Gillian Laub on portraying and re-portraying in "Southern Rites"
The photographer’s show runs through May 12 at the Chazen. (Image: “Lacy, the black prom queen, Mount Vernon, Georgia,” by Gillian Laub. All images courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art.)
The passage of time can radically alter narratives and their settings, often reshaping or augmenting them in capricious ways. But given the quick-hit nature of how stories are delivered these days, audiences rarely get a long-term perspective on what has changed and what stays the same. In photographer/filmmaker Gillian Laub's exhibit Southern Rites, running through May 12 at the Chazen Museum of Art, viewers get to see how Mount Vernon, Georgia has changed over the course of the 20 years Laub has spent covering it.
Laub, who holds a degree in comparative literature from UW-Madison, is based in New York and has traveled the world for her work, documenting subjects ranging from the victims of 9/11 to Palestinians under siege by Israel. The subject she re-visits the most, though, is Mount Vernon—the lives of its people, and the racism with which it's associated in the broader American consciousness.
Laub first visited the town in 2002 to document segregated proms at Mount Vernon's Montgomery County High School and other schools in the area, helping shed light on what became an oft-revisited national story. Since then, Laub has explored the town and its intricacies in other forms, including a viral New York Times Magazine photo essay, an HBO documentary, also called Southern Rites—which will screen April 16 at the Marquee, with Laub in attendance—and now this expanded exhibit. In the former two, Laub shows different sides and stories of Mount Vernon—segregated and later de-segregated proms, the complicated killing of a young black resident named Justin Patterson by an older white man, and the unsuccessful campaign of a man who was attempting to become the county's first black sheriff.
In Southern Rites, viewers can start to grasp how stories do not simply run parallel to each other across time's plane, but instead ceaselessly collide, entangle, and diverge, especially as Mount Vernon and the lives, recollections, and perceptions of its citizens change. One of the most stirring pieces is a portrait of Justin Patterson's brother holding a Polaroid of himself and Patterson as kids. On the same wall, frames away, there is a portrait of Patterson's killer embracing his adopted daughter, who is black. On another wall, viewers see one of the town's first interracial prom king and queen have their dance.
The most stirring decision Laub makes, though, is placing multiple quotes from the photos' subjects or others next to many of her pieces. This choice cements the exhibit as an exploration into how stories are told and how they connect to others to form what are almost meta-narratives. These quotes span multiple years, giving viewers insight not just into who the subject was at the time a specific photo was taken, but also who they became as many as eight years later. Next to a photo of prom queen Kayla Miller and king Quanti Jorden, the prom king, says in a part of his first quote from 2011: "But I was really nervous 'cause we had to have our dance alone, and everyone was there—all the parents, who were the chaperones including Kayla's mom, and they were watching us dance." In his second quote from 2016, he talks about coming back to Mount Vernon and having realizations about all the other racism he encountered.
On the days following the exhibit's debut at the Chazen, Tone Madison was able to talk with Laub and later correspond over the email about the exhibit, managing one's own subjectivity and presence as a photographer, and the evolution of her perspectives on Mount Vernon.
Tone Madison: What was the process like of choosing and then sequencing photos for the exhibit? How did you come to the decision to layer quotes from your subjects from different years?
Gillian Laub: The exhibition took quite a while to curate and organize. The photographs, captions, and case objects are meant to take you on a decade-long journey. Shaping this took time and a lot of thought and conversations with the curator. I was very attached to some images that ultimately didn't make it into the show because they didn't help move the narrative forward. And there are a couple images included that I don't necessarily think are the strongest, but content-wise and narratively, they are very important.
The quotes are critical to the narrative and help tell the complicated and nuanced story of a community and its growing pains. I revisit the subjects as time passes, so we see how their lives and perspectives unfold over the years.
Tone Madison: How do you think of your audience, especially when presenting this exhibit? I read one article that talked about a screening of the documentary in Otisville Prison in upstate New York. As the person presenting the work, how does your role differ between a presentation like that and putting up an art exhibit?
Gillian Laub: The most gratifying experience as the maker of this work is witnessing people engage and respond to it by having meaningful conversations. Each time feels special. Whether it is with incarcerated inmates at a prison or college students, always learn something and feel inspired by the insights and stories shared.
