Welcome to Photo Focus, where each Friday I will examine a single photograph. These short essay’s will give a greater insight into the individual image beyond its context within a group of photographs.
The next three weeks will contain a three part series, as each image is from Gauri Gills project The Americans. The text is from my MA Art History research paper titled, “Changing Perspectives: Gauri Gill’s The Americans”
Gauri Gill, Yuba City, California, 2001 (figure 3)
Yuba City, California, 2001 from The Americans photograph by Gauri Gill
The South Asian American population is diverse, with people from different countries, regions, and religious backgrounds who have settled into various areas of the United States. In northern California, for example, there is a long history of Sikh immigrants. This Sikh population is explored in Gill’s diptych Yuba City, California, 2001 (Figure 3). The diptych is 16 ½ by 50 inches and at this scale the details of the photograph are easily seen. The left side of the diptych presents a middle-aged Sikh man on a bicycle with an American flag attached to its handlebars. The man can be identified as a Sikh through his long hair in a turban, his beard, and metal bracelet. Though not seen in the photograph, the man may also have a comb secured in his hair beneath the turban and have a small sword in his possession. These items constitute four of the five articles of faith that visually identify Sikh males, known as the “5 Ks” or Kakka in Punjabi. Moreover, Yuba City, specifically identified in the title of this photograph, is one of the oldest Sikh communities in the United States. The photograph on the right side of the diptych is a detailed view of the grass at the corner of the gas station and the street which is littered with electoral candidate signs. The Sikh man on the bicycle dominates the photograph on the left side. This photograph appears to highlight the ways that Sikhs maintain their religious identification in America and also addresses issues of patriotism which can take place in the political arena. This is also suggested by the multicultural names on the political signs. One way of interpreting this diptych is through the emphasis of patriotism found in the Sikh American community of Yuba City.
In his essay, “A Theory of American National Identity,” Stanley A. Renshon discusses the process by which immigrants and Americans alike create and sustain a national identity. This discussion is important to this photograph because it provides a way of looking at the American population to discover what really “makes” a person American and negates the idea that white, middle class, Protestants are the sole defining culture of America. Renshon cites five sentiments that come together to create a feeling of patriotism, which are, affection, appreciation, pride, commitment/ responsibility, and support of the United States – its institutions, its way of life and aspirations, and its fellow members. All five of these emotions are expressed in this diptych, symbolically emerging in the form of the American flag.
The American public shows their patriotism by putting flags in their front yards, as bumper stickers on their cars, on their T-shirts, and on numerous other knick-knacks found in their homes and cars. This form of visual patriotism shows warmth and affection, appreciation and pride in the United States. In the photograph, it appears that the Sikh man has chosen to attach an American flag to the handlebars of his bicycle. While this act may seem simple, it is in actuality, full of meaning. Any flag is a symbol of association and allegiance to a country, organization, or group. Robert Shanafelt argues in his article “The Nature of Flag Power: How flags entail dominance, subordination and social solidarity,” that flags act as national symbols that visually unite citizens on a common ground. For example, when someone sees another person carrying a flag or wearing a flag on their T-shirt with which they also identify, they feel an instant bond with that person through national identity.
On the other hand, the Sikh man’s adherence to the five articles of faith clearly expresses his loyalty to his religion. Sikhs typically wear a turban because it contains their uncut hair which has been wound into a topknot on top of their heads. This is the traditional head covering because for centuries it has been considered the most honorable head covering in the region stretching from Iran to Northern India. Covering the topknot with a turban represents disciplined holiness which is why so many Sikhs continue to wear the turban in western countries. The turban is usually a length of cloth measuring from four to seven meters and can vary in color based on the individual’s personal preferences. This deep association with religious traditions and the tradition of their homeland is why so many Sikhs continue to wear the turban even in today’s strained political climate.
Darwinder Sindhu and Neha Singh Gohil argue that in the post 9/11 era the turban has been misidentified as a physical insignia representative of Al-Qaeda extremists and terrorism. Some even go as far as believing the turban is an “assault on American identity and solidarity.” The ramifications of such misunderstandings are deadly. For example, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, became the first post September 11th hate-crime victim when he was gunned down at a gas station in Mesa, Arizona on September 15, 2001. His killer, Frank Silva Roque, assumed he was a member of the Arab community (and by extension, a terrorist) and shot him. This tragic event shows that some Americans have mistaken Sikhs as terrorists because they do not understand Sikh culture or their one-hundred plus years of history in the United States.
The turban can bring about confusion to people uneducated about Sikhism. However, the Sikh man in the photograph has either knowingly or unknowingly counteracted this possible confusion by placing the American flag on his handlebars. The flag on his bicycle gives the other members of his community and viewers of the photograph another visual symbol that proves loyalty to the United States. As displaying a flag can easily unite citizens, viewers of the photograph feel a bond with the Sikh gentleman because of the shared understanding of the flag’s meaning.
The Sikh man is seemingly displaying his national identity through the use of the American flag while the photograph on the right side of the diptych displays patriotism and national identity through the political process. The photograph on the right side of the diptych is a view of a lawn in front of a gas station littered with electoral candidate signs for the local election. The names on the signs present a variety of individuals from different ethnicities and thus underscore the prominent roles that many people from immigrant families ultimately play in the political process. Moreover, the electoral signs exhibit a similar visual vocabulary as the American flag. Each electoral sign has a white background and the graphics are in red and blue. All but Santana’s sign even include a representation of the flag. National colors that are associated with the flag are specifically incorporated to bring solidarity with other people. The color association lets the viewer know that the candidate shares the same morals and values as the voters because they are all American. These signs are specifically designed this way so that they evoke a sense of camaraderie with the voters.
