Meet the man behind photography project America is Dead

Little sums up the American dream of the 20th century quite like the shopping mall. These were man-made spaces, built on the vague illusion of social mobility, where Americans could every weekend journey to indulge in pure, rampant capitalist fantasy. They would drive in their little boxes to the biggest box of all, where they would exchange money for goods and services to make their own little boxes back home that bit fancier. Denim-jacketed chanteuse Tiffany serenaded screaming fans from inside the food court, and kids huddled in packs trading stories about their least favorite teachers.

But, like all things, the freedom and opportunity that the all-American shopping mall once represented gradually died. Tiffany aged out of pop stardom. Capitalist desires shifted. The economy crashed, and then it crashed again.

While malls shutter nationwide at an alarming rate, shoppers preferring to peruse online rather that in-person, the husks of what used to be a thriving industry remain dormant and unused. Photographing these eerie ghost towns is Tag Christof, curator of America is Dead, a photo project designed to document the now-destitute corners of the USA once built to inspire hope, opportunity and optimism.

We were lucky enough to have Tag speak to us for our print magazine, due soon, but until then he is taking over our Instagram feed from November 14. To whet your appetite, here's a preview of our conversation, where Tag talked his work, his politics, and what his wildly-successful Instagram feed means to him...

You've spoken a little about your weariness at being misinterpreted. Have you experienced misunderstandings about America is Dead as a project?

I wouldn’t say weariness as much as bewilderment at how silly people can be on the internet. At the outset, I was pretty tongue-in-cheek with the whole America is Dead thing, but as it gained traction, the various reactions to it became both more passionate and more severe. I regularly get messages from people who either 1) assume that I would empathize with their hateful right-wing cause or, conversely, 2) ominously accuse me of being an America-basher. They’ve stopped short of threats, but I get some colorful hate mail from a lot of people who really just miss the point. 

In any case, the insane political climate of this year has made me think that maybe I should use my soapbox to take some semblance of a stand. I’m not hawkishly political, but I certainly fall into a pretty specific place on the political spectrum—let’s just say I’m a big fan of Noam Chomsky, Ed Snowden, and Bill Maher.

I tested the waters at the very beginning of primary season this year, when I posted a screen grab from a 1970s video clip of Hillary Clinton on my Instagram feed — she looked awesome and almost unrecognizable in big gem glasses and frizzy hair. The campaign’s 'H' logo had just been released, co-designed by a friend of mine at Pentagram, and so it just felt topical and relevant — whatever your politics, she’s become such a pop culture icon. Though the post was neither an endorsement nor a bashing (it was just a portrait with no context), I was hit hard and fast from both sides, lost dozens of followers, and eventually just deleted it. Neither the Hillary supporter or detractors knew what to make of it, so they all just took offense. 

While I do generally love riding the ambivalence, I will take a stand on one thing: on many occasions, I’ve had to request that my work be removed from some pretty odd places—I believe unequivocally that the neoliberal economic policies that countries like the U.S. and Britain have pursued since the Reagan/Thatcher era have made our societies, our cities, and our environment significantly worse off. I never want my work used in the service of anyone advancing those ideas. 

You have a huge following, particularly on social media. What do you make of that level of attention?

I was a huge curmudgeon about Instagram when it first came out. It feels like 1000 years ago, but at first I used it to post only scanned polaroids and 35mm shots in protest of what felt like extreme temporality. I even wrote a super eggheaded essay that I sincerely hope has been lost forever to the deep internet about how it was definitely the death of photography, because it only allowed viewers to salivate over contents of snapshots (selfies, lunches, holidays), rather than quality imagery. But over the following years, a whole culture of people using the platform to share beautiful, profound work in news way was born and I totally had to eat my words. I absolutely love Instagram.

I don’t know that the photos necessarily speak to the social media generation specifically, but I am very happy that there’s at least something of an audience for work like mine, which is in so many ways the exact opposite of the flashy, sexy, lifestyle porn that usually earns someone thousands of followers.

Tag's full interview and photo feature story can be found in Issue One of Us of America, in stores this month. He's also taking over our Instagram from November 14, with new photography and new stories from the road.