How a photographer’s public art installation is helping a community see itself more clearly

Editor’s note: Photographer Mary Beth Meehan has generously contributed prints from her “Seen/Unseen: Providence” installation to ivoh’s Restorative Narrative crowdfunding campaign. 

Over a year ago, photojournalist Mary Beth Meehan began walking around her home in Providence, Rhode Island, with nothing more than one camera body and a 50mm lens. Her goal was to flex her creative muscles with portraiture. She did just that, and in the process, left a deep impact on many — and often times unseen — communities in Providence.

Meehan’s collection of portraits, titled “Seen/Unseen: Providence” was taken with the intention of understanding more about the people who live in Providence. She wanted to explore the relationship of photographing strangers in an intimate and straightforward way, as opposed to capturing candid portraits like she did for her past project, “City of Champions.”

“I hadn’t done much work where I literally was just engaging in this kind of collaboration where a person agrees to go into this little dance with me about making a portrait,” Meehan told me in a cafe outside of Boston. “I wanted to challenge myself. So the project happened really organically.”

The project, which is an ongoing series, began as a blog. Meehan shares the portraits she is making and the stories she collects, along with reflections from her experience.

In June, the project became a public art installation and helped kick off the Providence International Arts Festival. With the support of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, eight large-scale prints — the biggest being 40 feet long — were hung along the Washington Street Cultural Corridor in Providence. The gaze of those in the portraits is direct, confronting the viewer and initiating a dialogue and curiosity among neighbors.

“I thought that the work was about the person in the portrait and the viewer,” said Meehan, a 2015 ivoh summit attendee. “What a number of people have said to me is that, yes that has been happening , but it is possible that the people photographed are seeing themselves in a new way. That is not what I ever imagined.”

Shebna St. Louis said Meehan’s work had a significant impact on her father, Wannton, who immigrated to Providence from Haiti.

“It is not only an honor for him, but it is an honor for the community in itself,” Shebna said during a presentation Meehan gave at the RISD Museum. “When one person is lifted up, everyone is lifted up.”

Wannton St. Louis immigrated to the United States 34 years ago from Haiti and has been a prominent figure in the growing Haitian population in Providence. | Photo taken by, and courtesy of, Mary Beth Meehan.

The St. Louis family is a compelling example of how Meehan’s work has provided a new narrative to the vibrant, yet mostly unrecognized Haitian community in Providence.

“When you are a person who is an immigrant, you come to the country and you don’t know the language and you work jobs that are not the best. But they are the jobs you take so your kids can grow and be someone great,” Shebna said. “So when this happened , he just felt like God had made him become this person, or at least the recognition of a person who didn’t have much and is now in a place where, not that he is rich financially, but rich in life, rich in family, rich in spirituality and his religion and community.”

Meehan’s portrait of Wannton, which is one of the largest prints in the collection of eight that line downtown Providence, speaks to an entire generation of Haitian immigrants.

“ generation, when they see this huge poster of someone that is just like them and who worked just as hard, they know he deserves it,” Shebna said during a phone interview. “It is a sign for the community. He represents … every face in his generation that has struggled to come into this country.”

Meehan takes these types of reactions to heart and has been thinking a lot about her role as a photographer. “When I am the photographer and the person is the subject, I can make the image and put it wherever I want and say whatever I want to contextualize,” she said. “What happens when you really get conscious of that power relationship and try to funnel it back to the person? I wanted to explore all of those things.”

Rose grew up Irish-American and working class. She now has two children of her own, has published a book about 18th-century Scottish rhetoric, and is trying to finish her doctorate. | Photo taken by, and courtesy of, Mary Beth Meehan.

This is the case with her portrait of Rose, a young mother with a 2-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son. Meehan photographed her while breastfeeding her youngest child. After seeing the image, Rose sent Meehan an email saying:

“I feel like I look a little angry and hostile — and I think that the camera is capturing truth. It actually made me do some soul searching, to be honest. You managed to catch an expression of the way I’ve been feeling about my daily life — a little more angry and tired than I would have admitted to.”

Rose gave Meehan permission to publish the image, noting that depicting this reality of motherhood is important.

Meehan, who is a two-time Pulitzer nominee and a former staff photographer at The Providence Journal, recognizes that you never stop learning. You can always improve your craft and better understand your audience. “When you stay with photography for decades, you will have to keep renegotiating your relationship with it,” she said.

“I live in this world where I notice that people are not seeing each other very clearly or leading with their misconceptions, which creates problems. How can I take this craft of mine and insert it into those situations to change that dynamic even slightly?”

While Meehan is just beginning to understand the impact of “Seen/Unseen,” Shebna and the St. Louis family already understand it.

“I don’t even think that Mary Beth gets how big this is,” Shebna said. “She knows it is important, but it is so much more than that. It will have an impact years and years down the road.”

The “Seen/Unseen: Providence” installation will be up until the end of July 2016 and four of the photos from the series will be permanently on display at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design).


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