When I was a student in Italy, there was a day in class when we were asked to go around the room and describe typical life in our country. The other American girl and I were stumped. The more we struggled to find an easy answer (touching on all the usual archetypes: baseball, apple pie, the American dream), the more we realized there is no such thing as the “typical American lifestyle.”
With 316 million people and a geography ranging from tropical isles to frozen tundra to bustling urban centers to mountains to deserts and sweeping plains, the United States of America, we realized, is just that: a gaggle of diverse states, often with very little in common, that decided to unite behind a shared set of principles, for the good of the whole.
In her new book, Love American Skin (out Nov. 15th), Swiss/German photographer Diana Scheunemann comes to a similar conclusion. She and her boyfriend PJ Norman set off on that great American pastime—the road trip—in search of an answer to that uneasy question: What is America? Sixty days, 10,128 miles, and countless interviews later, she’s ready to present her version of the story.
A photo book and an accompanying feature-length documentary, Love American Skin is a sweeping mosaic of Americana, told through portraits, vignettes and stories from the people Scheunemann encountered. From a teenage rodeo champion to a Hopi farmer, a burlesque dancer to a homeless vet, Scheunemann’s subjects are eclectically diverse, and she portrays them all with great heart and honesty.
When asked about her reasons for undertaking the project, she says, “I was curious…The USA is so large, with so many dimensions…Everyone we met on this journey was enriching and welcoming. They let us into their homes and hearts. They took the time to show us their lives. They were so interesting to listen to, if only sometimes for the briefest of moments.”
An insightful patchwork of the lifestyles and viewpoints that make up the fabric of the United States, Love American Skin is a journey of “spontaneity, freedom, eccentricity and discoveries (that stands) as an emblematic ensemble of breathtaking landscapes and stories, people and situations.” Maybe it takes an ex-pat in a car to help us truly understand what it means to be American, which, as Scheunemann tells it, can mean being anything at all.