MARY BETH MEEHAN is an independent photographer, writer, and educator, who has spent more than twenty years embedding herself in communities across the United States. Beginning in her native New England, and continuing in the Midwest, the American South and in Silicon Valley, her work, which combines image, text, and large-scale public installation, stems from her belief in a collaborative process that should function in and for the communities it reflects. Co-opting the scale of celebrity and advertising, Meehan’s portrait banners activate public spaces and spark conversations among and about the people who inhabit them.
This month, we are specifically featuring Meehan’s newest work, Seeing Newnan, a series of banner portraits of Newnan community members hung throughout the community. Keep reading to learn more!
How did the Seeing Newnan project get started?
In 2015, I launched an outdoor installation of photographic portraits in Providence. This was my second such installation; my first was in 2011, in my hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts. Since I began working as a photographer, in the 1990s, I have been interested in communities — trying to understand them as ecosystems influenced by history, industry, politics, and migration. I try to look deeply into the dominant narratives of those communities, and consider the ways in which people’s experiences are or are not represented in those narratives. Working collaboratively – meeting people, researching, interviewing, and photographing – I design and implement projects that will bring to life and make public new, broader, and more comprehensive versions of those places and their stories.
In the fall of 2015 I was invited by RISCA to give a lecture and walking tour of my Providence installation to the Alliance of Artists Communities conference. Little did I know that two men from Newnan, Georgia – Chad Davidson, of the University of West Georgia, and Robert Hancock, of Newnan ArtsRez – were both in the audience that day. In December of 2015, Robert contacted me to see if I would be interested in an artist’s residency in Newnan, to produce a banner installation like the one he’d seen in Providence. He said that he thought people in his town were living in their own little “bubbles,” and that he thought my work could pierce those, and inspire people to connect with one another. After several long conversations and a visit to Newnan, I accepted his invitation and began photographing in November of 2016.
In as much detail as you can, can you talk about your process of approaching strangers and reciting their stories through your own writing and images? Is there a method you use for choosing subjects, selecting what is seen of your work, and drawing the stories out of your subjects?
For over twenty-five years I have taken great joy in meeting and photographing strangers, for reasons that have everything to do with the visual, the instinctive, and the emotional. I have so many memories of chasing after someone after being struck by the way the light played on a face, or by something someone was wearing, or by an expression or a posture that drew me in. And then, there are the relationships that have developed as a result of those encounters. It is why I became a photographer. In Newnan as in Providence or anywhere else, I allow myself this joy as I move throughout the community, stop strangers on the street, ask to be introduced to people who intrigue me. But I am also always doing research, learning about the structures of various communities, how they came to be and how they have changed over the years. In Newnan, I knew that in order for my work to be effective, the final portfolio of images had to represent the breadth of experience of people living there today. The people I photographed and wrote about had to be understood by me as individuals, but also in how their individual experiences were linked to the large-scale forces that have built the community of which they are a part. My projects are not census reports, or a way of seeking out “types” of people. Rather, they involve a balancing act: of intimate, individual artistic and journalistic interactions, leading to deep conversations and authentic portrayals – all filtered through my eyes and my subjectivity and the best understanding I have of the place and the moment at that time.
The term “collaborative portraiture” is often used to describe your photographs. What does this look like or mean to you? In what ways are the portraits a joint effort?
During the making of the portrait, it is important to me that the people I’m photographing and I come to a place of rest and get into a kind of zone together; I feel that it’s up to me to maintain a space in which we can trust each other. I worked with a wonderful photographer in New York who said to the person she was photographing, “Imagine that you are looking at someone you love through this lens.” I have tried to remember that, and to offer variations of that idea as a way to help a person remain relaxed and focused, and in a frame of mind that might lead to an honest connection between us.
The making of the photograph is only one moment in what often becomes a longer relationship. It is important to me that the people I’ve photographed and the communities I work in feel justly “seen” by me – not necessarily in a way that flatters them, but in a way they find authentic and fair. So the collaboration is not only a one-on-one between me and the individual I’m photographing. It is also between me and the community at large. Sometimes this opens me up to disappointments or conflict, but this feels like an important part of the process, as the conflict almost always leads to conversations that are enlightening.
For example, in a town outside Newnan I photographed a woman in front of a Confederate flag, which she had hanging from her porch. I put this portrait forward as a possible banner. In addition to representing the woman, I thought the banner raised an important issue for the community about the endurance of the Confederate symbol in today’s South.
Some people in the community were eager for the image to be shown, as a way of questioning the persistence of this Confederate image, what it meant, and how it made members of the African-American community feel. Others thought it would be too “controversial,” and incredibly hurtful. Still others wondered how it could be considered too controversial when there are currently two monuments to the Confederacy on the courthouse square. Ultimately, that photograph remains in the larger portfolio from Newnan, but was not made into a banner.
The most accurate sense of the word “collaborative” I can give might have more to do with relationships – my relationships with the people pictured: what happens before, during, and after the photographs are made. In street photography, one imagines a photographer roaming in public, snapping people on the street, and moving on, not involving that person in the making, the display, or the context in which that photograph may appear.
