VICE: Tell us the story behind your cover image.
Emile Askey: In 2016, I set out on my third cross-country trip to take images for Monuments Are Forever. The project took on a new direction after my father passed away in 2014, and I’d moved away from just focusing on tourism to trying to understand my own history, lineage, and connection to various parts of the US. A good friend was home for the summer and took me on a tour of his ancestral homeland in the Arkansas Delta. This was one of the first pictures I made when we were driving and walking around West Memphis, Arkansas. I noticed the sky and the top of the billboard were almost the same hue of blue.
We loved the fake reality the photo represents: You’re looking at a billboard of a mountain in a natural environment and it causes you to do a double take and question if it’s real. It was a perfect fit for our Truth and Lies issue theme. There’s a lot of signage and similar playfulness in your series. Why did you gravitate toward this particular billboard?
With signs—or I guess parts of them in many cases—I’m interested in this translation of a real thing (mountains) into a representation of that thing (beer commercial, cold, fresh). It’s so easy to get lost in any number of details that may relate to what I’m looking at. On first glance, I assumed this was a Coors Light ad because of the branding, but it was actually Busch Light. Did you know Anheuser-Busch once reported Coors to the FTC for falsely advertising their use of Rocky Mountain water, and later Coors sued them for running ads that defamed their brand? Seems like a lot of drama for such ordinary beer.
How did you map out the series?
I’m a terrible planner but like to pretend that my lack of planning is actually a strategy that counters the traditional practices of photojournalism. My priorities are: Where can I camp or stay for free? Where are the best places to eat? Can I go swimming? Who’s nearby that I can visit (and photograph)? And how far can I realistically drive before it becomes counterproductive? From there I figure out what’s “worth seeing.” A lot of my research is done on the fly or after the fact which then informs how I approach future trips.
What projects are you working on now?
Although Monuments Are Forever probably has another trip or two before I can put it into a final form, it also feels like a project that will never end. I’ve been photographing the formerly segregated part of east Austin where my dad is from and trees and bridges in Louisiana that are related to the history of lynching and my family connection to that. I’m also planning a new trip that is going to be directed by this stack of letters that my dad wrote to my grandma while he was serving in the army in the 1940s.
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