Southern Rites: Photographs by Gillian Laub

Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, Portland, OR

by Joseph Gallivan
Gillian Laub went to Montgomery County, Georgia, and photographed the high school proms, which in the 2000s were still segregated. Her pictures were published in Spin magazine, where they seemed like an unbelievable oddity, and in the New York Times Magazine in 2009, where they seemed like a national crisis. In 2010, the proms were integrated, and Laub can take some of the credit.
Laub kept returning to her subjects, and quotes often accompany the photos. The images feel familiar, for example, a White girl in a rebel flag top complains about how the flag is not racist, it’s just her heritage. There are shots of interracial couples, gay couples, and groups of people merrily getting ready for their big party. The point of view is mostly White, in that the Black people are only quoted about how they relate to White society.
Laub, who is Jewish, had her cameras confiscated by a White police offcer and her tires slashed as some townsfolk objected to her presence.
As you round a corner the exhibition takes a dark twist, focusing on an older White man (a classic bald “redneck”) who shot dead a Black teenage boy. A video screen plays his 911 call and he explains what happened. He heard noises in his daughter’s room at 3 am. He went in and two Black boys were sitting on her bed with her. He ordered them at gunpoint into the living room. When they bolted he shot one of them with his .22 rifle. The boy died. During the 911 call the dispatcher asks him if he needs an ambulance and he says no, he is just a little scratched up. It’s classic White privilege in full flower, as powerful as any photo.

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