American Values Project
Dr. Leigh Johnson
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Hometown: Fort Smith, AR
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
A few clicks into the gallery on the homepage of the American Values Project website finds a visually stunning photo of a young shirtless hiker standing against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Scrawled on the pieces of paper he is holding are the words “abstract nonsense.” One more click and you are looking at a photo of an African-American woman standing in front of a poster of a group of Teamsters. She holds a handwritten sign that says “the good fight.” Keep clicking and you’ll find hundreds more images featuring a diversity of people holding signs naming something that they value, from “family” and “integrity” to “bike lanes” and “coffee.” These images are all part of the American Values Project (AVP), a digital photograph collection started by Dr. Leigh Johnson, assistant professor of Philosophy.
The project that began with a simple solicitation for photos on Dr. Johnson’s personal blog in 2011 grew to become a dynamic Facebook page and website. On May 5, scores of students, faculty and interested viewers turned out for a live exhibition at Marshall Arts Gallery, funded by a Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts (CODA) grant.
“I’ve been surprised by how the project just keeps extending itself,” says Johnson. “I regularly receive photos by email or through the project’s other online sites, and many times I have no idea how the person heard about AVP…but they did, and they were moved to contribute. Many times they will send a short note about why they chose the value they did or what the picture (or the Project) means to them. That kind of accidental and serendipitous interaction with strangers has been without a doubt the most rewarding and gratifying thing about this whole project.”
In fall 2011, Johnson teamed up with CODA Fellow Emily Main (‘12) and with Colin Fleck (‘12), who serves as the research assistant for the American Values Project. Fleck and Main have taken cameras to several local events, including Exhibition Momentum, the Cooper-Young Festival, and ArtsMemphis’ recent PopUp ArtsFest at the Hollywood Community Center, spreading the word about AVP and soliciting people to take part. This semester, five more students worked as volunteers: Cat Rauck (’12), Rush Brady (’12), Andrea Tedesco (’15), Timothy Garton (’14), and Lucy Gaines (’13), an Art major, who also designed the American Values Project logo.
Fleck, who has been with the project since the beginning, suggests its content will become increasingly relevant during a presidential election year. “So many presidential candidates often throw out the phrase ‘American Values,’” says Fleck, a Philosophy major. “But what exactly is an American value? There are a lot of Americans, and lots of our values contradict each other’s. I think to run on a platform of American values ought to mean one is running on a platform of diversity. With this project, we want to put as many faces on the diversity of ‘American values,’ and the people who hold them, as possible.”
Johnson says that one of the unique things about the collection is how it is open to interpretation. “We have tried not to be overly prescriptive about what the project as a whole means to ‘say’ about Americans,” Johnson reports. “The truth is, people value many different things, for many different reasons. Some of our values are what we call “core” values—the ones that ground our larger understanding of our world and how we ought to operate in it—but other values are more, well, secondary. I don’t think values like ‘coffee’ or ‘humor’ are lesser values; they’re just different kinds of values. If I were being totally honest, there are definitely some days when I value coffee or friendship as much as I value justice or integrity! One of the great virtues of our project is that it shows, in real pictures of real Americans, that our value-community is complicated. What binds that community together is that everyone values something.”
The project has also received nationwide attention. In May 2011, an exhibition of a portion of the project, featuring only those contributions from New Yorkers and entitled “New York Values,” was exhibited in the Tally Beck Contemporary gallery in New York City as part of a collaborative initiative called Festival of Ideas for a New City. The Memphis show at Marshall Arts included multimedia and interactive elements, as well as large-scale reproductions of the project’s best images.
CODA Fellow Emily Main, who was centrally involved in planning AVP’s physical exhibition, says: “Online, you’re just clicking through pictures. With a gallery display, we will be able to take the time to show the images in a variety of ways that we feel best convey the magnitude and power of the entire project.”
Want to be part of AVP? Check out the project’s website for details.