In an essay from Course of the Empire titled This is Not the America I Grew Up In, Ken Light writes, “I came of age in the late 1960s, and remember President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech in 1961. I was ten years old. ‘Ask not what you can do for you, but what you can do for your country’: this line inspired me and many of my generation. The belief that we could make our country more equitable inspired me to commit my photographic career to document the disenfranchised, and even though I knew it would be a long and hard struggle, I looked forward to transformations. I believed in America.”
That career began when Light was in high school on Long Island. His best high school friend Carl, a longhaired outsider, owned a 35mm camera, and that’s when he began dabbling in photography. “We wanted to photograph for the school newspaper, The Jet Gazette, but the advisor expected me to do four assignments on one 36-exposure roll of film. That seemed ridiculously unrealistic, but I tried and got a few good photos that were published in the paper.” From there he was off. “Having that camera around my neck began to open up a creative quest that would last a lifetime. There were exciting things happening all around me every day and I wanted to be there and mark the importance of them, but I just didn’t yet understand how to be an observer of these moments and the high school newspaper seemed like a lost cause.”
In college, he studied Sociology and Government. “It made sense to connect with studies that helped me understand in a deeper sense why our country was in the mess it was in. C Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse and Michael Harrington’s book The Other America, were all popular and drew me to learn more about the social fabric of America.”
Along with his studies, Ken Light photographed for Liberation News Service (LNS), which was a New Left, anti-war underground news service. The service distributed news bulletins and photographs to over 600 papers in the 1960s, leading to his work being widely seen in both the US and around the world.
In a career that has spanned over 50 years, Light has lived out the words in his essay. The lives of farmworkers, rural black poverty, condemned prisoners sitting on death row, and the legacy of coal mining are just some of his subjects.
Two of Light’s recent books, What’s Going On? 1969 – 1974, published in 2015, and Course of the Empire, photographed between 2011 and 2021 and published this year by Steidl, relate to each other in a more direct way.
Though the work contained in the books is separated by decades, the influence that the late 1960s and early 1970s have on the events of the last ten years is unmistakable. In many ways, the events from one period mirror those of the other. In turn, understanding the early work and Light’s history works to reinforce and strengthen Course of the Empire.
“I have come to think of What’s Going On? and Course of the Empire as bookends. Both of these times brought hardships, political upheaval, and the ugliness of government became the norm. Nixon had the secret covert program which spied on political opponents and targeted anti-war organizers, created “FAKE NEWS” to discredit the New Left, and created turmoil within organizations such as the Black Panthers, Young Lords, AIM and other emerging political movements of people of color, many of whose leaders were assassinated without guilt. We are still learning what Trump’s inner circle has done, just as dastardly as far as I can tell. I think the divide is similar. The “Hardhats” that attacked anti-war protesters in 1969 no doubt would have been on the front lines January 6th attacking the Capitole.”
In 2011, in the wake of the Great Recession, Light set off again to look at America. But while there were hopes of change in the late 1960s and early 1970s of What’s Going On?, by the time Light set off on this ten-year odyssey to look at America again, those glimmers and guarded optimism were gone. “The difference I think, is that income inequality exploded, and the power of the American Empire began to wobble in the era of Course of the Empire. We no longer had the moral high ground or the political bully pulpit that existed in the 1960s and we lacked humanism, it was now every man for himself and herself.”
The situation across the country shocked him in many ways: the wealth gap, rampant poverty, hollowed-out urban centers, the opioid epidemic, desolate main streets, unemployment, homelessness. “Things have gotten so bad for so many Americans I fear that unless the country wakes up and really digs in to deal with issues such as homelessness, climate change, food insecurity, education, health care, we will be lost.”
As he traveled around the country, people would open up to him as they realized he was interested in their stories when, to them, it felt as though they were forgotten. “People would often ask me why I was photographing, and I would tell them I am doing a book about what is happening in America and what people’s lives are like at this time. They often felt unseen and when you show up and have a great interest in their lives and stories they just seem to open up to the camera.”
“I spoke with lots of people I photographed, and many of the stories didn’t make the book. In Detroit I had numerous long chats with people about their struggles both economically and with drugs, many of who had come through the fog of addiction. One of the most intense conversations was with the woman who was homeless and out of gas. Very hard moment to find this woman and her boyfriend, stuck along Highway 5 in California next to a gas station, living in the car, stuck for days. He had just lost his job and she had mental health issues and they were trying to sell stuff on a tarp they had laid out on the edge of the gas station, trying to raise money to get back to LA. The first day I saw them, I had pulled into the gas station to get gas, they were having a pretty intense fight, and clearly it wasn’t the right time to inject myself into their world, I just decided it wasn’t going to happen or be a healthy encounter. The next morning, I drove by again and sure enough, they were still stuck and I introduced myself and spent time with them learning their story and photographing, and trying to find that moment that defined their torturous experience. Yes, I gave them gas money to help them move forward.”
Ken Light writes at the end of his essay, “A decade ago, my project started with the premise that America was faltering. I had no idea that ‘faltering’ or ‘waning’ was hardly the word for it: our country was in a full-blown crisis, ready for a corrupt autocrat to take the helm and destroy the democratic process. Many fear that America is over. We have witnessed up close and personally that democracies are living organisms, and more fragile than we realize. They require regular care and feeding. We have certainly tested the limits of ours. Have we pushed America beyond repair?”
Course of the Empire does not squarely answer that question, but the photographs it contains do make you look at it hard. But for Light, perhaps, there is more than just answering the question.
“I hope that both books stand as powerful records of these two eras of political dysfunction and struggle,” says Ken Light. “The possibility that in decades in the future, it will be a window on our time and the photos will take on a life of their own is exciting to think about. If that is the result, and I will never know, I would be gratified that photography has not only served as my voice but of the voices of those portrayed in these works, and what more could a photographer ask for. To be part of the conversation of our time and for history is what photography has the power to do. I want these works to say, look… look how we struggled and to witness what has become of the human condition in these ages and ask why!”
By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.
Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.
Course of the Empire can be purchased through Steidl here.
What’s Going On?and other books by Ken Light, can be purchased here.
Ken Light’s work can also be seen on his website.