Sponsored by Olympus

Is America great again? Peter Dench goes beyond the red, white and blue to document the “land of the free”.

A man has his head shaved, South Beach, Miami

Miami is a seaport city on the Atlantic Ocean in south Florida. Miami's metro area is the eighth-most populous and fourth-largest urban area in the U.S., with a population of around 5.5 million.

Miami is a major center, and a leader in finance, commerce, culture, media, entertainment, the arts, and international trade. In 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Miami "America's Cleanest City", for its year-round good air quality, vast green spaces, clean drinking water, clean streets, and city-wide recycling programs. According to a 2009 UBS study of 73 world cities, Miami was ranked as the richest city in the United States, and the world's fifth-richest city in terms of purchasing power. Miami is nicknamed the "Capital of Latin America", is the second largest U.S. city with a Spanish-speaking majority, and the largest city with a Cuban-American plurality.

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

A man has his head shaved, South Beach, Miami. © Peter Dench/Verbatim

A country of conflict & change, or bikini contests & baseball? Photographer Peter Dench's latest project explores the truth behind daily life in the new USA

Over the years he’s created a huge archive of images documenting ‘Britishness’, covering topics such as Brits abroad and alcohol consumption in England. Now Peter Dench has his sights set on America.

In the summer of 2015, commissioned by Olympus, Dench travelled to Dallas to record his first instalment in documenting the daily life of the people who live there. He photographed everything from a bikini contest to Buddhist monks, baseball fans and Sunday worshippers, capturing in his images the essence of what it means to be American in the 21st century. He’s also photographed in Miami and San Francisco, all part of his quest “to challenge what I thought I knew of the country.”

Food at a 4th July Independence Day celebration BBQ at the north Fort Worth rural home of Keith Ward for his friends and work colleagues. Fort Worth is the 17th-largest city in the United States and the fifth-largest city in the state of Texas. The city is located in North Central Texas and covers nearly 350 square miles with a population of around 792,700. The city is the second-largest in the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington metropolitan area. Dallas is a major city in Texas and is the largest urban center of the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the United States. The city ranks ninth in the U.S. and third in Texas after Houston and San Antonio. The city's prominence arose from its historical importance as a center for the oil and cotton industries, and its position along numerous railroad lines. For two weeks in the summer of 2015, photographer Peter Dench visited Dallas to document the metroplex in his epic reportage, DENCH DOES DALLAS. Photographed using an Olympus E-M5 Mark II ©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

Food at a 4th July Independence Day celebration BBQ at the north Fort Worth rural home of Keith Ward for his friends and work colleagues. © Peter Dench/Verbatim

Dench, a pro photographer for more than 20 years, has long been fascinated by America. As a teenager in the 1980s he remembers how he “voraciously consumed the American soap operas Dallas and Baywatch”, and when he was studying photography he read books by Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Tony Ray-Jones. These photographers “alerted me to the fact that America was much more than high school pranks, toga parties and hot women running in slow motion… It was a much darker place, a country of conflict and change.”

A Dallas Police Officer shows how to navigate the obsticle course to participants attending the basic class at the Dallas Junior Police Academy. Dallas is a major city in Texas and is the largest urban center of the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the United States. The city ranks ninth in the U.S. and third in Texas after Houston and San Antonio. The city's prominence arose from its historical importance as a center for the oil and cotton industries, and its position along numerous railroad lines. For two weeks in the summer of 2015, photographer Peter Dench visited Dallas to document the metroplex in his epic reportage, DENCH DOES DALLAS. Photographed using an Olympus E-M5 Mark II ©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

A Dallas Police Officer shows how to navigate the obsticle course to participants attending the basic class at the Dallas Junior Police Academy. © Peter Dench/Verbatim

Never more so than now, given the recent election of Trump as president. But Dench isn’t driven by politics. “I’m inspired by the likes of Joel Sternfeld and other photographers who’ve contributed their voices to the history of America,” he says. “I want to be part of that. In ten years’ time I want this archive to equal the one I’ve got on Britain and Britishness.”

During his time in Dallas, Dench clocked up 20km each day, and says he was grateful to have a camera that was light and discreet. “It was 30 degrees plus and I was going out at seven in the morning and coming back at eight at night. So it makes a difference when you lighten the load… Before I went to Dallas, I was in a creative rut,” he adds. “I needed a trigger to get me back to how I know I can be as a photographer.” The Olympus mirrorless camera he used on the trip was that trigger, he says. “I wanted to point it at people, and I tightened up my compositions. I paid more attention to light. I used less flash as one of the camera’s strengths is shooting in lowlight conditions, and the image stabilisation which gives the ability to shoot on the move. It gave me a renewed enthusiasm that may have dipped with other cameras.”

