“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught,” Hunter Thompson wrote in his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”
For his series of haunting photographs taken in Grand Theft Auto V, Morten Rockford Ravn borrows Thompson’s title, and it’s not difficult to see why.
In 1971, Thompson immersed himself in a drugged-up, suicidal, post-counterculture America, to get to the heart of the “American Dream” — only to find that it was dead, or that maybe it had never even existed. Maybe it was a lie. Maybe the counterculture and its utopian promises had been destined to fail.
“So now, less than five years later,” Thompson wrote of that post-counterculture America, “you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
In 2016, Ravn’s Fear and Loathing in GTA V plunges right back into that dark filth, the seedy underbelly of a nation fueled by myths of some “American Dream.” Except instead of taking a road trip to Vegas, Ravn embarks on a dérive on his own, to GTA’s fictional state of San Andreas.
Using in-game technology, Ravn roams San Andreas and produces beautiful, haunting, gritty street photography in the vein of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work — like Ravn’s — captured the very emotional depths of poverty, of loss, of alienation, pain, and suffering among people who would have never been featured in mainstream photography.
Here, too, we see that pain and suffering. We see the homeless drifter, the lonely prostitute — who might otherwise be objectified in gameplay as opposed to humanized — and the migrant laborers who have been so vilified in the real America on which the game is based. Ravn explores these characters while also exploring the dichotomy between dark and light, perhaps another rebuke to monochromatic notions of what America and the “American Dream” really mean.
Ultimately, that theme remains essential to Ravn’s work, as he documents the digitized, fictionalized citizens — or perhaps captives — of a libertarian wasteland.
And indeed GTA’s is, at its core, a libertarian vision of America. In-game goals are centered around the concept of status. Characters purchase businesses and engage in illegal tactics to augment profits. And with those profits, you can buy anything from a yacht to a jet to a private sit-down with a stripper or an AK-47. The women are loose, but the gun laws are looser. It’s a world replete with gaudy, unbridled, Reagan-era excess.
But there’s a dark side. San Andreas is also, in many respects, the embodiment of the nightmarish world of which Donald Trump spoke on the campaign trail, dripping with stereotypes of racial and ethnic groups. Step into the darkened alleyways of the conspicuously all-black ghettoes and it might not be long before someone shoots you. Ravn himself captures another stereotype: One migrant laborer’s shirt promotes a fictional soccer team called the Jardineros — the Gardeners.
An artist’s intentions can be difficult to discern, especially in the context of a video game, but perhaps these troubling messages are intentional. Perhaps Grand Theft Auto is a very intentional actualization of the right-wing vision of America — and its dreams and nightmares. There is reason to believe such is the case.
As you cruise through San Andreas, GTA supplies you with a fully functional car radio and multiple radio stations. In GTA IV, one such radio station, WKTT, features Richard Bastion (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), an obvious parody of Rush Limbaugh — right down to a prescription drug addiction — with an inclination to make absurd, overtly racist and sexist statements. As the WKTT advertisement tells us, Bastion and other conservative radio hosts teach listeners “how to be afraid, angry, and eager to kill strangers.” The sardonicism is not difficult to recognize.
And of course the criminality at the core of gameplay — Stealing cars, robbing banks, murdering — is an affront to the “law and order” preached by the right. Perhaps, then, amidst all this satire, your mission in GTA is to strike out against the right. Perhaps the central purpose of Grand Theft Auto is to incite uncivil disobedience in its parodical America. Perhaps not.
The problem, in the end, is that GTA’s parodical America has grown to be, with every successive installment, less of a parody than a reflection of reality. Certainly, that could not be clearer in the aftermath of the 2016 election. If its excess once seemed a reflection of Reagan’s America, now we wonder where GTA belongs in Trump’s. If its dark vision of all-black ghettoes riddled with violence once seemed merely a reflection of conservative paranoia, now we have a president who is convinced of some inherent truth in that vision. Now we wonder whether GTA’s wasteland is our own. And we, like Ravn, begin to question those monochromatic notions of the “American Dream.”
Too little, too late, perhaps, for the captives of San Andreas, trapped as they are in a nation that we may soon inherit. Or maybe a nation we’ve lived in all along.
Perhaps, in looking into the tortured eyes of these fictional San Andreans, we find, like Thompson, that the “American Dream” is dead. Or maybe it’s a lie. Maybe it never even existed. Maybe, in their eyes, we can see the high-water mark. Maybe we can see the place where the wave broke and rolled back.
You can see Morten Rockford Ravn’s photographs here.
Damian Hondares is an American studies and journalism double major at UR. He enjoys going on lengthy, acerbic diatribes that elicit humorously vehement responses from passionate readers. He considers himself an aficionado of all things Batman, absolutely loves Bill Murray, and according to his girlfriend is much too dramatic for his own good. After graduation, he hopes to go into teaching.