Photography vs. Segregation

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This photo, titled Amber and Reggie, was part of the Chazen’s Southern Rites exhibition, which documented segregated proms in Montgomery County, Georgia. Gillian Laub, Amber and Reggie, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2011, inkjet print, © Gillian Laub, courtesy of Benrubi Gallery

In 2002, Gillian Laub ’97 made what would be the first of many trips to Mount Vernon, Georgia, to photograph the lives of teenagers in the South. What she discovered was an idyllic yet racially divided town struggling to confront longstanding issues of race and inequality.

For the next decade, Laub visually documented Mount Vernon and the surrounding Montgomery County. Her photographs of the region’s longstanding segregated proms were published in the New York Times Magazine in 2009. The photo essay, which sparked national outrage, led to integrated dances in the area.

Those photos and more, collectively titled Southern Rites, were on exhibit at the UW’s Chazen Museum of Art this past semester. Laub says that it took many months to curate and organize the exhibition. “The photographs, captions, and case objects are meant to take [audiences] on a decade-long journey,” she explains. “Unfortunately, this story is not an anomaly in this one town. There is segregation and racism all over our country. So I hope viewers can also reflect on what is going on in their own communities.”

This isn’t the first time Laub’s lens has candidly captured and chronicled individuals’ courage while simultaneously investigating cultural conflicts.

Her exhibit Common Ground (Israelis and Palestinians) explored the shared yet divided worlds of these two peoples, while her installation An American Life documented the intimacy and pain that can define family — in this case, Laub’s own family. And just recently, in 2018, the photographer captured Stacey Abrams’s run for Georgia governor — a race that garnered national attention.

Laub also returned to Mount Vernon one year after the town merged its segregated proms and directed and produced a documentary, also titled Southern Rites, along with John Legend and Lisa Heller ’90. The film, which explores racial tensions, premiered in Madison at Union South in April.

While Laub didn’t study photography at the UW, she says that taking art history and English literature classes had a “huge impact” on her future work.

“I learned I wasn’t good at writing, but my love of narrative storytelling influenced my visual art-making,” she says.

Published in the Summer 2019 issue

Tags: Alumni, Arts, diversity, politics, television

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