At first Property Rights, an economic and legal term used to define the theoretical and legal ownership of resources and how they can be used, seems like the wrong title for Mitch Epstein’s latest book of photographs, which was published by Steidl in September.
The book, which comprises of gorgeously composed photographs and portraits interspersed with first person narratives, opens with images of the 2016 protests at Standing Rock in solidarity with Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (known in English as the Sioux Tribe), who aimed to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Broken into sections, the book then follows with series about the border between Mexico and the United States; another pipeline protest in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; fires and floods in California, Georgia and Louisiana; the protests over the construction of an enormous telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawai’i; the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020; and the vandalism of Confederate war monuments that followed.
Without closer examination, the term “property rights” seems to cover only some of these topics — Standing Rock, of course, and the protests in Lancaster and Muana Kea — while leaving the others to fit loosely within a chosen narrative. But a careful read of the book weaves a complex and beautiful narrative about how ideas about property rights have shaped and perverted the concept of the United States. In the end, the book makes a powerful argument that returning to a more collective concept of our place in nature may be the only solution towards saving this tenuous place that we call our “nation.”
“As an artist, I have wrestled with my reluctance to engage directly with contemporary political themes in my work,” Epstein says. “I feared that I might fall prey to didacticism. Property Rights liberated me from that fear, and reassured me that it’s an essential part of my job, as an artist, to address the ever more complex realities of our world today, political and otherwise.”
The project began the day after the Women’s March in Washington DC, in January of 2016. President Donald Trump had just been inaugurated, and Epstein felt called to action. He went to Standing Rock, where protests against the pipeline were taking place. He photographed the land, the families that had been arrested, signage, American flags. But he was also careful to listen. “I knew far too little about the plight of native peoples and the complexity of land issues,” he says. “I came home with that, and I couldn’t turn away from it.”
It was a time when so many people were struggling with understanding how Donald Trump was elected President — and what it meant for their hokey, high-school-social-studies concepts about the United States. Long held historical narratives about progress were replaced with questions about the way that white men had seized, and kept, most of the power in the United States since its founding in 1776, usually at the expense of native populations and people of color who performed the labor. And often, the questions revolved around the concept of “property rights,” which were used as justification.
Epstein, when he photographs, tries to be absolutely present in the moment. “I’ve learned to listen better, to work hard at relinquishing my own preconceptions and to approach something that I don’t understand well with a tremendous degree of openness,” he says. His ability to receive complicated narratives with bias is visible throughout the book, which weaves a complex and multi-faceted picture of modern day America. Small moments of empathy are woven throughout, whether it’s a man touching a stone that says “love” at the Tree of Life memorial, or a photograph of a wall that shows a picture of a woman bringing water to a sick migrant on the border in Arizona.
“We as a society just take a tremendous amount for granted,” Epstein says. “We are so privileged, but we are also a society that is built on such radical inequities.” In the end, he notes, he came away from the project with more compassion for others.
The more you look at Property Rights, the more ridiculous and all-encompassing the term becomes. In the splendid vistas of the American landscape, which Epstein captures throughout the book, we have attached property rights that exist only in our imaginations. Property rights are used to seize land in Standing Rock and Lancaster; they are also used to keep people out of the United States at the borderlands. Property rights are applied, as well to people — to women’s bodies, to black bodies, to the bodies of fetuses. They are used to justify and to deplore political protests; they are also used as justification to keep up Confederate monuments on private land even when they deeply hurt the descendants of slaves. They are used to justify and to curb religious freedom and freedom of expression. In the United States, everywhere you look, property rights are juxtaposed on property rights until the entire concept is rendered meaningless, exposed as a sort of human simulation on reality.
The rapacious desire to acquire and name property is not without consequences, however. We see them now, as wildfires consume the West, and floods due to mega-storms consume much of the rest of the coastal states. “We have to take responsibility for a certain way of life, for what we have achieved,” Epstein says. “We are contending with the consequences of unbridled growth around the world, the single-minded purpose of more and more is better and better.”
Nature, he says, is so much more sophisticated than we are. If we were wise, he seems to imply, we would work in tandem with our natural environment rather than working to destroy it for imaginary gain.
In the meantime, Epstein advocates for more empathy across the board. “Extremism isn’t the path forward,” he says. “People have to be more politically involved, but they also have to do so humanly.”
To learn more about the book, visit Steidl’s website.