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American Values Project Takes on Life of Its Own

Publication Date: 5/2/2011

In February 2011 on her blog, Dr. Leigh Johnson, assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes, asked Americans and people currently living in America to write down a cherished value on a piece of paper and to take a photograph of themselves holding the paper. Images poured in, and Johnson put together a short video called “American Values” on YouTube.

People kept sending in images, and some submitted audio and blog stories pertaining to their values. As a result, a simple photo project evolved into a virtual community called the American Values Project.

“The original motivation behind this project was to call into question the manner in which we use the phrase ‘American Values.’  When people reference ‘American Values’  in contemporary political rhetoric, it is almost always the case that a lot of Americans—and a lot of values—are excluded from the meaning of that phrase, explains Johnson.  “I wanted to show that ‘real’ American Values are no more and no less than the values that Americans hold, and so this project aims to illustrate—in images—just how diverse and complex those people and those values are. Communities are built and made meaningful only when people with values come together to create a common space in which what matters most to them can be discussed, revised, made real, adopted or rejected collectively.”

“What has been great about this project is that the contributors, most of whom are strangers to each other, have formed a virtual community—a community whose members are bound together by nothing more than their desire and willingness to name their values,” she adds. 

Now the American Values Project has a sibling project that Johnson is calling New York Values which features only photos from New Yorkers holding a sign naming something they value. This week—May 4-8—Johnson will exhibit the project at New York’s Tally Beck Contemporary gallery as a part of the Festival of Ideas for a New City.

“The invitation by Tally Beck Contemporary to exhibit a part of the American Values project in New York City was an unexpected, and incredibly fortuitous, development,” says Johnson.  “After the New York show, I hope to come back with more concrete details about how to expand the project and transform it into a physical exhibit here in Memphis (and perhaps beyond).  I am in the process of applying for a grant to fund the project over the next year, and I hope to employ Rhodes’ students in acquiring new photos, organizing the images, explaining and promoting the project and, more generally, taking the project to the next stage.  In the meantime, however, I hope everyone will visit the American Values Project website and contribute his or her own value photo!”

View all American Values Project images.

Tags: Faculty, Honors


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Mike Nelson May 5, 2011

What a fine project. Rhodes has a real treasure in Leigh Johnson.

Beverly May 2, 2011

Wonderful.....I wish everyone could see this. It made my day!

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