The Wavers

“In the 1770s, on the eve of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry uttered the words, “Give me liberty or give me death,” enshrining the word “liberty” as a descriptor of the American experience. Over a hundred years later, to celebrate the centennial of the United States, the Statue of Liberty was given to the American people by the French. This monumental statue, portraying a woman escaping the chains of tyranny, has become a universal and ubiquitous symbol of the United States. In 2008 the Liberty Tax Service embarked on a nationwide advertising campaign by dressing workers in Status of Liberty costumes and having them wave banners on street corners to attract clients. Fascinated by the interpretations of U.S. history embedded in American society, Greta Pratt decided to speak with the wavers—in fact, day laborers—she encountered. Some were disabled and homeless, and almost all were seeking full-time work struggling to make ends meet in the current economic crisis. Similar to some of Arbus’s portraits in the 1960s, Pratt has used desolate urban environment as her backdrop to highlight the individual rather than the employer or employee.”

– Natasha Egan

 

"What does it mean to be an American? While citizens of other nations find solidarity in shared ethnicity, religion, or history, the United States binds its people together through a shared set of symbols, ideals and mythologies. One of the most profound of these is represented by the Statue of Liberty, who presides over New York harbor holding a torch as a beacon of welcome to immigrants arriving from abroad. Over the 128 years since the statue’s installation, this proclamation of Liberty has proved both remarkably potent and remarkably slippery. Is Liberty a declaration of freedom from arbitrary authority? Is it, as the famous Emma Lazarus poem has it, a promise from the “Mother of Exiles” to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Is it about freedom of opportunity, freedom from want, freedom of religion, freedom from faith, a paean to self-reliance and individualism or a celebration of the nation’s communitarian spirit?

Photographer Greta Pratt has spent her career exploring the complexity of American identity as it plays out in such symbols. She has been drawn in particular to the peculiarly American practice of re-enactment, whereby people impersonate figures from history or myth as a way of connecting to a useable past. She trolls state fairs, rodeos, small town pageants and centennial celebrations, seeking scenarios that reveal Americans reveling in a semi-real, semi-invented history constructed from notions of American Exceptionalism, rugged individualism and frontier values.

But instead of settling for a cozy affirmation of Norman Rockwell style nostalgia, Pratt has opted for a surprisingly complex exploration of American values. Her photographs of wholesome corn princesses, Abraham Lincoln impersonators, faux cowboys and Indians, Civil War re-enactors and air brushed Founding Fathers suggest the gap between America’s ideals and its realities. But they also chronicle rituals that may seem archaic and inauthentic to urban sophisticates but which bring their participants together in a shared celebration of American history and identity.

The Wavers consists of photographic portraits of individuals employed by the Liberty Tax Service, a nationwide franchise of tax preparers. They are hired to stand on corners and drum up business while wearing a Statue of Liberty costume. The Wavers offer an interesting counterpart to Pratt’s earlier series of portraits of members of the Association of Lincoln Presenters. These latter individuals rent themselves out as impersonators of Abraham Lincoln to conventions, schools and celebrations. As the statements that accompany this series reveals, these latter day Abe Lincolns are motivated by a love of American history, a fascination with our 16th President and the desire to be part of something bigger than selves. They often report that they are inspired by his faith and humility, revering him as a kind of secular saint whose spirit they channel with an almost religious intensity.

By contrast, the Wavers’ relationship to the Statue of Liberty is more practical. Their self-descriptions make it clear that impersonating Liberty provides a much needed job in an otherwise unforgiving economy. While many Wavers profess enjoyment of the job, none seem motivated by a desire to proselytize for the ideals embodied by the Statue of Liberty. Indeed, there is an irony in the Liberty Tax Service’s adoption of this symbol, given the Tea Party's rewriting of the American revolution as an anti tax revolt.

Even more than Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty has been appropriated to serve a wide range of purposes. Since 1924, Lady Liberty has served as the symbol of Columbia Pictures, (updated in 1992 to make her a bit more contemporary looking). She has also been used for branding everything from hardware, fashion, food, and shoes, to insurance, gasoline and of course, tax preparation. While such products may have nothing to do with the symbol’s core message, they are presumably enhanced by association with our nation’s foremost emblem of freedom.

However, it can be argued that the message of the Statue of Liberty is well suited to the people employed as Wavers. Ethnically diverse and economically struggling, they are presented in these photographs as individuals rather than types. Asked by Pratt to chose their own poses, they present attitudes that range from dejection to pride to resignation. The illusion of iconicity is further undercut by glimpses of running shoes, sweatsuits, tee shirts and blue jeans peeking out from under their green gowns.

It is not a stretch to see these Wavers as the “tempest tossed” exiles celebrated in Lazarus’s poem. But these are no longer immigrants lured by the promise of the American dream. They are instead our own people, Americans for whom the hopes symbolized by Lady Liberty have yet to fully materialize."

- Eleanor Heartney