History and context are important to Jesse Drew. The director of technocultural studies here at UC Davis currently has a gallery of photos at SF Camerawork.
The photos are part of a series titled Winter in America, named after the Gil Scott-Heron album and song. At the age of 17, Drew moved throughout the United States starting in the winter of 1974 and on into 1975, making his way from protest to protest, taking photos of active participants during these demonstrations. He made his way from the East Coast to the Midwest, finally moving to California.
During this time, a young Drew witnessed the aftermath and response to the Attica Prison Riots while in Buffalo, NY. He was among thousands of working-class protesters angry over unemployment in Washington, D.C. In South Boston, he saw both anti-racism and racist demonstrators fighting over the last major segregated school district. He took photos of César Chávez talking to Latino farmworkers.
Drew describes 1974 through 1975 as “a time of great crisis in the U.S., with a strong recession, an energy crisis, a failed war and, increasingly, levels of poverty and uncertainty.”
The Winter in America gallery of photos draws numerous comparisons and parallels to political demonstrations today. While we can see and feel the uncertainty of the current economic climate, Drew was more interested in portraying the type of people who were at the demonstrations during this time.
“Winter in America personifies the period of time after the 1960s,” Drew said. “After this revolutionary high and then in the 1970s, we fell into a depressed era. The U.S. lost its supremacy in the world, the nation was wracked by unemployment, there was oil and gas shortage, urban decay and the defeat in Vietnam. To be a protester during this time, you had to be a more committed person. It was a much more dangerous time.
“I was interested in the kind of people who would come out to events like that, to put their lives on the line,” Drew said. “There was this ethos of winter soldiers — these were people who were really committed to fighting for social justice even when it wasn’t popular. Through the ‘70s it wasn’t popular; I was interested in who was left here. If you look at the faces in the crowd, they’re not the well-scrubbed college student types; they were grittier people, people who were left behind.”
Drew describes the protests of the time as the people without anywhere to go. They included ex-prisoners, African Americans, individuals of developing nations, Native Americans, working-class whites, Vietnam veterans, runaways and fugitives. These were the Winter Soldiers of 1974 and 1975.
At the time, Drew lived as a vagabond, traveling and hitchhiking his way across America. He shot the photos using a hand-me-down Tri-X black-and-white camera, giving the photos a graininess, grittiness and character that poignantly evokes the mood of the time. One question that was brought up is how he was able to travel the country with little money.
“There was a lot less suspicion. People valued more personal experiences with others,” Drew said. “It was easier to meet people then. I traveled and stayed with a lot of these people. Back then, because of the communal network, it was much easier; it gave me an in to a lot of places. I had a notebook and people would tell me their friends’ names, organization and political collectives; I would call someone and ask if I could crash at their place and always I could.”
Besides the interesting faces, what Drew hopes most students take away from Winter in America and his recovered photos is the importance of history and the lessons it brings.
“I want to show students that these political struggles and movements were happening in the not-too-distant past. I want students to realize that it’s going to be a long haul; it takes time to change things,” Drew said. “Like the people of the time, it’s important for us to maintain humor and humanity through it all.”
The Winter in America photo gallery will be on display at SF Cameraworks in San Francisco until April 21. Drew has a home page at jessedrew.com detailing all his current and upcoming work.
RUDY SANCHEZ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.