It’s prom night in Mount Vernon, Georgia. The prom prince and princess are mid-slow dance. He wears a sherbet-colored polyester vest, and she wears a tiara, with long, bleached blonde banana curls cascading down her back. You can smell the hairspray and sweat. The image is recognizable to anyone who went to high school in the U.S. since the 1960s, and is part of Gillian Laub’s Southern Rites exhibition at Benrubi Gallery in Chelsea. The photo is striking, even more so in its full context: the young man is black and the young woman is white, and they’re dancing at Montgomery High School’s second integrated prom—in 2011.
On ViewBenrubi Gallery
May 14 – June 27, 2015
Laub first visited Mount Vernon, Georgia, in 2002 on assignment with SPIN magazine. The editors received a letter from a 19-year-old subscriber, who hoped that SPIN would draw attention to her high school’s still-segregated prom. Laub observed jarring racism in Mount Vernon: homecoming queen ballots had two categories, “White Girl” and “Black Girl,” and while the white students were allowed to go to the black prom—not many did—the black students were forbidden from their white classmates’ prom. That first visit led to a much larger project examining the pervasive racial divide in Montgomery County, spanning 12 years and culminating in Southern Rites, Laub’s exhibit, book (Damiani editore, 2015), and documentary (HBO, 2015).
Southern Rites offers a comprehensive and thoughtful look at how racism manifests in a small community. Over the 12 years Laub photographed, a black police officer with 30 years of experience lost the race for town sheriff to a white officer with no experience (the black officer was the current sheriff’s chosen successor), and a young black man, Justin Patterson, was killed by an older white man, Norman Neeson, for “trespassing,” after Neeson’s daughter had invited Patterson into their home. Southern Rites asks questions: What are modern rituals and how are they justified? How does our understanding of an event change when we see and hear its participants? Laub does not provide answers, but gives voice to her subjects through quotes-on-wall text. The result isa compelling and thought-provoking body of work.
Despite the recognizable imagery—grinning teenagers in tuxes, sequined gowns, and corsages abound—Laub’s Southern Rites portraits are not banal. She often photographs the students individually, allowing the individual’s expression to eclipse the stereotypical prom “look.” If proms celebrate coming of age, Laub’s portraits expose the more honest reality: growing up is confusing and difficult, and even more so if you’re not invited to your classmates’ prom. Each portrait is accompanied by a quote from the subject, adding to the viewer’s understanding of the ways in which racism permeates a “friendly” community.
In “Julie and Bubba” (2002), a couple leans against the hood of a car, Bubba’s arm around Julie and his chin resting on her shoulder. Julie is white and Bubba is black. The portrait is sweet, but Julie’s comment on her interracial relationship adds poignancy. “Some friends started to tell me they couldn’t hang out with me anymore. That hurt because they were my friends since kindergarten. And I didn’t think they were bad people, just scared.” In “Niesha With Her Children” (2011), the 2009 prom queen stands outside a rundown house with her two children, one twisting in her arms and the other staring toward the sky. A dumpster and gas station are in the distance. Niesha’s quote affirms how much has changed since Laub first took Niesha’s portrait at the black prom in 2009:
It feels like way more than two years since I was prom queen and you photographed me. So much has happened. I was discharged from the military when I found out I was pregnant with Zoey. The prom’s finally integrated. But it’s like we take one step forward and two steps back. Justin was killed and it just hurts to think the man who did this is just walking free.
By letting her subjects speak for themselves, Laub’s documentary project became an activist one. It was the 2009 publication of “A Prom Divided,” Laub’s photo essay of Montgomery County High School’s segregated prom in The New York Times Magazine,that led to the integration of the prom.
Just four months after the prom was integrated, Justin Patterson was shot by Norman Neeson. This incident is the focus of Laub’s HBO documentary, and an excerpt titled “Just a Black Boy” plays in the gallery. In the clip, Neeson tells the police that he shot someone, saying, “It was just a black boy.” Just a black boy—it’s an appalling statement. A few feet away, in the room with the prom pictures, are studio photos (not taken by Laub) of Justin smiling with his prom date. The film excerpt is a stark reminder that even after a moment of progress—the integration of prom—the racial tension in Mount Vernon runs deep. Prom is a ritual, after all, but the day to day is more complex.
One of the most striking images in the exhibit is of two black men on the side of the road, taken in 2013 in Vidalia, Georgia. One man wears a sign around his waist that reads, “I was found guilty of disorderly conduct in Vidalia, GA.” The other man wears a sign that states, “I was found guilty of DUI in Vidalia, GA.” The man wearing the DUI sign sits, hands clasped in front of his mouth, almost as if in prayer. These men were given a choice upon conviction: walk up and down the street wearing a sign for eight hours a day, or go to jail. Laub titled the photograph aptly: “Public shaming”. The sunlight overhead is harsh, and the man’s eyes are barely visible. His expression suggests the psychological impact of public indignity as punishment.
In Southern Rites, Laub has perceptively and empathetically portrayed the individuals behind the events in Mount Vernon. In turn, our understanding of these events becomes nuanced in a way that may be useful when considering the larger, enduring problem of racism in the U.S. Southern Rites isan important and timely documentary, demanding the viewer to look and listen in a way that lingers long after the gowns, tuxes, and corsages have been put away.