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What is American Power?

A photographer's eye-opening look at U.S. energy production and consumption

by Graham Hiemstra in Culture on 29 April 2011

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In 2003 renowned photographer Mitch Epstein unintentionally began a documentary series on the production and consumption of energy in America. Now called "What is American Power?," the Prix Pictet-winning project started while on assignment when Epstein learned that American Electric Power Company bought out the citizens of Cheshire, OH to avoid future lawsuits over constant environmental containment. Deeply moved by the willingness of the industry to systematically erase an entire town, Epstein set out to further document the full impact the utility companies have on people and places, seeking to "heighten our awareness of the toll that energy production and consumption take on our economy, security, health and natural resources".

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Epstein describes what he found during the six-year endeavor as playing with a Russian nesting doll, "when I opened electrical power, I discovered political power; when I opened political power, I discovered corporate power; within corporate was consumer; within consumer was civic; within civic was religious, and so on, one type of power enabling the next."

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The upshot, an amazing book and interactive website, feature Epstein's stunning photographs from "the land of the free." Adding emotional effect, the project also includes enlightening answers to the imposing question by everyone from school kids to artists, in both the U.S. and abroad.

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The selected quotes lend extra insight into the connection between humans and consumption. Chicago-based photographer and writer Dawoud Bey claims, "American power is a paradoxical thing that has the potential for so much good but that is too often misused and indeed abused." He feels if the country used its collective knowledge to benefit the global public, the world would be a much better place.

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Sixth grader Lucia Bell-Epstein astutely says, "American power is a disgusting use of fossil fuels that is destroying the environment and our health. Sooner or later American power will destroy itself; unless we all come together to save what's left of America."

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The second edition of the book "American Power" is also available for pre-order from Amazon.

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