Mariah Karson Photography


While traveling through central Nebraska, I stopped in a small town to take photos of a grain elevator. An elderly gentleman mowing the lawn of an American Legion Post rode over to me, said hello, and asked what I was doing. We chatted, and he invited me to stay in town for prime rib and dancing that night at the Post, which was also the town’s only restaurant open for dinner. He explained that service may be slow — local kids don’t want to work at the restaurant and the older generation struggles to keep the Post staffed. I thought of the American Legion Post in my home town, which recently had been torn down.

This project documents the lives of Legion members and the impact veterans and Posts have on communities. It combines my love of small town America and my unique sense of patriotism. This work increases public awareness, recognizes member service, and celebrates the veteran community.

Founded by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. at the conclusion of the first World War, the American Legion is the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization. In the last twenty years, however, Legion membership has dropped from 3.1 million to 2.4 million. World War II veterans, the largest and most loyal demographic of the American Legion membership, are dying at a rate of 640 a day.

With less than 1% of Americans currently serving in the armed forces, the decline of Legion membership has largely gone unnoticed by the general urban populace; small towns and rural areas feel the impact more profoundly.

The demographic trend in America continues to shift away from rural, small towns towards urban expansion causing many long-held traditions and cherished institutions to disappear slowly. This loss illustrates how vitally important it is to tell this story today.

This project requires more than beautiful and lasting images; it requires careful ethnographic documentation of our shared history and personal insights into American veteran culture. The resulting body of work will honor our veterans’ service and support the continued success of the American Legion throughout the United States.

Already, members of IL Post 497, CA Post 801, and NE Post 319 have graciously accepted me into their homes. In the next year I will work with an additional Post on the east coast and explore the similarities and differences between American Legion members and veterans in other communities. I travel to each post for two to three weeks to collect in-depth perspectives and documentation, then follow up at a later date with additional writing and more photography.

AMERICAN LEGION will culminate in 2017 with a solo exhibition at Firecat Projects in Chicago and a printed book containing images, written accounts of the lives of the veterans, and my experience during the project.

This project is partially supported by an Individual Artist Program Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events.