Tone Madison: How do you navigate getting access to the spaces you do? What are the kind of ethical implications you are most mindful of? How did getting access for Southern Rites differ from other places, like families of 9/11 victims or people in the fallout of the Israeli occupation?
Gillian Laub: Respect, compassion, and care. Nothing is more important than that when you are entering someone's life, especially during extremely vulnerable moments.
Tone Madison: Given that you've spent a lot of time in Mount Vernon and Montgomery County in the past two decades, do the feelings of comfort or discomfort you've experienced there make you worried you won't be able to detail the town and its citizens in an objective way?
Gillian Laub:I don't really believe in objectivity. I do become very involved in the lives and stories that I am portraying. I am not a fly on the wall. I believe in being open to all points of view and truths, but I don't fully believe in objectivity. I saw a community that had massive human injustices and I wanted to tell that story honestly. My goal is to see, reveal and understand all perspectives, whether I agree with them or not.
Tone Madison: How do you conceptualize the relationship between the original Spin piece that alerted you to the segregated proms, and everything that has grown out of it? Also, does the film do something that this exhibit does not and vice versa? The other iterations? Do they all form something greater than the sum of their parts?
Gillian Laub: The Spin piece planted the seed. And like most of my projects, they take a long time to be realized and to develop. Each medium is its own entity and is meant to stand alone. Because of the complexity, I do feel that together all the pieces (the film, exhibition, and book) help the viewer really understand the depth of the characters and the intertwining narratives best. Whether they all form something greater than the sum of their parts, I guess that's for the viewer to determine.
Tone Madison: What was the process like of being a photographer and developing into someone who tells stories using all kinds of mediums? Is it something you would prescribe for all journalists or storytellers, and would you have done it had you not encountered Mount Vernon?
Gillian Laub: This turned into a film project out of necessity. I had zero idea or experience in filmmaking, but I knew the story needed this medium to communicate certain things that the still photographs couldn't during a certain turning point in the project. It was a fast learning curve! I do think eventually I would have gravitated to filmmaking, but this was certainly the catalyst.
I think there are some artists and storytellers who also seamlessly cross over mediums and it really deepens their work. But I always say it's not about the tools—it's about the voice using them. I do urge students to learn as many skills in storytelling as possible. These days there is a greater need for video content, as print is not in the best place.
Tone Madison: How did your time as an undergrad at UW-Madison impact what you would go on to do, even if you didn't study photography or journalism here?
Gillian Laub: I am grateful to have had a well-rounded education at UW. My art history and English literature classes had a huge impact on me. I learned that I wasn't good at writing, but my love of narrative storytelling influenced my visual art making.
Tone Madison: You said in one interview that the only power you have is to tell the story. But even that seems like it comes with a lot of responsibility. What qualifies people to tell stories, especially those of communities the storyteller is not a part of?
Gillian Laub: When people share their lives and trust you with their stories, this is a huge responsibility. I don't take this lightly and am very sensitive to the fact that I am often coming in as an outsider. That's why I think it is so important to not helicopter in and ever do anything superficially. This is also why my projects take so many years of development.
Tone Madison: Are you wary of the exhibit creating an effect where people from Wisconsin are shocked at the very overt expressions of racism in Mount Vernon, but then look past the fact that we have the most segregated county in the entire country, and are one of the worst states for black people to live in? How does one bridge the gap between Mount Vernon and the viewer's community in the mind of the viewer?
Gillian Laub: This is precisely why it is so important for this work to be seen in places that have issues with segregation. Racism exists all over our country and it's so important for us to have a safe place to discuss this ugly reality. I feel grateful this work is providing a platform for people to reflect upon their own communities and not just think of this of happening somewhere else. Unfortunately, the issues in this community were not an anomaly.
Tone Madison: Do you plan on returning to Montgomery County again? Or have you, since the release of the documentary?
Gillian Laub: I was just there for Keyke's wedding [Keyke appears in the film and photographs], not as a photographer, but as a guest. I was also in Montgomery County this past November while covering Stacey Abrams' campaign. Stacey was meeting with residents from Montgomery and neighboring counties. It was wonderful being back there with her.