I feel that it’s a huge responsibility to photograph another human being. We are asking someone to lend us his or her image for our play, for the making of our own art. Sometimes I see this done in ways that I feel are irresponsible to the people in the photographs, and when that happens it makes me really angry.
I believe I’ve had good intentions with my work, but when I was younger and more naïve I was not as careful as I could have been with the images that people entrusted me with. So as I have gotten older I make sure that I explain my intentions as best I can, that I involve the person in the goals of the project, and that I have that person’s permission to use the final image. Certainly, I would never install a banner that didn’t have the full participation of the person pictured.
Some of my favorite portraits have occurred right at the moment of meeting someone. I remember running after a man named Scott on Manton Avenue in Providence one Sunday morning, introducing myself, making his portrait, then returning to his home later to do an interview. Others have happened after long, sometimes multiple visits.
With my “Seeing” projects, I always conduct and record long conversations, so that I have a solid sense of the people I’m meeting and where they are coming from. Particularly in Newnan, a community with which I was unfamiliar when beginning the project, these conversations are very important. They can be very exhausting (for me and the person I’m photographing), so we often agree to make the portrait on a separate occasion. This time spent leads to a kind of intimacy between us: I can’t tell you how many people have said something like “No one has ever asked me these questions or been this interested in my point of view before.”
How else do you engage communities alongside the large banners throughout town?
I make myself available to communities, but ultimately it is they who should decide how the work can best suit their needs. In Newnan now, various civic and church groups are planning panels, conversations, and other forms of dialogue around many of the issues that I am so motivated to explore. The subjects include Who controls the story of this place and its people? Who really lives here, and what do they care about? What about our history have we not talked about together, as a community? And how could that kind of conversation lead to progress, healing, and growth?
From this body of work, what are you most proud of and most disappointed with? As a photographer in an unfamiliar town (Newnan), have there been creative learning curves?
one in which they make an equal contribution to the life of the town, regardless of how they have been depicted in the past, or where they find themselves in the social structure of Newnan today.
When we had the formal opening for the banners, a large crowd came to the celebration – one attendee said it was the most “mixed” crowd of black and white people he’d ever attended in his forty-plus years of living in Newnan. People in the photographs as well as people in the town stood up to declare how it made them feel to see themselves and the people they loved pictured on such a large scale; others who were not pictured thanked me for portraying a kind of community that they wanted to live in. I am extremely proud of that.
I struggled with one issue over and over again in Newnan: it is very difficult for people there to talk openly together about history. The relationship between the white and black communities is two and a half centuries old, but I can’t tell you how many white people asked me why it still needed to be discussed, and how many black people told me that this conversation has never been allowed to happen. (Again – who controls the story is the definition of privilege.) This is a nationwide struggle and not unique to Newnan, but I believe that it’s only when people trust each other — with a deep and honest sharing of their experiences — that true progress and healing can happen in any community. I hope my work in Newnan might act as a lever that could prompt some of those conversations there.
The writer and scholar Sarah Lewis has crystallized an idea of image-making that motivates me as I pursue all of my work: that of “representational justice.” She describes “the foundational right of representation in a democracy – the right to be recognized justly,” and reminds us that in American history, consolidation of power has gone hand-in-hand with the power to represent others, to “create narratives about who should be centered and valued in civic life.”
For example, in the American South during slavery and segregation, those in power used stereotyped and denigrating images of African-Americans in order to justify their subjugation. (As we look at racial stereotypes across the country and depictions of immigrants throughout history, we know that this use of imagery by the powerful to denigrate the other is not unique to the South.) Lewis, then, calls upon those of us in the field of representation and storytelling to work toward a visible accounting of these distorted depictions, and a restoration of the full humanity of all members of our communities through images. She quotes Frederick Douglass, who understood “the transformative power of pictures to effect a new vision for the nation.”
In my work, the act of installing these depictions on a large scale and in the public square is an attempt to use the built environment to confer equal symbolic weight and visibility to images of people who have otherwise found themselves on separate rungs of society’s hierarchy. So, in Newnan, images of an African-American woman who came of age under Jim Crow, a wealthy descendant of one of Newnan’s founders, a poor mill worker, and a recent Mexican immigrant are calling out now to be seen across a level visual field—
How have you felt about the controversy around the “Seeing Newnan” project? How has it affected the project as well as the ways in which you consider photography as a creative medium?
a very vocal group of people stated their rejection of any depiction of Islam within their community, and demanded that the photograph be taken down. On Facebook, the conversation veered into anti-Muslim stereotypes, images of the American flag, calls for the terrorist acts of 9/11 to be avenged, and for Trump to be reelected in 2020.Yet even more vocal and numerous were the voices in Newnan intent on defending the young women: upstanding citizens born in the county, members of the National Honor Society, college students. In response to one Facebook comment alone– which garnered some 1,100 replies –– people of various religious and political persuasions called for a common decency, and also articulated their beliefs in such things as the First Amendment, religious tolerance and freedom, and the tenet of Christianity to “treat one’s neighbor as thyself.”
