In Southern Rites, photographer Gillian Laub’s provocative 12-year visual study of Mount Vernon, Georgia’s struggle to confront longstanding issues of race and equality, Keyke Burns is quoted on the issue of segregated proms: “Every year there’s like one mixed couple and they are always welcome at our prom. But there’s no way Siarria was allowed to take Kent to the white prom. White girls can be friends with black boys, but if they have relationship with a black guy they’ll be disowned or their car will be taken away. A girl in my grade had just gotten a new car her senior year. Her momma kept coming to my daddy because he’s the police chief, asking him to keep her away from this black dude’s house. My daddy was like, ‘Well she’s eighteen, you can’t make her come home, you can’t control who she dates, you can’t call the police on her anymore. She’s grown now.’ This girl got her car taken away and kicked out of the house. She is on her own now with no money, no car. I think that’s what scares people the most around here. They don’t want to lose all the privileges they get. I guess I don’t blame them. I want a nice car too.”
In May 2009, the New York Times Magazine published a photo-essay by Gillian Laub entitled “A Prom Divided,” which documented Georgia’s Montgomery County High School’s racially segregated prom rituals. Laub’s photographs ignited a firestorm of national outrage and led the community to finally integrate. One year later, there was newfound hope–a historic campaign to elect the county’s first African American sheriff. But the murder of a young black man–portrayed in Laub’s earlier prom series–by a white town patriarch reopened old wounds.
Through her intimate portraits and firsthand testimony, Laub reveals in vivid color the horror and humanity of these complex, intertwined narratives. The photographer’s inimitable sensibility–it is the essence and emotional truth of the singular person in front of her lens that matters most–ensures that, however elevated the ideas and themes may be, her pictures remain studies of individuals; a chronicle of their courage in the face of injustice, of their suffering and redemption, possessing an unsettling power.
Gillian Laub (born 1975) crafts striking personal portraits, whether she is photographing her own family in Mamaroneck, New York, or victims of violence in the Middle East. In May 2015, the documentary Southern Rites–Laub’s directorial debut–premiered on HBO, examining the aftermath of the publication of Laub’s photographs of Montgomery County and her own role in the events.
BOOK REVIEW: The Midwest Bookreview | James A. Cox
Powerful images augmented with an informative and inherently fascinating commentary make “Gillian Laub: Southern Rites” a critically important contribution to community and academic library Photography collections, as well as Contemporary American Racial Studies reference collections. Indeed, “Gillian Laub: Southern Rites” could well serve as a template for similar photographic studies of other American communities and social issues.
On 5/18/2015, HBO debuted Southern Rites, Gillian Laub’s film documenting one community’s struggle to confront longstanding issues of race and equality. Produced by Grammy, Oscar, and Golden Globe–winning musician John Legend, Southern Rites is based on Laub’s forthcoming photo book, published by Damiani.