A few months ago, Rob Gullixson was working as fashion photography assistant, creating glamorous images of models and celebrities. Rachel Casparian, an aspiring actress, had taken a break from the stage to spend some time working with children.
On August 8th, the couple left their paying jobs behind to travel across the country taking photographs of Obama supporters.
From their home in New York, they drove through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas. They stopped off in Denver just in time for the Democratic National Convention, and went on to visit Utah, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia . . . taking photographs of Obama supporters at private homes and public gatherings all along the way.
They scheduled on the fly, relying on luck and the kindness of strangers to find not only shooting locations, but on many nights, a place to stay. During their entire trip, the two stayed in a hotel only once.
I recently interviewed Rachel and Rob of the We Are the Ones Project about their experience over the phone. Part One of my interview is here.
RACHEL: Well I had been in New York City pursuing an acting career, and during the second term of the Bush administration had become very depressed and upset with the political climate, and feeling like what I was pursuing was not of any value.
And so I started working with children—babysitting—and kind of got wrenched out of my complacency by a three-year-old who I was caring for, and realized that there was a lot of work that needs to be done in the world. I fell in love with this wonderful child and wanted to do something a little bit more activist-based. So that was the point that I got involved with the Obama campaign.
ROB: Prior to starting the project, I guess for about the past six or seven years I’ve been working as a freelancer in New York on commercial photography shoots, mostly in a technical capacity, first dealing with the lighting and the grip equipment and things like that, and then as digital photography emerged, I got more into managing the digital end on sets, running the computers and digital camera technology. All the while working on trying to figure out what it exactly it was I wanted to be shooting.
I was working mostly on commercial fashion shoots, and celebrity portraiture, and catalog shoots, and as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be shooting, I had a bit of a similar feeling to Rachel, that, you know, I’d prefer to be doing something that I feel like is of social value, of cultural value, rather than just selling people things.
Rachel actually had the idea for the project—the initial idea of trying to combine our strengths and interests to do something for the campaign, and she presented it in such a way that it addressed my concerns, of, you know, working in photography and doing high end sort of photography, but having the topic matter be something that was socially conscious.
ROB: Oh, no. Definitely not. The running joke with Rachel and I— when people ask how the project came about— the joke is that “Well, neither one of us said no.”
I mean, the hardest part—I think it’s definitely scary in life to take a leap of faith of any kind. And for both of us, this meant leaving paying work, and putting a lot on the line, not even knowing for sure how the project would work out, if people would be receptive to it, how far we’d be able to take it.
So in that regard, I think we both had to do a little bit of thinking, and weighing the pros and cons.
I’ve spent a lot of time establishing my reputation in an industry. To walk away from my client base for a couple of months was kind of a scary prospect.
But, we also both, I think we were both just really inspired by the campaign, and by the grassroots movement that was going on. I think we both felt like this is a very special, arguably unique time in our modern American history. And to not be involved in it—it just seemed like an opportunity that we couldn’t really let pass by.
JAELITHE: Rachel, you mentioned that you were inspired to make some changes in your life while you were working as a nanny, and you became very attached to a young child. I imagine you were concerned for her future. What do you think are the most important issues in this election in terms of making a better future for our nation’s children?
RACHEL: When I started working with this child, who I had worked
with as an infant, and had been asked to come back to work with her
family when she was three, it was much different, because, she was this
inquisitive three-year-old at that point, and was full of questions.
She was full of questions, and she was full of energy, and very
And I was seeing that there were other children in her peer group that she was playing with, and these children were already very concerned with television, and talking about Walt Disney—they’re three years old and they’re talking about Disney princesses. I kind of got jolted back into thinking, oh, wow, even at three years old, kids are very susceptible to the media!
I found that I wanted to play a much bigger role in her life, in terms of guiding her. She was very interested in everything going on around her, so we’d talk about the environment, we’d talk about what her expectations were for school. And things like the environment and education, even for a three-year-old, seemed all of a sudden very relevant.
JAELITHE: Along your journey, the two of you have had to rely a lot on the kindness of strangers to find housing and places to shoot your photographs. What has this trip taught you about your fellow Americans?
RACHEL: Well, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. One thing
that we’ve learned from them is that we all have a basic capacity for
taking care of one another.
You know, the fact that we got all the way across the country—all the way to California and back— and only had to stay in a hotel one night, really proves that there are people all over the country who are willing to take a leap of faith, to trust a stranger, to get excited about somebody else’s ideas.
And we saw over and over again people in kind of more remote areas who were so excited to have a couple of liberal artist kids come in and have somebody to talk to about these issues, especially if they were in a place where they didn’t feel particularly supported by their community. So that was a lot of fun—we ended up having a lot of conversations with passionate people who felt like they were in the minority.
I think that one thing that happened over the past four years, specifically after Bush being elected for the second time, I think people were looking around thinking, who among us chose this? You know, if you were feeling like, I didn’t vote for another four years of this. Who in my community . . .
I think a lot of us felt like outsiders. And to be able to see communities coming together across the country, and having identified one another as people who they can sympathize with, has been just incredible. It’s been a real gift to be able to see these really strong grassroots communities springing up all over the country with the aid of this campaign.
ROB: I think that you put it very well. I think that the one other
thing that I would add, that kind of plays into the same idea, from
going all the way across the country and back:
I think that, especially during the last eight years, I had come to feel that the American concept, or common perception, of little communities where people really extended themselves, and generosity and everything—I felt like that was something of the past. An old, almost now like Fantasy America.
I think Obama’s campaign has had a lot to do with this resurgence, this common cause. And you know, common causes breed community. To see that return, and see people’s capacity to come together, and not only work towards a common goal, but just share that human nature quality of being social, and having a community.
Rather than going into your door at the day, and just walking in and watching TV, to see all of these people across the country—strangers showing up at each others’ houses to meet, and to interact, and to do all of that in a positive way—for me it was really invigorating and inspiring to feel like there was still the capacity for that to happen.
And you know, I’m really hopeful that we’ll be able to continue that attitude. Opening up our doors and our lives to each other again rather than becoming so socially isolated.
JAELITHE: So, would the two of you then say that this movement was maybe already there under the surface, waiting for a leader? Or do you think that it’s the other way around? Do you think that Obama created the movement? Or do you think that there was already a growing liberal movement of Americans who were tired of the Bush policies and wanted to return to this sort of old-fashioned sense of caring for your neighbors?
RACHEL: I think that’s what I was trying to say before about people looking around and wondering if they were alone.
Having somebody cue them to become more involved, I think, has only just brought the people in different communities out of the woodwork, and we’re finding that not only are we not alone, but we’re not in the minority.
All images in this post by Rob Gullixson. Used with permission from Rob Gullixson and the We Are the Ones Project. Prints may be purchased through RobGullixson.com. Jaelithe is particularly partial to this Gullixon piece: