Gillian Laub, an artist based in New York, began the project that would become Southern Rites in 2002. It started with a teenage girl’s frantic letter about her school’s segregated prom in Mount Vernon, Georgia, and over the last 18 years has evolved into a New York Times magazine piece, a documentary on HBO, a book (published by Damiani in 2015), and now a traveling exhibition going to Asheville Art Museum and the Atlanta Contemporary in 2022.
The deep history of racism, segregation, and oppression in Georgia has been in national headlines a few times this year, from the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta to Stacey Abrams’ efforts against voter suppression leading up to the 2020 election, in which Georgia was a key swing state.
Even after being threatened and chased out of town, Laub returned time and time again to Montgomery County, documenting people and asking questions with patience and without judgment, going to great lengths to speak to members of the town involved in first the school’s segregated proms and homecoming dances, and then something much deeper.
Tell me about photographing your family. Is that how you got into photography?
I have been making photographs professionally for about two decades. I was inspired by Cornell Capa’s term, the concerned photographer, referring to those who “demonstrated in their work a humanitarian impulse to use pictures to educate and change the world, not just to record it.” From the very beginning, it’s been about visual storytelling for me. I’ve always believed wholeheartedly in the power of art and images’ ability to move the needle and make an impact.
The earliest images I made were of my own family, and they continue to be a large subject in my work. Spring 2021, Aperture is publishing a book that spans over 20 years of this work titled Family Matters. I see everything through the lens of family and community. No matter where I am working, whether it’s in the Middle East or the American South, every community feels like one big dysfunctional family. And I say that with affection!
Back in 2000, I dropped my portfolio off at the New York Times magazine with a collection of my family photographs. At the time I didn’t know anyone in the photo world. In those days you would call a number to find out what the drop-off protocol was. Theirs was a Tuesday drop-off in the NYT mailroom with a pickup the following Tuesday. I still have the phone message in my audio archives from Jody Quon, the New York Times magazine’s deputy photography editor at the time, calling to ask me about these pictures. One of the images was published shortly thereafter.
Tell me about the Southern Rites project. How did it get started?
In 2002, I was freelancing for many magazines. A friend I went to college with who was an editor at Spin magazine called one day and said, “You won't believe this letter I just got from a student in Georgia.” It was really a cry for help, pleading for someone to come tell the story of her town. She was white, her boyfriend was Black, and he couldn't attend her prom because the proms were segregated by race, so she boycotted it. By that time, prom had passed, but the next segregated event was homecoming. We went down for Spin that fall to document the homecoming festivities. I was completely haunted by what I witnessed there and knew I needed to return.
Before that first trip to Georgia, I bought a plane ticket to Israel, which was the beginning of a six-year project and became my first book, Testimony. I was fascinated by Middle East politics, but I knew I had to get back to Georgia where there was injustice happening in my own backyard, in America.
I kept in touch with two students, Anna and Julie, but they had left Mount Vernon and moved to Atlanta. I had no idea if the proms were still segregated, but I guessed they might be. I called the school on a whim in spring 2008, and an administrator picked up the phone. She asked which one and said very matter of factly, “Well, the white folks’ prom is this weekend and the Black folks’ prom is in two weeks.” I called up Kathy Ryan and Kira Pollack at the New York Times magazine, and they sent me right away on assignment.
Oftentimes, I do pre-reporting and research before I photograph. Unfortunately I didn't have the luxury of time here so I just hung outside of the high school on a Friday and looked for students to talk to who may be attending prom the following night. Two students I met in the parking lot that day would become significant in this project. I met Harley, who was on the committee for the white prom. She said that she would be happy for me to photograph her, but she did not want to talk about race. She said this wasn’t about race, for her. Simultaneously, I met Keyke who was beaming and told me she was going to be the first Black girl to attend the white folks’ prom because her best friend Dylan just invited her.
That evening, she called me hysterically crying while I was in my motel room; she was devastated because Dylan had disinvited her. He said his parents were not comfortable with him taking her. She asked me to come back in two weeks for the Black prom.
While photographing Harley in town at the hair salon getting ready for the “white folks” prom, a local mom recognized me from 2002. She loudly told me to go back to where I came from and mind my own business. Our tires were slashed, the county sheriff threatened me, and I was terrified. I felt like a failure. I pitched this story and then got chased out of town. But I returned two weeks later for the Black prom and was welcomed with warmth. The NYT magazine didn’t publish the piece in 2008 because it was important to show both proms. I spent the next year in Montgomery County without a camera, talking about race and asking people to help me understand why this was happening in their community. The white families started to share their points of view with me.
How did the project evolve from just this assignment?
In 2009, when the photo essay and multimedia piece was published, many people did not respond kindly towards the community’s “ritual.” There was a bit of a national shitstorm — but that part was great, because it forced the community to integrate the prom within the year.
The white community in the town was furious with me. They felt like I had exposed their secret. I spent that year going back to try to convince them that I was not the enemy and that this was a hopeful and positive change that I wanted to be there for. After a year of meeting with superintendents, parents, and students, they voted to let me return to photograph at the first integrated prom.
