The United States, the land of the American Dream, is a nation fantasized by many to have been built upon roads paved with gold. Robert Leslie’s project Stormbelt is an intense contrast to this ideal.
Intrigued by Barack Obama’s rock-star-like entrance into the American political landscape, Leslie decided to take a deep look at the infrastructure and natural (and man-made) decay plaguing the Sunbelt of the American South. Starting at the height of the American Recession in Miami (one of the “foreclosure capitals of America”), and making his way westward, Leslie documented in beautiful detail the struggling state of things in a land once boastful of its prosperity.
“The images in this book ask that we follow the quiet journey of Robert Leslie and his camera through a land where the notion of the unstoppable economy, a land of plenty, the ‘American dream’, is brought into question. Is this moment in history a major setback or is this the beginning of the inevitable decline of an empire…”
Not only was economic hardship an important theme in Leslie’s project, but also the landscapes ravaged by natural disaster. In 2008, Hurricane Ike tore through the Gulf Coast of Texas. It was during his trip in January of 2009 that Robert Leslie discovered just how detrimental Ike had been to not only the landscape, but also the mental and emotional toll it had taken on the Gulf Coast’s residents.
“Close to abandoning my goal, I pulled into the only gas station in the area. At the next pump was a middle-aged man weeping. Starting up conversation with him, I asked if he knew where the area affected by Ike was. He sobbed, ‘I heard it was bad, but I never imagined this…. This was the first time I have had to get down to my holiday home & ….its no longer there! Drive straight ahead, you’ll see what I’m talking about….’.”
It was in the days following this interaction, in the town of Crystal Beach, TX, that Leslie took the image that would be representative of his project:
Stormbelt explores the stark landscape of a country once depicted to be a utopia, and haven for the “huddled masses”, but has seemed to produce such masses on its own. Foreclosed homes, natural disasters, polluted environments, and workers looking for any job that will pay; it’s these images that cut through and show a land once prosperous, in the depths of decline.
Duggal printed a series of Robert Leslie’s photos from Stormbelt, which are on exhibit in the U.S. for the first time at New York’s Flomenhaft Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, Suite 200 until April 25. Please take a look at the series here.
For more information on Robert Leslie’s book Stormbelt, or to order a copy, please click here.