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Tabitha Soren tells America's story through baseball photos in 'Fantasy Life'

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The former MTV news anchor is now an accomplished photographer with a long-in-the-making exhibit about the dreams of young baseball players.

Tabitha Soren made her name as a reporter for MTV News in the Rock The Vote era, but now she's turned from journalism to photography. Her new exhibit, "Fantasy Life," looks at baseball with a skeptical eye through 12 years of photos.

"What I'm looking for from my pursuit in the art world is subtlety and nuance, and actual personal expression that I didn't feel there was a lot of room for in television reporting, or even documentaries," Soren says.

"I felt like it was my job to get out of the way of the stories that I was doing, either in Bosnia or when I interviewed Arafat, or any of the political coverage. Even the music coverage, it was not my place to give my opinion about whether I thought these bands were worth listening to or had a place in the larger scheme of music history."

Soren is married to Michael Lewis, the author of "Moneyball." She became interested in baseball when she visited famed Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane and saw who he was drafting and the players who were the subjects of "Moneyball."

"I met these boys, who mainly were just leaving their junior year in college," Soren says. "So they seemed like boys to me, and they all seemed hopeful. And I assumed that they were on the cusp of something great, for every single one of them."

Out of the 40 young men who had been drafted by a major league team, she bonded and got along with about 20 of them, deciding to document them over time.

"I felt like it might be a really interesting narrative arc to show someone at the beginning of something, and there would be a very clear cut ending as well," Soren says. "And I thought in between there might be a lot of psychological transformation that would be interesting in portraits." 

Tabitha Soren baseball gum photo

Soren uses baseball as a metaphor for what's happening and not happening in the United States. In the introduction to the exhibit, she writes: "'Fantasy Life' is a series that explores the fantasies that define America: Manifest Destiny, the romantic idea of the restless wanderer, the hopeful idea that failure is just a step on the road to greatness, the notion that the pursuit of fame and fortune is also the pursuit of happiness, the belief that to secure one's identity, one must seek to stand apart from the community."

She says baseball exemplifies the themes of American culture, with things that people assume are true about that culture.

"And I want to question them, and I also want to point out that a lot of times they're just not true — they're actually just myths. And that's why the project is called 'Fantasy Life,'" Soren says.

Soren says that the biggest of those myths is Manifest Destiny.

"That is completely integrated into American society. The country itself was founded with this idea — [we wouldn't] be sitting here in California without that trajectory. So these guys are set up to fulfill some sort of destiny that they picked up in their childhood was meant for them. And the fact of the matter is that 6-to-10 percent of them get a career out of this, and the rest do not," Soren says.

The exhibit includes a giant tower of peanuts in the center of the gallery, with the top peanuts painted gold to show how few players actually reach their dreams.

"It's luck. It doesn't mean that one person who ended up with a career is necessarily more talented than another," Soren says.

She says that some of her pictures were taken early along in her 12-year project, and she felt that some of those images were embarrassing and "artsy-fartsy."

"After a couple of years of giving myself permission to take the pictures, I also gave myself permission to not be crazy about baseball. And once I decided I didn't have to like baseball, the pictures got a hundred percent better," Soren says.

Of the players she followed, Soren says one of them was offered a major league career and ended up turning it down: Jeremy Brown.

"He felt like his family life was too topsy-turvy to continue with baseball. He felt like the lifestyle of baseball was actually very unhealthy for him, and he, as a coal miner now, actually considers himself much happier," Soren says.

Brown goes down into the mines in Alabama with his father, working the night shift together. Brown's father was a coach, and now Brown coaches youth baseball himself.

"Coaches substitute for fathers a lot of times for many of these players," Soren says. "All of my players had been told by [high school] that this was what they were going to do. They either decided themselves, or their fathers really encouraged it."

Soren says some of the fathers would put baseballs in their sons' cribs on the left side to give them the advantage of being left-handed players, but she says that the fathers she met didn't seem over-the-top.

"They just seemed like people who saw their kid have talent. How you can see that in kindergarten, I don't know," Soren says.

A lot of sons join their fathers' baseball dreams, Soren says.

"And why do they do that? Because it's access to their dad. The key thing about, the root of all of this 'Fantasy Life' exhibit comes down to guys wanting to hang out with their dads, and the dads really engaging over this sport," Soren says.

Kids playing baseball - Tabitha Soren Instagram

Soren says that one thing keeps being brought up to her when she talks about this photo project: the movie "Field of Dreams."

"I haven't even seen that movie, but people keep bringing it up," Soren says. "God help me if I have just spent 12 years turning Kevin Costner's movie into still photos."

You can see whether her photos evoke any "Field of Dreams" feelings at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery. The exhibition runs until June 6.

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