The Springs Hayley Austin
American photographer Hayley Austin graduated from college in 2008 amidst the financial crisis and moved to Europe. For the next ten years she observed her country from afar, looking at the profound shifts taking place. “Barack Obama was elected on the optimistic slogan, ‘Yes we can’ playing on the hopes of Americans and our dreams,” she says. “But eight years later, the presidency was won on a slogan that exploited our fear.
While campaigning to ‘make America great again’ Trump announces ‘The American dream is dead,’ and as I watched the country react to his election, I wondered if maybe he was right. ” So she went back in her mind to the summer spent in the air-conditioned island of her grandparents ’Las Vegas house, at age eight. “Las Vegas was built in the image of get-rich-fast-capitalism.
This unlikely place, a reminder of the optimism or sheer willpower of the people who converted a mirage into a dream city, is the perfect place for a close-up on the American dream’s status, “Austin says. “Vegas is a living metaphor conjured from desert dust: the promise of a good job or a change of luck, crashing up against the Sierra Nevada range, then washing back across a nuclear test site and the harsh threat of environmental meltdown.”
A century and a half ago, the original settlement of Las Vegas— “the meadows” in Spanish — was an oasis fed by an underground spring. It has long since dried up, and Lake Mead, supplying 90 percent of the city’s water may well follow. Yet Las Vegas was the third-fastest-growing city in America when she began the project in 2018.
“Twenty-five years after my first summer there, I decided to return to the places where the hermetic subdivisions and playgrounds peter out on the multitudes who try their odds living there. I spent three months living in Las Vegas and photographing every day, “she says talking about how the series The Springs came out, resulting in a book published by KGP Books. “I was interested in the people who actually live in Las Vegas.”
Nearly 650,000 people call this city their country home, but Las Vegas is expanding more and more, to the detriment of the living conditions of its citizens.
“One day I spent the whole afternoon looking for a midget Elvis on the Strip. It was hot and I was having no luck finding Elvis. So I sat down in front of a fountain to watch people. Within five minutes a guy sat next to me, and started telling me his life story. This is the portrait of the man with the tattoos. As I was making his portrait, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a woman asking me to take her portrait too. I took a few frames, and then I noticed she had long, painted fingernails, and I asked her to stick out her hands in front of the fountain. “
People go to Las Vegas to get rich, but then they face a different reality. Poverty and homelessness are on the rise; the yawning gap between rich and poor is getting increasingly wider.
“Some of my portraits reflect giddy optimism; some self-satisfied torpor. Other faces sun-burned and tired, confess that their American dream is as dried up as the springs that once made Las Vegas green, “Austin explains.
Her beautiful pictures documents the tension created by the clash between ideals and real conditions. Most of the shots are very close, making difficult to understand where the people portrayed are, what the details belong to. There’s no space around the subject, and this takes your breath away and confuses you; it’s not clear whether what you are looking at is actually the representation of reality or a staging. Every now and then the shot widens and Austin is extremely skilled in this, because in doing so she managed to keep the tension alive: a swinging rhythm that continually raises doubts about what you’re observing. Gathering up fragments of life, she reveals the grotesque aspect of a dream that falls apart day by day.