“I would like for audiences to engage with the work, and look at how racism operates in their communities”
When Gillian Laub first visited Montgomery County, Georgia, on a magazine assignment in 2002, she expected to file a story about the homecoming traditions of a rural town in the American South. But when she arrived, in the seemingly idyllic town of Mount Vernon, she was shocked to find that their homecoming traditions were still racially segregated. She met teenagers in interracial relationships, unable to attend the same prom, and was confronted by the surreal tradition of electing separate homecoming queens for each event. “I was haunted by what I witnessed in 2002,” says Laub. “That’s why I kept returning over and over, year after year. I needed to investigate, understand, and spend time in this community.”
In 2009, a few months after Barack Obama was elected president, Laub’s photographs were published in The New York Times Magazine. The story garnered national attention, and the following year, the proms were finally integrated. But, Laub’s work did not stop there. She continued to photograph in Montgomery County, documenting the tragedy following the killing of Justin Patterson — a 22-year-old unarmed Black man, whose segregated prom she had photographed just three years earlier — the re-election of Obama, followed by the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2015, HBO produced a film documenting Laub’s return to a town still grappling with issues of race, which extended far beyond its senior proms. Whatbegan as a story about adolescence turned out to encapsulate much more. It is a story about the enduring tragedies of systematic racism, and how the deeply rooted practice of segregation has manifested in the 21st-century American South.
A touring exhibition of Southern Rites, organised by the International Center for Photography, is currently on show at the UMBC Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture in Maryland, where it is being incorporated into school and university curriculums. Following this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, and the recent end to Trump’s presidency, Laub feels hopeful about the impact of her work. “What happened this summer raised the consciousness of this country. People who had no idea are finally waking up,” she says. For the photographer, the purpose of this touring exhibition is for it to reach as many people across the country as possible. “I would like for audiences to engage with the work, and look at how racism operates in their own communities,” she says.
In the Q&A below, Laub introduces us to her practice, and how her project, Southern Rites, has evolved over almost two decades of making the work.
How and why did you become a photographer?
I’ve been photographing professionally for 20 years. I fell in love with picture-making at the age of seven, when my grandfather gave me my first polaroid camera. The same freedom and joy I felt as a little girl with a camera is how I still feel today when I am making photographs. The camera has always helped me examine, understand and engage with the world at large. As a photography student, I was so moved by how art has the power to inspire, make change, and move the cultural needle forward. The “concerned photographer” was a phrase coined by Cornell Capa describing photographers who demonstrated a humanitarian impulse to use pictures to educate and change the world, not just record it. That deeply resonated with me and has been my driving force as a visual artist since I first discovered photography.
What do you consider to be a successful portrait?
The portrait is always a collaboration and exchange between artist and subject. I sometimes find it difficult to articulate what makes a successful portrait, because there are times when all the elements seem right — the light is perfect, the composition is right — but it just isn’t working. It’s almost as if something magical happens when all the elements come together in that one moment. I can feel it in my gut when this happens.
You first visited Montgomery County in 2002. How did you feel after your first visit, and what was it that made you want to return, and continue working there for so long?
Although public schools integrated in 1971, the tradition of racially segregated homecoming and prom celebrations continued throughout certain rural communities in the American South. I learned this when I first went to Montgomery County Georgia in 2002 to document their homecoming celebrations. I clearly remember the voting ballot for the homecoming queen that students filled out. It had one column for “white girl,” and another column for “Black girl.” I remember that Friday afternoon during the homecoming parade, the idyllic small-town setting, and the floats moving through the town with two girls, Black and white, waving and smiling like political candidates. Later that evening crowns were handed to the winners by elementary school children who were also matched according to race. The crowd cheered like this was normal and great.
What I witnessed in 2002 haunted me. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing there was such injustice happening in America. I couldn’t not do anything. That is why I kept returning over and over again. I needed to investigate, understand, and spend time in this community.
The landscape of US politics has shifted so much since you began Southern Rites in 2002. Can you identify any key events which shaped your approach or the development of the project?
In January 2011, Justin Patterson, a 22-year-old Black man, was shot and killed, but it wasn’t reported nationally. Nobody in the town was surprised by that. This was before the killing of Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt such a deep responsibility to share the story of Justin Patterson and what his family and community went through. The project started by exploring systemic racism through a community with segregated proms, but when it became a matter of life and death, everything changed for me.
Throughout my time in Montgomery County I did feel things moving in a positive direction. Change happens slowly, but I felt hopeful. Unfortunately, in 2016, the country felt like it went back in time. White supremacists felt empowered.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, an African American student at Montgomery County High School noticed a noose hanging on an old soccer goal post during his third period class. The student snapped a picture of the hangman’s knot — the kind used for decades to lynch African Americans in the South — and posted it on social media, then promptly reported the incident to the school principal. The noose was quietly removed by school officials without comment, and the student was reprimanded for calling attention to the noose through his posts and punished with a suspension on the grounds of “misuse of technology.”
Sadly, our country has a legacy of systemic racism. Innocent unarmed Black men and women have been killed without consequence since America became America,
but there were no smartphones to record it. Thanks to citizen journalism and smartphone cameras, people are now being held accountable because there is visual evidence.
By the time we receive your answers, the results from the 2020 US presidential elections will have come in. How do you feel about the results, and how do you think the results affect the people you are working with in Montgomery County?
As we were waiting for the results to come in, I barely slept. When it was official that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won, we danced in the streets for hours. This may sound crazy, but It felt like what I imagine Paris was like after being liberated in World War II. It was pretty magical. We still have a lot of work to be done, but this is certainly the beginning of the next chapter. I hope this will be a time of healing and rebuilding. It’s been a dark four years.
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.