling helpless and homesick so many times, and I considered running back home… But that’s all part of life, and I always try to find the positive side of things, even when it looks like there is none. For me, America is a place where things can happen if you work hard and have lots of grit. America is my second home.
What was it like moving to America as an adult? What was the hardest thing to get used to? Will you stay here forever, do you think?
It was a strange moment to get on a plane one day and end up in a different part of the world where nobody knows you. I spent my first year in North Carolina, and the huge highways fascinated me. The distances that one would drive each day were unbelievable for me, the size of your everyday coffee was insane! Everything was so huge and fast as I was coming from a small town. The whole Czech Republic is about half size of Florida. I really started to have a whole new understanding of distances. [laughs]
But it also was very exciting and challenging that nobody knew me. I could have been whomever I wanted to. I could have taken on a whole different persona when I arrived in Greensboro. And the same thing happened the next year when I moved to New York and nobody knew me. It was a very new and unexplored experience for me, because I am from a small town where everybody knows who you are—or at least they think they do—and they have you in certain “box,” and it’s hard to break through that. I loved the anonymity of NYC. I spent a lot of time writing the first couple of years. It helped me wrap my head around all of the changes and constant new impressions.
What do you hope the future holds for our generation? What do you fear it holds?
I hope for fewer boundaries everywhere. I hope for a global embrace of inclusiveness. I hope for positive choices and many powerful voices. I fear conservatism. I fear a lack of sensitivity and tolerance. I fear that the forward movement embraced by youth will lose energy.
Why did you want this series to be positive, inclusive, and idealistic? What drew you to beauty and positivity versus politics and dread?
My mom always used to say: “With positive attitude, half work done.” I think there is more power when things are approached in a positive way. I hate feeling helpless, and in politics nowadays it could very easily be all about that. But I consciously choose to believe in change and positivity. It is a way for me to be able to move forward and keep going.
Why did you want to do portraits of other people, which is so different from your main body of work, which is all self-portraits in nature?
In a way, it is not so different. My work of self portraits in nature is about identity and displacement and celebration and trying to connect to my youth growing up in the forests of Mikulov. When I came to the US, those memories were all that I had, and I struggled to find my identity when I was new in this country. I have realized that really it was me trying to fit into the American landscape, or to find my place in the American landscape. And Young American is really the same. The portraits are really of them, me, and us. We are all in their eyes. We are human.