The Field of Flags was a temporary monument, an installation along the National Mall during the 59th Presidential Inauguration in January 2021. Although it was heavily off limits during the inauguration itself I was able to spend some time there the day after, which was a surreal experience to document. I was in the area to document a politician as part of the project I was working on, but stopped at the field both before and after in order to incorporate some of the unique situations that were occurring.
This was a smaller space than you might expect, fences still raised in some sections, lowered in others. Locals had heard that it was possible to access, and passing cyclists, dog walkers, anyone with a reason to be nearby walked in to stand amongst the flags. It didn’t take long before these people started to take over from the workers who had started to uproot the flags, and soon collections had begun – some taking flags for their yards, others to offer as gifts, some simply to possess a small piece of history.
In this intimate space there seemed to be a shared understanding, that these flags represented more than patriotism; in the context of their construction, these flags had been placed in the field to represent the citizens and people in the country who were not able to travel to the Capital for the Inauguration due to the Covid-19 pandemic – so as I watched I realised that the flags were the people, and the people taking them were in a way taking a part of themselves.
Within a few hours the space was picked clean, and people had begun to clamour at the gates to the next area which contained the States and Territories flags – they were asking the staff to bring the flag of their own state, or failing that the state of a friend or family member; something, anything they were allowed by the accommodating staff and volunteers.
This was such a different relationship with the flag, something more personal and special than just iconography, it was like people were harvesting a piece of themselves from the soil of their country, harvested like a crop, taking with it patriotism, pride, and anything else they were associating.
This was almost it’s own ceremony, just as much reverence as the previous day but none of the elitism or enforced ritual, just equal soldiers and citizens and passersby entering a hallowed space and taking what they felt was theirs. It was spontaneous and oddly joyful, peaceful and filled with laughter; people lay down amongst the flags, took pictures with and of them, of each other, for strangers who asked kindly, as children ran past chasing each other, waving their flags.
Unless fate decides otherwise it will be a few years until the next inauguration, and hopefully by then there will be a better handle on the pandemic which will mean crowds can once again gather together. These flags as avatars, stand ins for the audience who couldn’t attend won’t be necessary which means these scenes could be unrepeated – another inauguration crowd of flags may (hopefully) never be required.
It didn’t feel like a political/election related story, it was more personal, a monument deconstructed by those it represented. I used this as my narrative guidance while documenting, and the photographs I made during my time there really tied the rest of the chapter of the story I was working on together. The closing image in my book, which contains the work I made in D.C. during this time, shows three women in the cleared space bowing their heads in prayer as in the background a man sits beside the flag that he had pulled from the ground and then replanted for a photo he wanted of it next to his bike.
You can read more thoughts from my time working on this story in D.C. here and here. My book from this project is titled “D.C. Exclusion Zone” and is the first hardback photo-book I’ve ever produced, as opposed to a zine or a digest. If you’ve enjoyed my thoughts here please consider supporting me by buying a copy, or one of my other prints or publications. You can find me on Instagram here.
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