I felt like the photographs alone couldn’t tell this nuanced story, so that’s when I also began filming.
I also knew the proms were a symptom of a much larger narrative — about systemic racism. I wanted to open up the lens to the wider community, not just the prom.
Keyke's father Calvin was running to become the first African American sheriff in the town. Years prior he received death threats when he wanted to run. But now he had a lot of support, and it felt like the town was moving forward. With the proms now being integrated and Calvin’s election, I wanted to tell the story of a community in transition.
Then in early 2011, Keyke texted to tell me that her high school boyfriend had been shot and killed by an older white man. Justin Patterson and his brother had been invited into a house by two girls late at night. When one of the girls’ fathers, Norman, found Justin and Sha'von in the home, he threatened the boys, and they made a run for it. Four shots were fired, Justin was hit and killed.
At that point, everything changed. The whole trajectory of the story changed. I knew Justin's family. I had photographed his brother Sha’von a couple of times, and his mom, Dedee, was helpful during the vote whether to allow me to photograph the prom. I started to follow the journey of the Patterson family seeking justice. This was before Black Lives Matter became a national movement. I can't tell you how many times I heard stories of young Black men disappearing in the area and it was never being reported. I felt an urgency to tell Justin’s story.
What were people’s reactions when you spoke to them this year?
When I talked to people over the summer, it seemed like many felt deeply sad, but also relieved that the rest of the country seemed to be waking up to what they’ve been living and experiencing their whole lives. Historically there have been times where there is hope, but then no change, and people have felt beaten down and defeated. A perfect example of this was in 2018 when Stacey Abrams was not elected. Many people from Montgomery County said they weren’t surprised by the voter suppression and that they were used to it. Georgia is now really turning a corner, and so much of that is due to the work Stacey Abrams has done — especially with voter registration. I spent some time with her while she was campaigning and it was clear this woman had the passion and power to change the political landscape in Georgia. Although she was defeated in her gubernatorial race, there was no doubt she was just beginning her work to make a huge impact.
How do you tell this story in a way that makes everyone feel represented, especially when there are so many polar opposites in the town?
I think it is critical to look at things with a 360-degree view. Everyone can look at the same situation through a different lens. That’s what I find fascinating. It’s essential to represent all points of view to tell a holistic story. One hurdle that came up while filming...Norman, the man who had killed Justin, was at a detention center for a year. We had no access to him. He denied my requests for an interview. We were running out of money, and my producer wanted to finish the film. But I knew in my heart that there was no way that I felt right finishing this film until I had everyone's point of view represented. So I put the film on hiatus. We raised some money (that’s when John Legend came on board), and I waited until I was able to speak with Norman and his daughter, the girl who had invited Justin over late at night.
How do you feel that your work counters or speaks to photography's exploitative past?
I have always had a very hard time with war porn and poverty porn. I am hyper aware and sensitive to work that feels exploitative. That is why I tend to spend so many years on my projects, digging deep. I want my work to act as a bridge of connectivity. — which is what I’m aiming for with the work about my family. This country has been so torn apart and divided in the last four years. I'm terrified to publish my next monograph in the spring, since it's so personal. We almost got torn apart because of the last four years. I'm hoping that this book will act as a bridge with other families who have faced similar challenges. Families are so complicated, and I can only hope that it will help mend and heal our collective differences.
People have asked me, “What’s the link between your family work and your work on racism in America or the Palestinian–Israeli conflict?? Actually, I think they're all connected, because I am trying to create a dialogue where there is a breakdown. For the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, it was about trying to find a dialogue between apparent enemies seeking to find the common ground. That is really what I’m trying to do with the family work as well.
What are your plans going forward with this project, and what do you see as the future for Montgomery County?
The exhibition was brilliantly curated by Maya Benton, and it has always been important for us from the beginning that whatever institutions host Southern Rites there will be meaningful public programming. Each person who appears on the walls of the exhibition is accompanied by their own testimony. These testimonies are critical to the work. The show includes contemporary quotes alongside the original quotes from earlier years. It’s amazing to hear the voices throughout the years in the changing political climate. We want the exhibition to create a space where the viewers can reflect upon and look at the role racism plays in their own communities.
It’s in Baltimore right now, and it’s been a challenge with COVID-19, but the Center for Art Design and Visual Culture made a wonderful virtual walkthrough and it’s being used as part of school curriculum at the UMBC. Previously it was in Oregon. The week it opened in Portland there was a KKK rally down the street. I feel it’s important to show this project in white communities, confronting their own issues of racism and segregation. They may not be as overt as Montgomery County, but they exist everywhere. When it finally travels to Atlanta, it's going to feel like a real homecoming. I am looking forward to that.
I feel hopeful for the future of Montgomery County. I think we're all still on a bit of a high from the election results. I don't want to be naive about it, but people in Montgomery County were dancing in the streets the same way that people were dancing in the streets in New York and DC. Stacey Abrams is really paying attention to these communities in rural Georgia. Hopefully more people are too. I'm still planning on continuing to photograph there. There is still so much work to be done, but I’m feeling positive. ●