Providence International Arts Festival

Q&A With Mary Beth Meehan

The Photographer behind Seen/Unseen talks about the connection between photographers and their subjects


Mary Beth Meehan is a photographer who lives on the East Side. Her work has appeared in world-class publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, and she has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. Eight large prints from her series Seen/Unseen, which is a series of portraits of locals that entices viewers to stop and reflect on some stories of their city neighbors, will be on display along Washington Street and in downtown Providence for the Providence International Arts Festival. She will be speaking at an Artist Talk and Publication Conversation at the RISD Museum June 11 at 4pm.

You studied English at Amherst College and went on to study photojournalism at Missouri University. When and how did you know photography was more than just a hobby?

I have loved photographs ever since my uncle, who was studying photography and filmmaking in New York in the 1970s, started giving me photography books as presents. In college I started taking photography courses, thinking about documentary photography and what it meant, and began experimenting with photographing on my own. After college I was living in San Francisco and started to think about how you could make a life with photography. I began researching journalism schools, and found that the University of Missouri had an entire program devoted to photojournalism, so I began there. 

To the photo novices out there, myself included, how would you characterize your genre of photography? 

I studied photojournalism at the University of Missouri, trying to learn from the photojournalism I admired, as well as from what was more traditionally called documentary photography. But nowadays I don’t see the genres of photography as so clearly distinct, or separate from one another. And in fact I think it’s problematic to stick so strictly to one term or another for what one does. In the last five or six years I have become more interested in the way fine artists, photographers and installation artists in particular, have tackled, through visual and representative means, the same issues that might interest a journalist. And I have tried to incorporate some of what I’ve learned from these artists into my own work. When I meet young artists, journalists, practitioners of photography, they are often times much less wedded to any title of what they do.

You wrote on your website that your overall goal is to use your work “to create connections among people, and to inspire an empathy that transcends economics, politics, and race.” How can photography capture deep and complicated topics, such as these?

In the course of my career I have often been drawn to photographing in situations where I felt there was some disconnect between the public perception of a place, or issue, or community and the reality of what it felt like to be of that community. I grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, a place largely characterized in the media by its poverty, crime and social dysfunction. And yet I experienced that place – both as a kid growing up there, and later as an adult photographing there – as a place of incredible richness, complexity and beauty, all of which coexisted with the truth of its problems. It was painful; it still is painful. So, for example, in the case of undocumented immigrants, I was hearing them described in the public debate as criminals, people we should fear and we should expel, at the same time that I was meeting them, experiencing them for myself as dedicated parents, workers, churchgoers, contributors to our community. And I was realizing that they had made very difficult decisions to come here on behalf of their own lives and their families. It made me wonder about the people who were protesting – if they had been faced with similar life circumstances, would they have made similar decisions?

There is something about a photograph, when it arrests the gaze and engages the viewer, that makes the person pictured, and the interaction between the viewer and the viewed, impossible to deny. In Brockton, I did a public installation of photographs somewhat like this one. Afterward, I interviewed people about what it was like to live with the photographs, which were installed in the cityscape for a year. People talked about how, in the busyness of their daily lives, they were apt to pass right by people, engrossed in their own thoughts and projects, and not ever engage the person or even wonder about them. But when the photograph was there in their faces, over time they began to wonder about the person, to think about what they were experiencing, what they might have in common. And in some small way, it was transformative for them.

In addition to working as a photographer, you also teach young children to document their cultures at International Charter School, a bilingual school in Pawtucket. Why is this important to you?

It’s very important to me because when people speak for themselves, the realities that are presented are often much more complex, nuanced and complete than the representation we receive when we speak for others. The community of children that makes up the student body at ICS is incredibly rich – children from all over the world, or whose parents are from all over the world, as well as American-born children and families like my own. But my own immigrant roots are not that distant to me – my grandfather was an Italian immigrant, and my great-grandparents were Italian and Irish immigrants – so I see myself as along the same continuum, especially within the history of New England and immigration, as these children.

It’s incredibly powerful to see what these children choose to show us about their lives. Many of them are very connected to their cultural roots and heritage, but they are not limited by those definitions. They are brothers and sisters and cousins and soccer players and gymnasts and readers and artists and goofy, wonderful 9-year-olds. Their self-definitions go way beyond their countries of origin, or what their parents do for work, or what their immigration status is. They make photographs and tell us stories about their lives that go way beyond the way they might be seen by an outside reporter, or photographer or representative of the media.

