The following interview was conducted between Mary Beth Meehan and John Morris to highlight and provide additional contextualization of the creative work of Mary Beth Meehan, an award winning photographer, whose project Seeing Newnan, consisting of large scale photographic portraits of various members of the Newnan community, is currently on display in downtown Newnan, Georgia. To learn more about the artist and her work celebrated across the United States please visit her website at www.marybethmeehan.com

JM: How did this project originate, and/or would you provide a context for the work that is on display in downtown Newnan? 

MBM: In 2015, I launched an outdoor installation of photographic portraits in Providence, Rhode Island, where I live. 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 the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts to give a lecture and walking tour of my Providence installation. Little did I know that Chad Davidson, of the University of West Georgia, and Robert Hancock, of Newnan Artist-in-Residence Program (ArtRez), were both in the audience that day. In December of 2015, Robert contacted me to see if I would be interested in working in Newnan. He said that he thought people there 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 their invitation and began photographing in November of 2016. 

JM: The relationship between Photography and Representation is multilayered, ranging from the technical to the conceptual. Would you speak to those elements in your work?

MBM: When Robert referred to the bubbles that people live in, I understood him to mean that people restricted their lives to their self-selecting groups, groups that were organized around racial, cultural, and socioeconomic lines. I thought about this self-selection as a process of looking inward – at the people with whom one interacts most frequently – and also as a process of looking outward, as one considers interacting with people different from oneself. In my experience working with photography, the image has functioned as both a window into others’ lives and as a mirror – one with the power to reflect one’s preconceptions and prejudices.

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 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 in Newnan – 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.

JM: Building on the idea of representation, would you speak about the process of identifying the people who are in your images? 

MBM: 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. It is why I became a photographer; in Newnan, I allowed myself this joy.

But I was also doing research, learning about the various pockets of the Newnan community, how they came to be and how they have changed over the years. I knew that in order for this work to be effective, the final portfolio of images had to represent the breadth of experience of people in Newnan 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. The project is not a census, nor is it a way of seeking out “types” of people. Rather, it is a balancing act: of intimate, individual, artistic, and journalistic interactions, leading to an authentic portrayal of Newnan – all filtered through my eyes and my subjectivity and the best understanding I had of the place and the moment at that time. 

JM: In any community the idea of belonging and agency are interesting to consider. Would you share your thoughts on how the images reflect those issues?  

MBM: Belonging and agency are very powerful concepts, particularly regarding civic life. If we are looking at the architecture of communities across the human spectrum, we see that the struggle for civil rights for any group is in many ways a struggle for belonging and agency. Coming back to the work of Sarah Lewis, one of the ways in which our society confers belonging or agency is through the process of representation, and through the realm of visibility.

The goal of my work – not only in the South, but also in my hometown in Massachusetts, in Providence, in Silicon Valley – is to upend stale or unjust structures of visibility by bringing people together, and by prompting conversations. It is only when people are jolted out of their usual routines that they may look at their communities anew, and ask such questions as: Who controls the story of this place in which I live? Whose experiences remain foreign to me, even as we share this place? What preconceptions have I developed of my neighbors over the years? And what would it take for me to reach beyond those into new realms of empathy and connection? 

In my hometown in Massachusetts, I strove to create a connection in viewers’ minds between the European immigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (such as my Irish and Italian ancestors) and the immigrants of today – mostly people of color from countries including Haiti and Cape Verde, who make up the majority of the city’s current population. Where my older Irish-American relatives were beset by a racism that prevented a connection to the city’s newcomers, I felt it critical to assert the newcomers' belonging to the community as equal to that of the immigrants of previous generations.

In Silicon Valley, where I was an artist-in-residence at Stanford University in the fall of 2017, I strove to elevate all workers on the ecosystem of the technology industry – from the software engineer, to the cleaning person, to the security guard at Facebook – onto a field that asserted their interconnectedness. The fact that they are not represented with equal weight in the popular culture points to their lack of belonging and agency, which I hope my work in Silicon Valley has addressed.

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 the 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.

JM: Story telling is such a large window through which we learn, understand, and communicate our experiences. Considering this, would you speak about your process of writing?

MBM: As much as I identify as a journalist and want this project to be reflective of the Newnan community, I know that all work is completely subjective. Every photograph, every perception, every “fact” I’ve asserted has been filtered through my perceptions, my goals, my strengths, as well as my weaknesses. And my process is far from scientific. So for this reason, I feel it is important that I make my process in Newnan – of meeting people, of interviewing them, and of coming to understand something of them and their lives – as transparent as possible. 

The seventeen banner portraits now on display in Newnan are each identified with a small plaque at eye level, and a short identifier of the person pictured. In the first weeks of the installation, I refrained from a long narration, because I didn’t want my words to interfere with people’s experiences of the portraits.

In the coming weeks, I will begin publishing short narratives of each person pictured, on my website and blog “ReSeeing.” I hope for this writing to answer questions about the people in the photographs, as well as questions about how the photographs came about; how the conversations unfolded between me and the people represented; what kinds of preconceptions I brought to the interactions; what I was trying to address, and about how our interactions moved me forward in my understanding. 

JM: Every project presents new challenges and spaces for reflection. What about these experiences in both New England and the South do you want to share, which may not be in the stories you have helped tell?

MBM: 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 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 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 comment alone – which garnered some 1,100 replies –– people of various religious and political persuasions called for a common decency, but 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 to move forward the notion of an inclusive community. Indeed, it does seem as though some bubbles are being pierced, and I am very happy about that.

 

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.


John Morris is an assistant professor in the Department of Art at the University of West Georgia, where he teaches photography. Over the last decade he has exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad, most recently at the CICA Museum in South Korea. His work was recently included in Cosa Mentale: Art et télépathie au XXe siècle, the catalog accompanying the exhibit at the Pompidou Metz in France of the same name, and is featured in The Drawing Center’s Viewing Program in New York City.