This photographer is encouraging people to really get to know their neighbors and stop being so judgmental.
We live in an age where we are constantly inundated with information and advertisements no matter where we go. Whether it’s on our social media platforms, at the subway station, or at the doctor’s office, companies want our attention on their products so that the next time we’re shopping we remember that their [fill in product here] looked really appealing.
During a time when it’s actually shocking to find out that cities are banning advertisements in some of their public places, one photographer from Providence, Rhode Island, Mary Beth Meehan, was wondering something similar: what if we replaced billboards with photos of regular people?
It might not be something you’ve asked yourself before, but what would it be like to not be so bombarded by ads and simply look up to see a photo of a real person? We see real people everyday, and yet we don’t actually notice them anymore because we’re so used to ignoring them as we get through our day. Meehan wanted to see if she could change this by hanging billboard-sized portraits to get people thinking about, well, people.
“I saw this isolationism within our own little ethnic, cultural and political bubbles in the country,” Meehan told the Columbia Missourian. “Everyone is so segregated in our own little experiences with other people.”
Meehan’s knowledge of portrait photography coupled with her desire to help people get to know their own neighbors resulted in her “Seen/Unseen” project. For the project, she took portraits of people from all walks of life and interviewed them extensively. She then installed the photos on the sides of buildings throughout downtown and encouraged viewers to look up the story behind the person on her website.
Not knowing what the reaction would be, from either her subjects or the viewers, she was relieved to find out that it was positive. Some of her subjects even cried when they saw their portrait hung up for all to see. Others’ lives have changed as a result, with one subject who owns a mechanic shop gaining about 500 more clients because his photo garnered lots of attention.
Meehan’s interviews are just as beautiful as her portraits; one woman, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Rhode Island last year, is described as someone who “disagrees with at least half of what her husband says. She is feisty, funny, quick.” Another man, who she met at a Veterans’ Day parade in Georgia, turned out to be a supporter of Hillary Clinton and described Donald Trump as someone who “likes his self, a model for a wife, and his kids. That’s the only people he cares anything about. And I’m not so sure he cares about his kids.” A sweet, quiet Cambodian man that she interviewed, who is called “uncle” by all who know him, was mistakenly imprisoned and beaten, tortured, and forced to watch others be tortured when he was younger. This horrible time in his life affected him physically and mentally, causing him to be unable to hold down a job because of his backaches and migraines.
All of these stories make up one person’s life, and Meehan wanted to use this campaign to highlight the fact that there is so much underneath the surface of the people you encounter everyday. Instead of judging someone based on their race or gender or class, we should embrace them or at least acknowledge that they have struggles and hobbies and lives that we will never truly know and that is something worth appreciating.
Though she used to be intimidated by photographers that capture war or events overseas, Meehan has since realized her worth as a stateside photographer that captures portraits.
“I’m just a small person, but with photography, I can make a very small contribution toward ameliorating those feelings of disconnection,” Meehan said.
To view the stories behind the portraits, you can visit Meehan’s website here.