How ‘SeenUnseen’ has left a lasting effect on the Providence community
Photos by and courtesy of Rachael Cerrotti.
By: Rachael Cerrotti
On a warm September day, guided by the bright blue sky and the strong rays of sun, I navigated the narrow cobblestone streets of Providence, the capital city of the smallest state in this diverse country. I found a spot, parked my car, looked up, and was welcomed by the gentle stare of Thuan, a 65-year old Cambodian immigrant.
The short mattress covered in white sheets reminded me of the bed I slept on during my college years. The carpet was tan with a blue and green floral pattern sewn in. His white tank top, blue jeans, and sandals were, in color and casualness, not far from the outfit I was wearing. I felt like I was in his home, standing there, with an outstretched hand, eager to introduce myself.
This photograph felt personal.
Photographer Mary Beth Meehan’s “SeenUnseen” work has now been a fixture of the Providence landscape for over a year. She was first featured by ivoh for this project in October of 2015. She thought the public art installation would come down at the end of July, but the community requested for it to remain an intimate part of downtown.
I met Meehan in Providence. She found me on the sidewalk staring up at the portrait of José and his granddaughter Albanery. We walked around town and she gave me a tour of the installation. Up until this point, I had only ever seen these photographs on my computer screen.
I asked Meehan how it felt to see these massive prints on the side of the buildings in the city she calls home. “If I let myself really take it in, it feels really huge,” she said.
When Meehan began this project, it was personal — a way for her to practice her craft and to embrace the challenge of becoming intimate with strangers. Each portrait had a certain amount of spontaneity and a certain amount of planning.
“Part of it was planned. He knew I would be coming and making his portrait,” Meehan explained of her method photographing Providence resident Wannton St. Louis. “In the case of Thuan, I went there to photograph his wife and I became more interested in him and I wasn’t really sure why.”
Meehan and I went from photograph to photograph, staring up at their 40-foot presence, taking them in, confronting them, admiring them. As life moved past quickly, cars, pedestrians, and teenagers on skateboards, the portrait stayed still, keeping our attention in a way that is unusual in such a busy world.
“We are always leading with our assumptions to propel ourselves through the day, but there is so much we don’t know,” Meehan said, refering to what these large-scale photographs remind us of. Many have responded to this work by posing the rhetorical questions: “Why don’t I stop and talk to people? What is it that everyone is carrying around in them that we don’t know?”
In yoga, there is a practice called drishti, which is a focused gaze. You can share this exercise with a partner, staring at their third eye, one of the chakras located in between the two eyebrows. If I stared at one of Meehan’s portraits long enough, I felt this familiar sensation, the allowance of vulnerability with a stranger.
“It has really reaffirmed what photography can do,” Meehan said. “The truth is, we don’t stop and look people in the eye often. It is easy to choose not to. … What people are saying is that these huge pictures are reminding them of that. I think these micro openings over time have had an impact on the town.”
With these portraits, Meehan has attempted to leave her editorial at home. During a ‘walk and talk’ last spring, Meehan repeatedly heard the words ‘frank’ and ‘intimate’ used in describing her work. The word that I kept using? Gentle.
After Meehan and I went our separate ways, I took my camera and returned to the portrait of Wannton. A woman named Jessan Dunn Otis snapped her own picture of me. From there, a conversation developed.
“I don’t think I have seen this one,” Otis said to me. “I usually go different routes so I am new to this fellow. What an honorable, proud, elegant demeanor. Just peaceful,” she said of the portrait.
Otis is a self-employed writer and a published poet from Providence. In her description of Meehan’s photograph, she took notice of the characteristics with which she identified. She noticed the big hands, similar to her husband’s, and the slight smile, similar to her own. The silver hair, which she called stunning, reminded her of her grandfather.
I asked Otis what the portraits have done for the city. After an impassioned “oh my goodness,” she said, “I have watched people stop dead in their tracks and say, isn’t that beautiful! Is it real? Is it painted? They stop and talk about about it and actually have a conversation with the person they are walking with.”
Meehan recognized that for many people, the power of this work is related to it being in the public realm without any curators. People have told her that Providence feels like a more humane place with them.
In November, Meehan began working on a similar project in Newnan a small town outside of Atlanta, Georgia; a community that has a deep history of racism and segregation. The town board member who invited her to do this work said, “We all live in in our own little bubbles and don’t know one another, and we think your work can help burst those.”
At this point, Meehan has spent two weeks there, meeting people, photographing and writing. Over the next year, she anticipates making at least another 3-4 trips with a goal of launching an installation of portraits in the city’s downtown in the Spring 2018.
Meehan told ivoh, “It is a place with a fascinating history, and trying to look at that history — and present — through the lens of the people there is really exciting, and challenging.”
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