How 2020 Has Shifted American Dreams

Sarah Rogers
·6 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Courtesy Ian Brown
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Courtesy Ian Brown

Ian Brown spent more than a decade documenting what the American Dream means to hundreds of people across the country.

Ironically, he is Canadian.

With each individual, Brown created intimate portraits and asked subjects to handwrite their American Dreams. Hundreds of portraits and vulnerable testimonies later, Brown has released the collection in American Dreams: Portraits & Stories of a Country.

“I don’t have an American dream because I’m a foreigner,” Brown explained. “This was part of the interest in undertaking this project.

“Other countries around the world haven’t packaged the idea of aspiration as America has. It’s a unique American social construct.”

As the photography project has been ongoing, many of the portraits over the last decade are snapshots of the colossal problems plaguing America: opioid addition, student loan debt, gun violence, poverty. Yet, alongside the heartbreak, there are sprinkles of hope, celebration, and persistence. The collection is beautiful albeit voyeuristic; the rawness of entries feels like peeking inside lady liberty’s diary from the 2010s.

This year, Brown revisited some of his subjects and asked if their views on the American Dream had changed.

“With the advent of COVID and the civil acrimony and political divide in the country I think that this is a period of uncertainty and reflection,” Brown said.

Here, a selection of portraits and initial dreams, each updated with a 2020 post script.

Jordyn - Cleveland, Ohio

<div class="inline-image__title">Jordyn - Cleveland, Ohio</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Jordyn - Cleveland, Ohio
Courtesy Ian Brown

Jordyn, 2020

She states that her dream is still the same—and sadly even more relevant today than back in 2016 before Trump was elected. She recently lost her job due to the economy collapsing and the pandemic.

Megan Crane - Flint, Michigan

<div class="inline-image__title">Megan Crane, Flint, Michigan</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Megan Crane, Flint, Michigan
Courtesy Ian Brown

Megan Crane, 2020

“Life’s been insane. Zach passed away about 3 years ago. He actually overdosed. He’d had an opiate addiction for decades and just remained functional. He caught pneumonia and it compromised his lung function and he passed away 12/27/17. I’m still on the south side of Flint, only now I’m the cook at a bar on the east side called AJ Racers. I’ve been the only cook up till recently. It has been hard.

Cody Larue - Flint, Michigan

<div class="inline-image__title">Cody LaRue - Flint, Michigan</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Cody LaRue - Flint, Michigan
Courtesy Ian Brown

Cody Larue, 2020

“While I’m certainly in a better place than I was in 2016, it strikes me at how much is the same. I'm still living in Flint (by choice). Still trying to pay down that student loan debt. Still working full-time to support my film-making. I guess I’m just more clear-eyed to the ways that what we used to think of as the American Dream has been systematically dismantled over the decades. Now I feel like we’re just waiting on the next big economic collapse that all but guarantees that my generation will never get to see any type of retirement or anything to look forward to beyond a lifetime of work. But at least I still have a job, so I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess.

Is this more or less depressing than my original thoughts from 2016?”

Melissa Morris - Sterling, Colorado

<div class="inline-image__title">Melissa Morris - Sterling, Colorado</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Melissa Morris - Sterling, Colorado
Courtesy Ian Brown

Melissa Morris, 2020

“I do know this much: the American Dream I envisioned as a little girl has just vanished. Many different things from COVID-19 to personal issues have altered it. Depression has set in, but I have maintained my sobriety. I did work with UC Denver on the IT MATTTRS team the entire three years of the grant and made some major advances helping opiate addicts out here on the eastern plains of Colorado.

Needless to say the problem with opiate addiction has increased exponentially and, sadly, I have even lost a few close friends to it very recently. On a personal note, during this time since I last saw you, my husband has developed a severe mental illness that has gone undiagnosed and has gotten much worse over the past three years. Undiagnosed because he’s an old stubborn Navy SEAL and it’s been slowly unraveling our marriage… I’m not bitter though, just sad.”

Nicole Hockley - Newtown, Connecticut

<div class="inline-image__title">Nicole Hockley - Newton, Connecticut</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Nicole Hockley - Newton, Connecticut
Courtesy Ian Brown

Nicole Hockley, 2020

Nicole remains active with her work trying to draw attention to anti-violence efforts through her organization Sandy Hook Promise.

Chase LaCoste - Kentwood, Louisiana

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Courtesy Ian Brown

Chase LaCoste, 2020

Chase’s dream remains the same—just to be able to grow up and be a Black man.

Ben Baker - Ashburn, Georgia,

<div class="inline-image__title">Ben Baker - Ashburn, Georgia</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Ben Baker - Ashburn, Georgia
Courtesy Ian Brown

Ben Baker, 2020

“My goal has not changed. I still try. The efforts are paying off. I am on a food bank board in town and every Thursday we have a HUGE food giveaway. All free. Here’s what happened.

We were making small purchases from the regional food bank warehouse when one of the guys asked if we could take several pallets of fresh foods, free. He said if we did not take it, it’d get tossed. The stuff would not last the weekend in the warehouse. We said yes. Now, every Thursday morning, we head to Tifton to the warehouse with pickups and long trailers and we bring back literally tons of food. Last week was 5,500 pounds.

How does this fit with my American Dream? We tried to help people in dire need of food. Because of our efforts, we got rewarded with the opportunity to do so much more. We tried. We succeeded beyond what we could have imagined. So try. Try again. Keep trying. America is the land of opportunity, if you are willing to try. Try to make a difference.

As C-19 runs rampant, nothing has changed for me, except the damned disease killed my momma in May. I try to help people. Now, I try to help people in her memory as well.”

Ella Jones - Ferguson, Missouri

<div class="inline-image__title">Ella Jones - Ferguson, Missouri</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Ella Jones - Ferguson, Missouri
Courtesy Ian Brown

Ella Jones, 2020

Ella was elected in 2020 as the first Black and female mayor of Ferguson.

Vicki Chavez - Salt Lake City, Utah

<div class="inline-image__title">Vicki Chavez - Salt Lake City, Utah</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Vicki Chavez - Salt Lake City, Utah
Courtesy Ian Brown

Vicki Chavez, 2020

Vicki remains living in Sanctuary with her daughters—she has now been living in the Church for over two years.

Antoinette Harrell - Amite, Louisiana

<div class="inline-image__title">Antoinette Harrell - Amite, Louisiana</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Antoinette Harrell - Amite, Louisiana
Courtesy Ian Brown

Antoinette Harrell, 2020

She says her words are more true and real and needed than ever.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ian Brown</div>
Courtesy Ian Brown

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