A Portrait’s Worth: Photographing, Storytelling and Listening
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 12:37
Mary Beth Meehan
“When I look at her portraits, I’m not just a voyeur. I’m invited to see because Mary Beth was invited to see,” said Rani Arbo ‘89.

Mary Beth Meehan’s open-mindedness and awareness shape her visualizations of other people’s lives through photography.

Through her interest in the way the world can be “studied and digested into narrative,” Meehan proves that there is always more to be heard from the people we pass on the street. Writing a portrait about someone who takes them so thoughtfully is not an easy undertaking, but this unease speaks to the magnitude of Meehan’s abilities.

Stories are Greater than Frames

Meehan’s current project, “Seen/Unseen,” is an attempt to get to know her neighbors in Providence, Rhode Island. The project consists of a series of up-close portraits in which the subject faces the camera head-on. Meehan does not label the portraits with their names, and their literal and figurative backgrounds are often unidentifiable. But this focus on the subtleties of their expression, making them all the more resonant. Each face tells a story, and it is clear that the photographer has listened.

Eight of the portraits have been hung on buildings in downtown Providence. Meehan describes this public art installation as an effort to “co-opt the scale of celebrity for people who are not usually power brokers.” The decision to place a huge portrait of a fellow pedestrian on the cityscape reflects Meehan’s distinct point of view as a photographer. She’s interested in how a place’s diverse population can define a space, but she also takes a deeply caring look at her subjects as individuals. She said that too often, city residents are viewed as mere statistics in a pie chart of different immigrant groups; “Those ideas just eclipse the fullness of a person.”

Meehan refuses to put her subjects in a box, so it’s not surprising she avoids labels when describing herself, too. The distinction between photojournalist and fine art photographer is unimportant to her: “I call myself a photographer and educator, and I just keep doing my practice.” In her opinion, the process of creating is what’s important, and she is “more interested in the content than the final object and what box it came from.”

Visions of Brockton

In her work, Meehan draws inspiration from her hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts — a place often caricatured by the media as a post-industrial economic wasteland with high crime rates. Yet, according to Meehan’s childhood friend, Lisa Martel, Brockton is a place to be proud of.

“Brockton shaped both of us to be strong willed, hard working, determined individuals who were not afraid of diversity or to fight for what is right,” Martel said.

Meehan credits her interest in telling full, multifaceted stories to her roots. “My work isn’t autobiographical, but I come from a working-class community that was only defined by its limits, which made me feel like I had something to say,” Meehan said.

In 2011, Meehan gave Brockton a voice through portraiture in the installation of “City of Champions: A Portrait of Brockton” after five years of taking photographs of the city’s residents. Meehan intended to offer a counterpoint to the narrative that degraded Brockton in public discourse by portraying it as a city in decline.

“Photography was a way for me to reach around these narratives of Brockton and try to meet it on its own terms — on the streets, in markets and kitchens,” she said. She worked with educators, artists and governing bodies in the city to design the project, and she and some colleagues decided on 12 portraits of people from all walks of life to place on buildings across Brockton’s downtown center.

The collaborative nature of Meehan’s work is a testament to her passion for supporting other people. Sharing a portrait of a place by tying together individual narratives was integral to the structure of “City of Champions.” She even passed it on to 10 Brockton high school students who hung 12 portraits of their own in 2012.

By emphasizing the importance of telling stories about ordinary people, Meehan’s work masterfully and effortlessly opens up the possibility for dialogues about the realities of difference.

Photography’s Openings

While Brockton set the stage for how Meehan sees the world, her studies at Amherst put her experiences into perspective intellectually. “I gained access to different ways of viewing the world that shaped the way I can offer my small view and contribution,” she said.

According to Meehan, the small, student-oriented town of Amherst was so different from the working-class city of Brockton that it was hard to believe that the two cities were located in the same state. From the outset, Meehan was captivated by Amherst’s natural beauty and the energy she observed in the classroom. She studied English and took many classes in the art history and sociology departments, which helped her discover new ways of thinking.

Though she was not involved in an art scene at Amherst beyond publishing photos in the literary magazine and taking a visual art class with Professor Robert Sweeney, Meehan always felt an instinctive affinity for photography. During the summers while she was in college, Meehan took classes at the New England School of Photography in Boston. She began to think about shifting her energies towards photography when her editor at a newspaper internship preferred her photos to her writing.

After graduating from Amherst in 1989, she went to University of Missouri’s photojournalism graduate program where she began to notice consistent themes in her work. Her master’s project, “A Family of Sisters,” documented the lives of a family she had met. Meehan sought to explore how a matriarchal family system worked during a time when Dan Quail and George H.W. Bush were upholding traditionally patriarchal family values. This work went on to win a second-place prize in the New York Times’ “Pictures of the Year” contest, and she continued to publish more work in the Times.

Her master’s project set a framework for her subsequent work. “It was my first attempt at noticing this idea of seeing a pattern of a way something is defined in public discourse and trying to breathe air into it or see another angle of it,” she said.

The Power of Representation

Commenting on her “City of Champions” project, she asked, “Is it possible for art to create social change? I don’t know, but I hope that it can at least create connections.” A striking aspect of Meehan’s work is her ability to connect with and take compelling portraits of people from many different backgrounds. She has photographed an Italian community transplanted to Boston’s North End in “Paesani: An Italian Community, Transplanted,” a family’s emigration from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. “A Mother’s Journey,” and undocumented immigrants living in a variety of spaces in “Undocumented.”

Yet, instead of studying her subjects from a distance, she maintains a warmth and intimacy in her photographs.

Fellow Amherst alum Rani Arbo ’89 became close friends with Meehan when she photographed Arbo’s band years after they graduated. “Mary Beth is a magician with people,” she said. “When I look at her portraits, I’m not just a voyeur. I’m invited to see because Mary Beth was invited to see. This is an extraordinary privilege.”

Meehan allows her subjects to depict themselves the way they want to be depicted. She allows them to change clothing if they want to, and she will often let them direct the shoot by choosing how they want to pose. She offers biographies and descriptions of varying lengths, depending on the project, which leads to more honest portrayals.

Meehan said when she was in journalism school, she and her peers thought the world was theirs to photograph, but she began to take note of the subjectivity of power differentials. She appreciates that the world of journalism is beginning to change after being monopolized by white men for so many years. However, she also recognizes the inherent criticism of her work. “I enjoy learning about other people’s stories, but it is problematic to tell these stories as a white woman,” she said.

Meehan does not shy away from asking herself challenging questions, such as, “What are the problems in trying to speak for a person with whom I have a power dynamic in the U.S.?” or “What does it mean to represent?” At times, Meehan has found it hard to continue photographing because she is so troubled by these power differentials, but she said, “You can’t just stop taking photos forever. You have to grapple with these issues and come to a resolution through yourself. I can try and use my access to benefit my community.”  

She created a blog to reflect on her “Seen/Unseen” project in order to be entirely transparent, and she is frank about discomfort, mistakes and first impressions. She documents certain imperfections in her process: how she stumbled around phrasing a question to an old friend who had adopted his daughter or how she worried about perpetuating stereotypes about neighborhoods in Providence. But most importantly, she listens and learns. She seems to leave no experience without being somehow touched and impressed upon by her interaction.

“It takes skill and something much more important to take a photograph ‘from’ someone, and to have them experience the interaction as a gift,” Arbo said. “It’s the radical-ness of this relationship-building, and what it demonstrates about the possibility for human connection, mutual respect and trust, that blows me away.”

Meehan uses her stunningly honest, perceptive and modest lens to bring out the storyteller in all of her subjects, and by doing so she tells a fuller story about our world.