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Gillian Laub: Southern Rites

June 30–December 31, 2023, Main Galleries

American photographer Gillian Laub (b. New York, 1975) has spent the last two decades investigating political conflicts, exploring family relationships, and challenging assumptions about cultural identity. In Southern Rites, Laub engages her skills as a photographer, filmmaker, and visual activist to examine the realities of racism and raise questions that are simultaneously painful and essential to understanding the American consciousness.

In 2002, Laub was sent on a magazine assignment to Mount Vernon, Georgia, to document the lives of teenagers in the American South. The town, nestled among fields of Vidalia onions, symbolized the archetype of pastoral, small town American life. The Montgomery County residents Laub encountered were warm, polite, protective of their neighbors, and proud of their history. Yet Laub learned that the joyful adolescent rites of passage celebrated in this rural countryside—high school homecomings and proms—were still racially segregated.

Laub continued to photograph Montgomery County over the following decade, returning even in the face of growing—and eventually violent—resistance from community members and local law enforcement. She documented a town held hostage by the racial tensions and inequities that scar much of the nation's history. In 2009, a few months after Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Laub’s photographs of segregated proms were published in the New York Times Magazine. The story brought national attention to the town and the following year the proms were finally integrated. The power of her photographic images served as the catalyst and, for a moment, progress seemed inevitable.

Then, in early 2011, tragedy struck the town. Justin Patterson, a twenty-two-year-old unarmed Black man—whose segregated high school homecoming Laub had photographed—was shot and killed by a sixty-two-year-old white man. Laub’s project, which began as an exploration of segregated high school rituals, evolved into an urgent mandate to confront the painful realities of discrimination and structural racism. Laub continued to document the town over the following decade, during which the country re-elected its first Black president and the ubiquity of camera phones gave rise to citizen journalism exposing racially motivated violence. As the Black Lives Matter Movement and national protests proliferated, Laub uncovered a complex story about adolescence, race, the legacy of slavery, and the deeply rooted practice of segregation in the American South.

Southern Rites is a specific story about twenty-first century young people in the American South, yet it poses a universal question about human experience: can a new generation liberate itself from a harrowing and traumatic past to create a different future?

The documentary film Southern Rites (HBO original, 2015, TV-14, 1 hr. 27 min.) will be screened in the Multipurpose Hall Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. & 3 p.m. from June 30 through November 5, 2023. No admission required to view the film.

Southern Rites is curated by Maya Benton and organized by the International Center of Photography.
Generously supported by the Rubens Family Foundation 
With additional support from ESL Federal Credit Union and Leading Edge Advising & Development, LLC. 

For community-centered resources understanding Black, Indigenous, and people of color experiences, please visit our resource page

Content notice
Gillian Laub's Southern Rites discusses racism, systemic oppression, and racially charged murder. The exhibition examines racial prejudice and raises questions essential to encouraging dialogue and understanding the experience of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and people of color in America. 

Hear from the Artist: Gillian Laub

Artist Gillian Laub, Photographer, and Maya Benton, Curator, introduces their exhibition, Southern Rites, on view at the Eastman Museum through December 31, 2023. 

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