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Photographer speaks about
'Undocumented,' her exhibition
at the Flanagan Campus gallery

Sept. 16, 2011

Photographer Mary Beth Meehan speaks at the Flanagan Campus on Sept. 14.It is said that you can learn more about a person from examining his or her bedroom than you can in a first meeting. With this maxim in mind, the work of photographer Mary Beth Meehan takes on a particular power.

For her study “Undocumented,” she photographed the homes of undocumented immigrants in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, leaving the homeowners out of the photos to protect their identities because of their delicate legal status.

Meehan shared her work in a presentation at CCRI’s Flanagan Campus on Sept. 14 and her photos will be on display in the campus art gallery through Sept. 30.

The photos show largely mundane, mostly American-looking homes with flashes of poignant intimacy: an LCD television in front of African style curtains; photos on the wall of unreachable relatives in another country; a foreign flag hanging near a boy’s sports trophies from a local school.

“By looking at these people’s homes you get a sense of intention,” Meehan said, “a sense of the kind of people these are.”

The purpose of the project is not to engender sympathy for illegal immigrants, Meehan said, but “to show what’s already here, regardless of how we feel about it.”

She added that her goal was to show her subjects’ culture seeping through in the arrangement of everyday objects, “where imported cultures interact with American culture.”

Her technique is inspired partly by photojournalism – she worked for seven years as a Providence Journal photographer and twice was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize – but mostly from contemporary documentary photography, which she said is less constrained. These photos do not have to accompany a particular news event, but examine the social issue of immigration in whole cloth – or in the case of “Undocumented,” through the cloth of a dining room table.

Several of the homesteads pictured are no more; their owners have been deported back to their home countries. Others cannot last, such as the Brown University dormitory room of a boy with no Social Security number. When he graduates, he will be unable to use his Ivy League education in economics.

Many children of illegal immigrants go through the American educational system, public and private, and then are unable to use the skills they have learned. Other immigrants pay taxes and lend strong voices to their communities only to be deported.

Is this wrong? Do those who break our immigration laws deserve amnesty? “Undocumented” passes no editorial comment, but seeks to frame the debate. Meehan wants us to know that there are 11 million to 20 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today. Her photos show that, yes, they are here and they are like us.

A photograph from Meehan's exhibition, titled "Guinea-Bissau Brockton, Massachusetts."The project started in Meehan’s hometown of Brockton, Mass., once a blue-collar haven for Irish and Italian immigrants, including her ancestors, but now a majority minority community facing widespread joblessness, economic recession and urban decay. Meehan began by interviewing friends and acquaintances who were undocumented, and these subjects suggested other people who would be willing to open their homes to her. The project branched out to other communities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls.

“I was afraid at first because of the picture we have of someone being illegal … you think these are going to be hovels or criminal dens, but they’re just like our apartments,” Meehan said.

As the project grew, Meehan received funding from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, the Charles Sullivan Fund for the Arts and Humanities at CCRI and the CCRI Foundation.

Meehan said one of the challenges of the project was to find ways to keep it from becoming redundant. She avoided images that she thought would quickly become conceits, such as a shadow peeking into a room or a person’s anxious hands.

Instead, the photos exclusively show inanimate objects, but they manage to convey a sense of the people outside the frame. Meehan said, “I liked the challenge of, ‘How can I make a frame of two-dimensional art that captures these people?’”

Meehan’s photographic eye has been honed by her work for the Providence Journal, the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Today she creates independent projects that explore culture and community, teaches documentary photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and is the director of the Documenting Cultural Communities program at the International Charter School in Pawtucket.

Her work has been honored by Pictures of the Year International and The National Conference for Community and Justice. For more information about Meehan and to see her work in “Undocumented” and other projects, visit her website.

For those who wish to see some of Meehan’s work in person, the Flanagan Campus Art Gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free and open to the public, and the gallery is handicapped accessible. For more information, e-mail Gallery Director Tom Morrissey.


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