I’ve been told since the initial installation that the conversations in Newnan are continuing – that new friendships have been made, that debates are taking place in barber shops and grocery stories, and that Newnanites plan to use the work in formal conversations and panels throughout the year of the installation to move forward the notion of an inclusive community. I hope that people will trust one another enough to delve into the places that need to be healed, and I would be very proud if my work helped that to happen.
I am amazed at how powerfully people have responded to the images in my installations, these very direct reflections of ordinary people. It seems like a simple act – installing a portrait of a community member in a shared public space – but it turns out to be quite radical. For the person pictured, in Newnan or in other cities, seeing oneself – unmediated and on a large public scale – can have a forcefully affirming effect. In Providence, I installed a thirty-foot banner of a man from Haiti, dressed in coat and tie after a church service. When the banner was being installed, the man, who drove a school bus for a living, took a break from work and came with his wife and daughter to see it being put up. His daughter, a woman who was born in Providence, made a point of describing to me the radical act that she felt had occurred. She told me that as Haitians they were used to seeing themselves depicted as poor, desperate, and associated with AIDS. She told me that in their community her father was a man of honor, and that this banner was the first time they’d seen a public portrayal of a Haitian man that reflected their feelings about their community.
By contrast, when an image does not reflect a person’s conception of his or her community, the opposite feelings can be equally strong. In Newnan, when “Zahraw and Aatika,” a portrait of two young Muslim women, was installed, the greater community's initial reaction to the photograph was fierce. In phone calls to the University of West Georgia and the Newnan Times Herald, in private conversations, and on social media, a very vocal group of people stated their rejection of any depiction of Islam within their community, and
You recently published a book on Silicon Valley with writer Fred Turner, congrats! Do you have any plans to exhibit the Silicon Valley work? Are you interested in making more books?
Thank you! Seeing Silicon Valley was published in French in the fall of 2018, and is scheduled to be published in English in late 2019 or early 2020. I’ve been invited by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs to do a series of public events around the publication of the English edition, including an exhibition and (possibly) a banner installation. All of that is still in the works.
I am excited to do the English edition of the book as an opportunity to introduce the work to an American audience, and to have a chance to tinker with the cover and design. And I would very much like to make more books. I would love to make a tiny hand-sewn book of images that are nothing like the work I have done in the past. I would also love to do a huge volume of all of the photographs and narratives I have made over the years. I think it could be a powerful telling of a particular time and place in American life.
How do you plan to continue the “Seeing” projects?
I’m not sure. I have received invitations to pursue similar banner projects in other parts of the country. Each community brings its own identity and history and issues to grapple with, which I always love. But I need to make sure that the work stays fresh and that I’d be able to contribute something worthwhile to the civic discourse in those places. Also, I wonder if I should try a completely different approach to portraiture.
What would be your dream project after “Seeing Newnan”?
My family accompanied me to Georgia for the opening of “Seeing Newnan,” in April. As a day trip we drove two hours from Newnan to Montgomery, Alabama. We visited the Equal Justice Initiative Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a historic center and memorial to the thousands of lynchings of African-Americans that occurred in the United States, primarily in the South. The project was founded by the lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson; a week later I met Mr. Stevenson and heard him give a talk at Harvard at the “Vision and Justice” convening. I became transfixed by him: his ideas about the power of art to restore communities, and his belief in the potential of visibility, imagery, narration, and dissemination as a pathway to restorative justice. I would love to collaborate with him and the brilliant people he’s assembled in Montgomery, to find a way to put my skills toward what that community needs.
Follow Mary Beth’s projects via instagram and keep a look out for the release of the text that accompanies the Seeing Newnan Portraits.
Thank you Mary Beth, we are eager to see what is next for you and these powerful projects!
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Very many congratulations to all those graduating this year, we are highlighting you this month! Blossoming into May, graduations + thesis shows, barefoot season, and summer just around the corner - here are some happenings to fuel your creative spirit!
May 23–June 1, 12–5 pm
Opening Reception: May 22, 6–8 pm
Rhode Island Convention Center, Exhibition Hall A
1 Sabin Street, Providence, RI
May 2 – May 17
Bannister Gallery hours: M- F 12-8pm
*Special Commencement hours: Saturday, May 11, 12-4pm
May 11th - June 8th, 2019
Wed, Thu, Fri: 1-5
Or by Appointment
Kirstin Lamb illustration installation
Store hours: M-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 12-5pm
19 S Angell St, Providence, RI 02906
Southeast New England Film, Music & Arts Festival
May 15-18, check online for detailed schedule
Opening Reception for Memory Dishes
May 24, 2019, 4 PM – 6 PM
This exhibit highlights the meals and cooking practices of six families
within Providence’s Black diasporic community.
May 3 - December 1, 2019
Museum Hours: Museum Tuesdays–Sundays, 10 am-5 pm
Third Thursdays open until 9 pm
May 18-19, 10am-2pm
180 W Clifford Street, Providence
2 E View St, Warwick, RI 02888