It is, at first glance, a simple picture: a high-school American football team practising in the shadow of a coal-fired power station. But thanks to the shot's long depth of field, the cooling towers loom in crisp focus over the players. "I was photographing the plant and I came across the team," says the American photographer Mitch Epstein. "The stands were at an advantageous height, and [the shot] was a way to encapsulate the entire community, a layered complexity."
That complexity emerges throughout his five-year project American Power, which won this year's prestigious Prix Pictet photography prize for work with an environmental theme. An epic investigation of the world's most powerful nation and how it uses and misuses that potency in all its forms, the subjects of his project vary greatly, from little old ladies lounging at home with their pistols to the colossal infrastructure of power plants.
Epstein tried to approach the project with an open mind, but "I began to make pictures that were more pointed, looking at the political landscape." His worries were compounded as he carried out his work: "I was under constant surveillance – security officers, state police, the FBI – and frequently told I was endangering lives by taking pictures in public spaces... I felt I was in a dictatorship."
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