Naomi Harris walked alone into the Cleveland nightclub three weeks ago, sat down at a table, introduced herself to those seated around her and stuck her hand down her blouse.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, as she pulled out a tick and held it up for inspection. “I was out walking my dog today in the woods.”
It was the 98th day of a 100-day road trip that Harris was taking with her shih tzu, Maggie, to coincide with the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. Harris, a photographer born in Toronto who became a United States citizen in 2013, was in Cleveland that night because she noticed on Twitter that Kinky Friedman was performing not too far from where she was shooting. As one who is inspired by the unconventional, she stopped in to see the show.
Waiting for the outlaw Jewish singer to take the stage afforded some time for conversation about the photographer’s life and work, piquing curiosity to learn more about this artist who sees deep humanity amid the quirky and who has the courage and conviction to celebrate it.
Her work could be described as that of a 21st century Diane Arbus, which Harris takes as a “huge compliment.”
“I can think of no one else I would love to be compared to,” she said, speaking by phone from Toronto where she was visiting her parents. “I don’t try to emulate her, or copy her style; however, I’m definitely interested in the same types of characters she’s interested in. I don’t photograph necessarily beautiful people. I’m not interested in that kind of veneer in society; I’m interested in documenting popular culture phenomenon through the subjects that I meet.”
Her work has a wide range. Haddon Hall, her first project — mostly Jewish senior citizens living at the last residence hotel in Miami Beach, which she shot about 20 years ago — she hopes to turn into a book later this year. Contrast that with a collection of photos she took at nude beaches and a book of her images published in 2009 called “America Swings” (Taschen), in which she captured ordinary looking people in America’s heartland immersed in the swing culture.
When Harris began the swinger project, she was unaware that Arbus had tried to photograph swing clubs as well, or that the late photographer also had shot a nudist colony.
“Maybe part of it is our Jewish background,” Harris said of her and Arbus’ fondness for similar offbeat subjects. “Maybe there’s a sense of the forbidden, and we’re interested in these parts of culture that we don’t necessarily belong to.”
When Harris decides to focus on a subject, she rolls up her sleeves and dives in head first. When she shot Haddon Hall, she moved into the hotel for two months, getting to know her subjects and building their trust to gain the access that would provide the most real and poignant portraits. After two months, Harris relocated to Miami for two years to finish the shoot.
“Haddon Hall was really the last hotel of its kind,” Harris said. “Most of those hotels had been full of snowbirds, mostly Jews. And they had all started shutting down and gentrifying, so this was really the last haven for them. Originally, I wanted it to be about Holocaust survivors, but then I noticed that some of them had been born in America or had come over before the war, so it became more about survivors in general, in the sense about surviving life, and being of that age, and being in Miami Beach.”
The hotel still remains but has now also been gentrified.
“So, that era of the bubbies and zaydes is completely gone,” Harris said. “That era where you would go down South Beach and see the verandas with old people sitting out at night and Bingo nights and dances, it’s all gone.”
Her talent for exposing the souls of her subjects is evidenced as well in her photos of Trump’s first 100 days, a project that will be the June cover story for Vice. A Bernie Sanders supporter, she was inspired to hit the road and capture Trump’s America shortly after the election, when media pundits were emphasizing the importance of the new president’s first 100 days in setting the tone for his administration.
She began her trip in Washington, D.C., shooting the inauguration and the Women’s March, then headed down to Florida, to “White House South” or Mar-a-Lago. From there she hit mostly small towns in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, before continuing through the Bible Belt. She found her subjects outside in parks, in diners, mostly by chance, she said.
Some of the people she shot had voted for Trump, some for Hillary Clinton, and some had not voted at all, either because they did not want to vote for any of the candidates, or because they were felons and were not allowed to vote.
“The very first person I photographed, he was a felon, actually,” Harris said. “But he had a little tricycle that had a Trump/Pence sticker on the back, so I assumed he had voted for Trump. But he said, ‘Actually, I’m not allowed to vote.’”
Harris found out that had he been allowed to vote, he would have cast his ballot for Trump, even though Trump was promising to repeal Obamacare, on which he was dependent.
“I found him super fascinating,” Harris said. “Here was someone who was directly benefiting from something, and he would have voted against his own best interest.”
Many of the people Harris encountered said they had voted for Trump “because he wasn’t Hillary,” and because they had become disenchanted with the Democratic Party.
Others had become disillusioned with the president as some of his campaign promises seemed to have been forgotten once he took the oath of office.
“The last person I photographed I thought was particularly sad,” Harris said. “He was known as the Trump Troubadour because during the campaign, he actually quit his job and drove around following the campaign trail. He made up and performed songs praising Trump. And the reason he was so gung-ho was because his son had died three years earlier of a heroin overdose in his house, and Trump had promised he would build rehab clinics and make the antidote more accessible. And Trump really didn’t talk about this at all once he got elected. So, this fellow felt he was completely bamboozled. And he convinced so many other people to vote for Trump. He really has regrets.”
America, Harris discovered while on her road trip, “is in great need to heal,” she said.
“We’re probably more separated and at odds than we’ve ever been before. And that’s really scary. And I blame both sides. Part of why I did this project was to listen to people. If you actually go up to talk to people, you’ll see that they actually are just like you. They want to put food on their table and a roof over their head.”
Her friends and acquaintances who jumped to the conclusion that “everyone who voted for Trump is a white supremacist,” are missing the point, she said.
“Yes, those people did vote for him, but that’s not half the country that voted, come on,” she said.
“One of the guys I photographed was a union guy, he was 56, and since he was 20, every election he voted Democrat. But he said, ‘I just can’t continue with this. The Democratic Party that the union guys have supported all these years, they actually don’t have our best interests at heart anymore.’
“This is what’s making me the angriest, that everyone is saying it’s the Republicans, that they’re evil,” Harris continued. “What’s the Democratic Party doing? They’ve been kind of quiet. The party on a whole, where are they? They’re home licking their wounds.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.