Barry Salzman

The Other Side of Christmas


The Other Side of Christmas is Barry Salzman’s critique of the ‘American Dream’, drawing on his outsider perspective as an immigrant. He suggests the work is not intended to adjudicate upon the truthfulness of the ‘American Dream’, but instead to caution against the perennial trap laid out by the idiom ‘the grass is greener on the other side’.

"Shot while on a road trip across the Southern United States, The Other Side of Christmas is a sobering reminder that there is no indifferent place. Salzman is not interested in reprising the cliché of existential nausea one experiences in the face of nullity. Rather, his viewpoint and felt sense of the world asks us to cherish what we mistakenly imagine to be superfluous.”

Ashraf Jamal, South African contemporary art commentator

Project Statement

I often wonder what is in a label. What do the words we attach to ourselves tell us about our hopes and aspirations, our identity, community and place of belonging? 

For a decade after leaving South Africa in 1984, I wanted nothing more than to become an ‘American’. I celebrated when I became a citizen. But for the two decades that followed, every time I proclaimed to be an ‘American’ people doubted me. I had an accent. I didn’t fit with my fellow Americans’ sense of what it meant to be ‘American’. My friends often joked with strangers that I was from Brooklyn or the Bronx and had gone to a fancy school where I learned to fake my accent. Amazingly, that seemed easier for people to believe than the fact that I was a naturalized American who was born in Zimbabwe.

My understanding of America was almost entirely based on a life lived in New York City. In truth, that is no understanding at all. I self-identified as a New Yorker, but never as an American. So when the time came for me to consider the next phase of my life as an artist (in America or elsewhere; and as it happens, I moved part-time to Cape Town), I first set out to understand what the label ‘America’ meant. I wanted to pierce the veil of its official image of equality and opportunity, comfort and confidence - “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  

Leading into the holiday season in 2014, starting around the time of the American mid-term elections, the precursor to the divisive 2016 Presidential elections, I began to explore the notion of being ‘American’ in a body of work that became The Other Side of Christmas. The project follows the rich tradition of the road trip in the history of contemporary photography, and the role of the open road as facilitator for observing and understanding the USA. 

The camera’s depiction of the American open road is almost as old as photography itself, but the seminal work that has come to define the genre was made by Swiss photographer, Robert Frank, in 1955-56. In the decade post World War II, the public discourse in America was dominated by issues of immigration and immigrants - those who belonged and those who did not.

Disturbingly that continues to be the prevailing discourse today, making the view of the outsider looking in as relevant as it has ever been. It is the outsider who upholds the idealised promise of the ‘American Dream’. As I traversed the country, it was apparent that for many Americans, perhaps even the majority, the life they live has little bearing on the promise of that often romanticised dream held by so many who seek to be ‘American’. This was particularly poignant through the holiday season, hence the title of the exhibition.

Robert Frank wrote: “What I have in mind then, is observation and record of what one naturalised American finds to see in the United States…I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere - easily found, but not easily selected and interpreted.”  His words are equally applicable to my journey 60 years later as they were to his.

Countless photographers have been influenced by the work of Frank, including some of photography's legends like Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Todd Hido and South Africa’s David Goldblatt. They are all referenced directly or indirectly in my own work.

Barry Salzman 2019