Allison Stewart – Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear

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Review by Gerhard Clausing •

We find ourselves in a time of greater uncertainty. Thus our anxieties and fears are also greater, and we expect disasters – sudden catastrophes that can come about naturally, accidentally or by intent. Fires, earthquakes, storms and flooding are our main threats here in California; nuclear accidents and military aggression are other examples, less natural, that can also occur, not just here but everywhere.

The individual and group losses in all these cases can be great and life-changing (assuming you still have your life after such an event); therefore some anticipation and preparation to assure survival seems like a good idea. So when offered an earthquake kit as a backpack with the necessities to survive several days without outside help, I purchased one and put it in the trunk of my car for safekeeping, just in case. Small comfort.

Allison Stewart’s photobook Bug Out Bag takes us much further than that. She documents people known as ‘preppers’ whose anxiety levels in regard to disasters are elevated to a much more pronounced level, and whose fears cause them to do very detailed planning and execution of such “bug out” survival bags that contain what they consider the necessities for survival in case of a disastrous event.

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This book comes wrapped in a yellow caution tape, as shown, alerting the viewer that extreme care is needed, similar to taping off a scene in the face of danger. The actual cover looks like a military instruction manual, implying a certain level of seriousness for what is contained inside. And indeed, the photographer shows us a typology of such survival bags and their contents, photographed between 2014 and 2016, along with descriptions and rationales for them.

We see that the contents of such bags are a reflection of their owners as well as of the commercial and cultural setting that is behind them. For instance, some consider weapons very important, others value certain food items above all else. Instructions are included for maintaining drinking water and/or other liquid refreshments. Some detailed instruction sets shed light on the mental and emotional frameworks that drive these individuals in their preparedness planning.

True to the subtitle of the book, Allison Stewart also shows us images of supply stores and other sources, as well as various kinds of equipment, to illustrate the commercial effort behind the perceived needs to prepare for such potential disasters. Thus one can take this photobook on a number of levels – it is a cultural analysis of fear and its imagined amelioration, as well as an instruction manual on what the individual can do to prepare for almost unthinkable catastrophes. Several essays shed further light on the subject.

This very unusual photobook received a Juror’s Award at the first annual Photo Book Competition of the Los Angeles Center of Photography this fall.

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Allison Stewart – Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear

Photographer: Allison Stewart (born in Houston, Texas; resides in Los Angeles, California, USA)

Self-published; © 2018

Essays: Allison Stewart, Pete Brook, Rachel Monroe, Mark Presneill; instructions and guidelines by MM, Amber Higgins, Shahnnen Elizabeth Head, and others

Text: English

Hardcover with Wire-O binding; 106 pages, paginated; 42 color plates; 8½ x 11 inches (22 x 28 cm); printed by Paper Chase Press, Los Angeles

Editor: Alyssa Coppelman

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