Tej Maan, one of the candidates on the electoral signs, is a South Asian American and a Sikh. He is from a rural Punjabi village and moved to the United States with his parents and siblings when he was thirteen years old. His uncle who lives in Houston recommended that the Maan family move to Yuba City because language barriers prevented the parents from getting jobs in the Houston area. His parents worked as farmers as did he and his siblings while they were in school. It is uncanny how Mr. Maan’s story echoes the history of Sikhs in northern California and lead him down the path of the “American Dream”.
Sikhs have populated California since the turn of the twentieth century. These early immigrants came to California to work as migrant farm workers. Many of these early Punjabi immigrants were farmers in India before migrating to the United States, making northern California a perfect place to resettle. Some of the immigrants worked in the Sacramento Valley as fruit growers while others cultivated rice in the districts around Marysville and Yuba City. It did not take long for the men to pool their resources together and begin purchasing their own land and equipment. These early immigrants are the reason Sikhs continued to move into the area throughout the century. However, most of the Sikhs living in the area now arrived after 1965, when the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was passed. Before this act there were quotas placed on the number of South Asians allowed to immigrate to the United States. This act abolished the quota system, which gave priority to northern and western Europeans; it gave priority to those who already had relatives living in the United States, and it included provisions to bring workers into the country. Maan’s family was able to come to the United States because of the provisions in the 1965 legislation. Furthermore, Maan’s uncle moved to the United States to go to college and the remaining Maan family was able to join him due to the priority given to immigrants with family members already in the country.
Maan was not elected for city council in 2001 when this photograph was made by Gill, but he was elected into the city council in 2006. He is also the Director of Environmental Health in Yuba County. In my opinion, participating in the government at local, state or the national level is seen as one of the most patriotic activities a person can be involved with because it proves a loyalty and commitment to the community and nation. Maan decided to participate in local politics following the 2001 murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona. He and his fellow community members held several candlelight vigils for Sodhi. Maan decided to run for city council because it gave him a platform to educate American citizens about Sikhism. He also wanted to get the Sikh and larger South Asian American population more active in politics, whether it was running for office or simply voting. Now in his second term he says he has fulfilled his goals of serving his community, getting Indians involved in the community and registering Indian-Americans to vote.
Maan was the first Punjabi-American to run for city council in Yuba City, which he finds surprising because of the long Sikh history of the area. In 2006, Maan and another Punjabi-American, Kashmir Gill, ran for office and were both elected. Kashmir Gill went on to be the first Punjabi mayor in U.S. history in 2009. The end of the decade has marked a spark in Indian-American political activity as Bobby Jindal became the first Indian-American Governor in history in Louisiana, followed by Nikki Haley becoming the first Indian-American woman to become Governor in South Carolina. This political activism comes after a long dry spell since Indian-American Dalip Singh Saund served as a congressman in the 1950s.
The photograph Yuba City, California shows that all Americans can be patriotic regardless of their heritage. Immigrants can be mislabeled or discriminated against because they are different; however, the narratives expressed in this photograph show that immigrants are patriotic and fulfill the American Dream. The Sikh man on the bike actively presents his loyalty to both his country and his religion which is an act of freedom that may not be found globally. Tej Maan has lived the American Dream as his family came to the states from a rural Punjabi village with little money or possessions. He worked in his youth and went on to become a college graduate and a city council member. This photograph clearly shows that the Sikh community in Yuba City is an integral part of the American fabric.
Eleanor Nesbitt, Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 51.
Paul Sternberger, “Me, Myself, and India,” Photographies 2, no. 1 (2009): 39.
Stanley A. Renshon, “A Theory of American National Identity,” The 50% American: Immigration and National Identity in an Age of Terror (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005): 67.
Renshon, “A Theory of American National Identity,” The 50% American, 67.
Robert Shanafelt, “The Nature of Flag Power: How flags entail dominance, subordination, and social solidarity.” Politics and the Life Sciences 27, no. 2 (2009): 13.
Nesbitt, Sikhism, 51.
Nesbitt, Sikhism, 53.
Dawinder S. Sidhu and Neha Singh Gohil, Civil rights in Wartime: The Post-9/11 Sikh Experience (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009): 137.
Shanafelt, “The Nature of Flag Power,” 19.
Information gathered from personal conversation with the author.
Juan L. Gonzales Jr., “Asian Indian Immigration Patterns: The Origins of the Sikh Community in California,” International Migration Review 20, no. 1 (Spring 1986), 42.
Gonzales, “Asian Indian Immigration Patterns,” 43.
Parmatma Saran, The Asian Indian Experience in the United States (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1985): 18.
Yuba City, California website, Accessed: February 5, 2011, http://www.yubacity.net/city-council/city-council-members.
Pierre Gottschlich, “The Indian Diaspora in the United States of America: An Emerging Political Force?” Tracing an Indian Diaspora: Context, Memories, Representations. Ed. Parvati Raghuram (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2008): 163.