See America First! is a documentary photo essay that illustrates the present-day identity of tourism in the American West, nearly a century after the original See America First campaign was launched.
When World War I shut down overseas travel in the early 20th century, the railways and national parks teamed up to inspire Americans to plan their next vacation closer to home. Ads were launched combating the idea that only beautiful places existed in foreign countries (Glacier National Park, for example, was promoted as “America’s Switzerland”). This campaign – See America First – created a national tourism identity and defined the culture of traveling in the American West.
As our National Parks system approaches its centennial in 2016, I felt called to bring a new contemporary voice to one of the defining characteristics of our country. With the spirit of the original campaign at the forefront of my mind, I photographed travelers throughout the region of the West on their journey to See America. I discovered that what was once our frontier is now a frequently traveled, highly saturated landscape sprinkled with scenic vistas, selfie sticks, and a joyful bounty of human curiosity.
Travelers know that the parks system is built for them — it is a touchstone for creating memories across multiple generations. As Sean Smith, former U.S. Park Ranger stated in a TED talk: “Parks have the power to break down differences, to allow us to see similarities and create common ground. It’s those values that are the first step to understanding someone else’s point of view, and creating empathy.”
See America First! highlights the uniquely American experience that’s both familiar and slippery in all of it’s wonderfully exaggerated folklore. It celebrates the value of creating common ground in our own backyard and discovering the magnificent natural wonders nestled between dry deserts and steep mountain peaks.
I’m of the belief that the American West is the most beautiful place in the world. I want you to see it, too.