A poster of J. R. Ewing in the museum at Southfork ranch. Dallas, was a long-running American prime time television soap opera that aired from April 2, 1978, to May 3, 1991, on CBS. The series revolves around a wealthy and feuding Texan family, the Ewings, who own the independent oil company Ewing Oil and the cattle-ranching land of Southfork. Dallas is a major city in Texas and is the largest urban center of the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the United States. The city ranks ninth in the U.S. and third in Texas after Houston and San Antonio. The city's prominence arose from its historical importance as a center for the oil and cotton industries, and its position along numerous railroad lines. For two weeks in the summer of 2015, photographer Peter Dench visited Dallas to document the metroplex in his epic reportage, DENCH DOES DALLAS. Photographed using an Olympus E-M5 Mark II ©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

A poster of J. R. Ewing in the museum at Southfork ranch. © Peter Dench/Verbatim

Patriotic footwear worn by Chloe on her way to work in Southlake. Southlake is an affluent city located north-west of Dallas in the U.S state of Texas with a population of arond 26,5700. Southlake was named in 2014 as one of TIME magazines top 10 richest towns in America a and is known for public schools, Southlake Town Square, its wealth, Gateway Church and Carroll High School's 8-time state champion football team. Dallas is a major city in Texas and is the largest urban center of the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the United States. The city ranks ninth in the U.S. and third in Texas after Houston and San Antonio. The city's prominence arose from its historical importance as a center for the oil and cotton industries, and its position along numerous railroad lines. For two weeks in the summer of 2015, photographer Peter Dench visited Dallas to document the metroplex in his epic reportage, DENCH DOES DALLAS. Photographed using an Olympus E-M5 Mark II ©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

Patriotic footwear worn by Chloe on her way to work in Southlake. © Peter Dench/Verbatim

With Dallas, Miami, and San Francisco under his belt, Dench plans to travel to the North and South of the US next as he embarks on the next chapters of his epic American adventure. “It’s a big statement to say, ‘I’m going to document a country’, so you have to do it thoroughly and well. The work has to be geographically and socially diverse, [covering] rich and poor and everything in between.”

As with much of his work, Dench, whose clients include The Sunday Times Magazine, The New Yorker, the Telegraph Magazine, and Stern Magazine, likes to gets in close to his subjects, to be able to respond to the people and scenes he’s shooting. He never hides what he is doing. “I don’t make excuses. If someone asks, ‘are you photographing me?’ if I am, I’ll say, ‘yes’, and then explain why. I won’t bumble out of it.”

Young visitors to a pool party in the Sweetwater district of Miami. Miami is a seaport city on the Atlantic Ocean in south Florida. Miami's metro area is the eighth-most populous and fourth-largest urban area in the U.S., with a population of around 5.5 million. Miami is a major center, and a leader in finance, commerce, culture, media, entertainment, the arts, and international trade. In 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Miami "America's Cleanest City", for its year-round good air quality, vast green spaces, clean drinking water, clean streets, and city-wide recycling programs. According to a 2009 UBS study of 73 world cities, Miami was ranked as the richest city in the United States, and the world's fifth-richest city in terms of purchasing power. Miami is nicknamed the "Capital of Latin America", is the second largest U.S. city with a Spanish-speaking majority, and the largest city with a Cuban-American plurality. ©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

Young visitors to a pool party in the Sweetwater district of Miami. © Peter Dench/Verbatim

In this way, having a camera like the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which he now favours, that is easy to carry and use is essential. “I got into photography because I’m into kit, gadgets and technology, but more than that, because of my passion for travel, and I’ve certainly read more travel brochures than instruction manuals,” he says. “What I want from a camera is to be able to capture what I see as quickly, flawlessly and in as fuss-free a way as possible… The Olympus cameras I’ve been using have made me a better photographer and given my photography a new lease of life.”

Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay, 1.25 miles (2.01 km) offshore from San Francisco. The small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison (1868), and a federal prison from 1933 until 1963. Beginning in November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of aboriginal people from San Francisco who were part of a wave of Native activism across the nation with public protests through the 1970s. In 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. San Francisco is the cultural, commercial, and financial center of Northern California, USA. San Francisco encompasses a land area of about 46.9 square miles (121 km2) on the northern end of the San Francisco Peninsula, which makes it the smallest county in the state. It has a density of about 18,451 people per square mile (7,124 people per km2), making it the most densely settled large city (population greater than 200,000) in the state of California and the second-most densely populated major city in the United States after New York City. @Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

Alcatraz Island island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison (1868), and a federal prison from 1933 until 1963. © Peter Dench/Verbatim

For Dench, who was brought up on Benny Hill, the Carry On films, and later ’Allo ’Allo, taking photographs is about seeing the funny side of things, but it’s also important to have something to say, he says. “There’s humour in my work, but it’s only a tool. You can disarm people with humour, and make them relaxed; but I learnt early on that you can’t just make funny pictures. Humour is difficult to get right because you can be accused of sneering at your subjects or taking advantage, so it’s a fine line to tread and hopefully I stay on the right side of it.”

The new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, available from all leading camera stockists. Visit olympus.co.uk for further details.

APRIL 2017 ISSUE:

Scratching the Surface: Daisuke Yokota and Thomas Mailaender take photography beyond the frame

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