How did you get the idea for your Seen/Unseen series?

I began the blog Seen/Unseen with a project I was working on in New Bedford, about Mayan Guatemalan immigrants who were being attacked and beaten up in that city in a wave of crimes. Many of them were undocumented, and the crimes were happening under the radar of the community’s awareness. So the title Seen/Unseen came to me as a way of describing this phenomenon –- we see people on the streets, but we may not really understand who they are, where they come from or what they are going through.

After the work in New Bedford was published in The Boston Globe, in February of 2014 I decided I wanted to explore the idea of portraiture and I wanted to focus on Providence, which I had not done photographically since I left the Providence Journal in 2001, even though I am a resident here. So I began simply stopping people on the street, asking them if I could make their portrait, and working in that manner. Then I began returning to the people with a print, learning something about them and writing about that process. A major part of this project is my own desire to stop and think critically about how photography happens, how the negotiation between “photographer” and “subject” takes place, how it essentially becomes a collaboration, with each person giving and taking and entering into a kind of dance, which culminates in the making of a photograph. It is for this reason that I’ve included myself in the written narratives, because I wanted to be conscious of, and also transparent, about my own process as I arrived at these photographs.

The portfolio of portraits and stories began to grow. Through very helpful conversations with Cristina DiChiera, at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, I was able to pursue grants and get funding through RISCA to continue the work. The idea of a public installation of the images grew out of conversations with Bert Crenca, at AS220, and Lynne McCormack, at the City of Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism. Those two people were the essential sparks that helped get this project underway.

What are some of the challenges that arise when working on this series? 

There were many of challenges. Sometimes people don’t want to be photographed. Or sometimes they want a picture for themselves, but don’t want me to make the photograph part of the project. Or sometimes they’ll agree to their photograph being used on a blog or in a print exhibition, but not on a building. It was important to me to honor all of these wishes of the people who chose to enter into this dance with me. A lot of photography doesn’t always happen that way – and I have made photographs of people in the past who then lost control over how and where their image would appear. I can’t control everything about what will happen to these images, but I knew that I wanted to stay close to the people and allow them to decide what would happen with their image. So, I had to get used to people saying “no.” Some of the “no”s I received were really crushing. I burst into tears more than once. But I also received so many “yes”s that it was overwhelming. All of this work is a result of someone saying “yes” to me.

How do you find the right subjects for this series, and how are you able to build a relationship with strangers that allow them to fully open themselves to you?

I always approached people who, for some reason, interested me. I’ve thought a lot about this – why one person and not another? – but I heard a well-known photographer say that whenever you get that little jump in your heart, that little tingle of an idea that someone is of interest, that you should follow that current and see where it leads.

I tried to do that with this series, to approach people, to enter places and spaces, to try to get access to communities that held some interest for me. I tried not to question that instinct too much. I’ve been photographing for just over twenty years, and I’ve learned that my instinct is a friend of mine, that when it jumps up for something I should listen to it.

What do you, personally, take away from this photo series? Have you learned anything that you didn’t think you would discover?

Providence is an unbelievably rich place. I have grown to love it – and its people – more and more as this year has evolved. Using the camera as a bridge to other people and communities has drawn me out of the small circle that I travel here as a Providence resident. It has opened up whole new worlds to me that were not entirely unfamiliar to me (after all those years of working at the Providence Journal, and doing the same kind of exploration) but that I hadn’t entered and experienced as a resident, a parent, a member of the East Side community. It made me question the small circles that, perhaps, we all travel in, and made me wonder about how enlightening it could be if we all thought about Providence as a land of worlds we each haven’t fully explored. Over the past year I have been welcomed into churches, synagogues, inside small businesses, at kitchen tables and in living rooms, even bedrooms, of complete strangers. People have told me their stories, have opened themselves up to me, have been generous to me in numerous ways. My life has been incredibly enriched over this past year by the people I have met and what they have shared. I’m stunned to think about what I would have missed out on had I not done this work, had I just kept traveling my own little circuit.

Mary Beth Meehan, photography seen/unseen, pulitzer prize, providence international arts festival, providence, new bedford, portrait photography, as220, public art


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