“Nationalism in itself is intimately linked to gender and sexuality,” says photographer and cultural analyst Katerina Vo about the idea behind her photo series Fatherland. It delves deep into the interwoven relationships between her father and her homeland, the USA. A lot of complex emotions and feelings stemming from her personal experiences poured themselves into this project.
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When I reached out to Katerina for an interview request, she sent me links to a couple of her projects. One look at Fatherland was enough for me to realize it was one of the most exciting photo series I have seen recently. Each frame had immense subtext to it, invoking me to dig deeper into the ideas behind it. Held together by common themes, almost every photograph in the series is visually distinct. The stories behind them are poignant, thought-provoking, and something we worth discussion, irrespective of whether our nations like to head to war at the drop of a hat or not. Her response to my last question was incisive, and left me pondering.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Katerina Vo
Katerina told us:
In documentary work, I love to get creative with available lighting, while in series such as Fatherland
The Phobographer: Hello Katerina. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Katerina Vo: I am a photographer, educator, and visual storyteller whose work straddles documentary and fine art to deal with themes of militarism and nationalism, as well as topics such as LGBTQ+ life and housing justice. I am particularly interested in the violent melding of fact and fiction in the creation of the nation and how this interplays with gender and the family structure. My work has been influenced by being raised in a family heavily involved in the US military while at the same time growing up as part of a vibrant queer community.
My photography origin story is an oddly serendipitous one– it began when I won a camera at the dentist at age 13. Ever since, it’s been a way of moving throughout the world, an excuse to meet people and go places I wouldn’t otherwise . My camera has brought me everywhere, from traveling with a circus in Cuba to living in a cave in the south of Spain.
My practice aims to use images to change how we see and interact with the world. Nationalist and militarist rhetoric have very effectively used the photographic and cinematic image as a vehicle. How might we use the same mediums to imagine other worlds and ways of being?
The Phobographer: A patriarchal take on a common patriotic term – please tell us what Fatherland is and how its idea came about.
Katerina Vo: Fatherland is an umbilical tug-of-war, an untangling and re-tangling of fraught relationships with the father and with the nation, which is not only parallel, but interweave, intertwine, and knot. It explores the dynamic in my own family as a microcosm of national conversations, histories, and struggles. The series is a glimpse behind the curtain of the mythologies and fantasies of the American Dream, which blur into the living of daily life in the US to the point of being indistinguishable. In examining my relationship with my father and the nation into which I was born, I seek to interrogate the way in which this mythology, including pop culture and repeated national narratives, merge with daily life and how these ideas are transmitted through the family structure to create the national subject.
To create a believable narrative for the American public to buy into, the strings must be tucked away, and the show must be believable and well-rehearsed – the state and status quo depend on it. But what happens when the Dream is denaturalized, when its performative nature is betrayed by the tag of a costume, the edge of a backdrop?
The series is grounded in my military family, particularly my Navy father’s relationship with my brother and me. The Hollywood glamor of Top Gun and t-shirts sporting “9/11 Never Forget” are not separate from my father’s enlistment in the Navy. And his influence (and, in a different way, that of my mother) is definitely not separate from my brother joining the Army after having been groomed for it through movies, sports, Boy Scout meetings, and dinner table discussions.
The idea for the series came about when I questioned my role as an artist and asked myself what insight I could provide from my own personal experience that could impact how viewers might think about the world. At an absolutely critical political moment to investigate the roots of US nationalism and militarism, I found myself straddling the division between inside and outside, having a front-row look into the nationalist ideology and military participation while remaining critical of what it represents and perpetuates. What could my own experience offer on the roots of such sentiments?
From my own home life, I saw clear parallels between the nuclear family and the nationalist rhetoric of the nation as a family. I also saw the way that fact and fiction blurred into one another– national myths, stories, and ideologies are repeated until they are accepted as fact. A Hollywood feedback loop ensures that as many true stories are based on movies, as movies are based on true stories. Growing up, my father always had a set of catchphrases, which I assumed were his own quirks. It wasn’t until I became interested in these topics and started watching a lot of war movies that I realized many were lines straight from these films, so assimilated into his own vocabulary that I’m not even sure he remembered they were quotes.
The name Fatherland gives pause to the English speaker more accustomed to hearing “motherland.” It is a nod to the masculine tropes and ideals that compose the national imaginary. It also gestures toward the familial ties that transmit the rhetoric of a larger family narrative—that of the nation.
The Phobographer: After you started working on this series, did more ideas come up that you incorporated along the way? Or was it true to the original concept without any meandering?
