From a collective modern viewpoint, America embodies the notions of religious fervor, suburban malaise, stark conservatism, and an adherence to the system of capitalism. The photographs in Clara Prioux’s book Do You Ever Feel Like Nobody Really Cares depict these ideals in the form of churches, an endless sprawl of McMansions, empty land to be bought and sold, and numerous products to be purchased and consumed.
There is an almost apocalyptic feel to the sequence of photographs, even though they are clearly made in the present day. Shot on black and white film, the images are almost entirely devoid of human subjects. They appear only a handful of times throughout the book. The compositions do not seem to be overly considered. Rather, they exhibit almost a point-and-shoot aesthetic, giving the book a feeling of rapid-fire documentation and free-roaming expansiveness, much like the American landscape itself.
Many images are shot from a wide angle, showing lots of empty space and allowing the eye to fill in the edges of each frame with mood and not subject matter. Together, these elements create a subtle feeling of dread and emptiness, draped in a bland uniformity. A sense of pervasive hopelessness begins to emerge amidst the suburban scenery, revealing a hidden danger: the lurking presence of religion, capitalism, and the delirium of the “American Dream”.
Prioux is a French photographer who visited her family in Fort Mill, South Carolina and photographed the area between 2013-2019. At almost 300 pages, the book is dense, the images occasionally broken up by simple drawings made by the photographer: reworkings of words, phrases, and symbols that Prioux came across: “Believe”, “Hope”, “Love”. By themselves, the drawings seem to add a human touch to the photographs, acting as a foil to the relatively cold and spare images. But they also reflect the irony of the thematic content. In one spread, the word “Love” is drawn inside an oval on one page, immediately followed by an image of a minivan with “Jesus Loves You” written on the rear window, while a Walmart stands like a watchtower in the background.
Religion hovers over daily life in the American Bible Belt like a thick cloud on a blistering summer day.
Religion hovers over daily life in the American Bible Belt like a thick cloud on a blistering summer day. The title of the book itself comes from a church leaflet that Prioux encountered. Not only does religion manifest itself in the form of ubiquitous churches, crosses, and statues, but it also merges with capitalist ideology to create something even more ominous. In one image, a cross made out of chocolate sits in a shop, sandwiched between piled up bags of candy, waiting to be bought – the idea of a supreme being packaged and sold to a congregation of consumers.
Elsewhere, we see a barren landscape of identical homes, supermarkets, restaurants, and cars, all clones of one another. One particular sequence of images is eerily foreboding. A photo of a row of suburban homes, with a pickup truck parked in the foreground, is followed by a manicured patch of grass, which leads to an image of the contorted body of a dead deer on concrete, the overbearing midday sun beaming down on the innocent corpse as if god himself summoned the creature’s demise.
Where Prioux succeeds most is in her depiction of the vast loneliness that exists between the cracks within the landscape. In endless scenes of houses either being built or already occupied, the people who live there remain unseen, turning even the most ornate mansions into empty shells. The combination of monochromatic images with the Southern landscape and its glaring natural light add to the almost claustrophobic feeling of the book. Under the Southern sun, secrets are exposed and anguish is revealed. Miles of empty concrete reflect the sale of a false dream.
Under the Southern sun, secrets are exposed and anguish is revealed. Miles of empty concrete reflect the sale of a false dream.
When human subjects do appear, they seem detached and withdrawn. There are no smiling faces or outward signs of happiness. The irony is that life in American suburbia itself gives no innate reason for this collective ennui. The houses are new, the lawns are clean, the strip malls and shopping centers abundant. Yet the ones who have all the reasons to be content seem to be the most dissatisfied of all.
The book’s edit and sequencing are worth noting. To some, it might seem overstuffed with images and the sequencing might feel a bit loose, making the reading experience somewhat of an overwrought task. But perhaps more importantly, this long and overabundant edit aligns with the distinctly American idea that “bigger is better”, mimicking the experience of existing in suburbia and the marked boredom and dread that come with that experience. The longer edit and overall density of the book also reinforce the feeling that the work was made over a relatively long period of time.
Another integral part of the reading experience is a folded yellow sheet of paper that is included with each copy of the book. Prioux uses it to collect writings she made between 2009-2020, bits and pieces of notes and thoughts gathered in one place. Here, the artist grapples with questions about her own identity, her art, and the feeling of alienation while being in America. As a supplement to the images and drawings, this textual element completes the book and invites the reader into a journey not only through the physical American landscape, but also the existential landscape of Prioux’s own mind.
Toward the end of the book, two drawings stand out in particular. The first is of a fortune from a fortune cookie and reads “A pleasant surprise is waiting for you.” The other is a horoscope for the astrological sun sign Taurus that reads:
Your artistic and creative efforts may begin to bear fruit for you right now
This could be an exceptional time to increase the exposure of your innovative work.
These two drawings, bookending a self-portrait of Prioux, create a powerful contrast. The fortune speaks to the determinism and submission to one’s fate as preached in traditional Western religions. Instead of a fatalistic outlook, the horoscope gives a sense of hope and possibility, suggesting that now is the time to act and to take control of one’s life, and to manifest what is desired instead of waiting for something that might never come.
In the end, the most striking thing about the book, and the thing I keep returning to in my mind the most, isn’t a single image or drawing. It is the title itself, and the question that it asks. If Do You Ever Feel Like Nobody Really Cares is ultimately a contemplation of the concept of care, especially within the context of contemporary suburban alienation, then as readers we should be asking ourselves whether or not we care, and what do we care about? Is it an attachment to things we can buy and sell? Is it blind faith and hope in the unseen? Or is it the here and now, and whatever meaning we can create for ourselves? Is it the relationships and people in front of us, the ones who offer the same care in return?