Katerina Vo: I feel I almost worked backward with the series in a way. I’d been interested in photographing offbeat markers of Americana for years, as well as my family. As Fatherland progressed, I began to see how photos I’d made long before with no intention of ever incorporating them into a series meshed with the body of work.
There will always be meandering in any art form. If you create a thesis and then a shot list to back that thesis up, it’s not art; it’s propaganda. While the series definitely led me to places I didn’t expect, I feel it also clarified a lot for me, particularly as it relates to individuals’ motivations in the national and military context and my own role in this context.
The Phobographer: Would you say the narrative of nationalism and militarism is one of the causes of toxic masculinity in households?
Katerina Vo: While of course, the pressures of a narrowly defined hegemonic masculinity can never be attributed to one sole cause, nationalism and militarism can perpetuate toxic masculinity at every level of society. In a similar way as the nuclear family is seen as the building block for the nation-as-family, the ability of men to live up to a certain ideal, one marked by physical power and dominance, is seen as intertwined with the nation’s fate itself. Men’s gender performance and sexuality are policed because their inability to live up to ideals of masculine virility is conflated with their vulnerability to attack / penetration and the inability to re/produce.
The figure of the Marlboro Man serves as a good metaphor for the masculinity idealized by US nationalism. Throughout the 20th century, the Marlboro cigarette company’s advertisements centered around the Marlboro Man, a cowboy that embodied the national masculine ideals of ruggedness, self-sufficiency, and conquest. However, behind the scenes, a large number of the actors that played the Marlboro Man actually died of smoking-related diseases, such as lung cancer. While on the surface, the Marlboro Man is tough and impenetrable, forcing his will onto the lands of the West, below the surface are decaying foundations that are ultimately unsustainable.
The Phobographer: You imply that movies and pop culture directly influence men wanting to serve their nation in war. Why does reel-life glory tend to see into real-life dreams?
Katerina Vo: The visual language of pop culture is particularly effective because it’s been engineered to have broad appeal and be easily digested. The Hollywood film industry in particular, has made its trillions off of its ability to play with emotions and capture attention. The US in particular, home to Hollywood, has mastered the use of the photographic and film image to mobilize the American public and exert influence globally, using these images to define and promote a certain American lifestyle and the American Dream.
This link between cinema and militarism is not a coincidence– from the dawn of cinema, the military aided the movie industry in creating realistic portrayals of war, and in turn, the cinema industry produced action-packed films, often glorifying the US’s military presence. This collusion is just as present today– Top Gun, a classic film, was actually created with the collaboration of the Pentagon. Its release saw a notable uptick in recruitment.
The Phobographer: How does Fatherland hope to shine a light upon gender and family structure issues. Is there more to come in this series?
Katerina Vo: Most concretely, Fatherland shines a light on my own family structure, more specifically my brother and my relationships with my father, and how this dynamic is inextricable from the overarching national context and their involvement in the military. From there, it explores the nuclear family as a training ground for the national subject, as a model for the nation-as-family, and as the theater in which the drama of the nation unfolds. Additionally, it touches on the way in which masculine ideals are intertwined with citizenship and participation in the nation. My positionality as a queer woman has given me a perspective outside of the normative family structure that has made me more conscious of these dynamics.
My upcoming work will build on these topics, focusing more this time on women and the nation. Nationalism in itself is intimately linked to gender and sexuality. In a nationalist rhetoric (which of course, has its many varieties depending on the nation in question), the nation is conceived of as a sort of giant patriarchal, heteronormative family composed of millions of smaller patriarchal heteronormative families. Men and women are expected to uphold certain ideals of virility and fertility, respectively, which are conflated with the ability to produce and reproduce and the concept of common national destiny.
Sexual relationships are just one of an infinite variety of human relationships and interactions. In that, they are inherently political. To queer the nation, to engage in relationships and ways of being that lay outside of the controlled social structure—which may include refusing procreation, hegemonic gender expectations, or the nuclear family structure—destabilizes the idea of common destiny and acts as a threat to the national status quo. Nationalism is constantly looking both forward and back, drawing on what it deems a common history and a common future. To nationalism through a queer lens, however, forces us to focus on creating a life that benefits those of the here and now rather than working toward a hypothetical common destiny.
The Phobographer: Is the American Dream still within reach of those who aspire for it? Or has it become almost unattainable?
Katerina Vo: If we had more time, maybe we could elaborate on that “still.” Who was the American Dream attainable for?
All images by Katerina Vo. Used with permission. Check out her website and her Instagram page to see more of her photography.
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