Gillian Laub's 'Southern Rites': A Troubling Look at Segregated Proms in the Deep South
Photojournalist Gillian Laub presents her new series 'Southern Rites' which documents racially segregated proms that have been a tradition for over four decades at Montgomery County High School in Georgia. The exhibit is a collaboration between the Benrubi Gallery and ICP in New York, a forthcoming monograph to be published by Damiani, an HBO documentary co-produced by acclaimed musician John Legend which has already aired, all of which are meant to amplify the significance of this work. The project has been a thirteen-year odyssey prompting Laub to revisit her subjects on numerous occasions, and through her investigative efforts the first integrated prom took place in 2010. Laub was initially commissioned by Spin Magazine in 2002, once confronted with this unfathomable story, she was compelled to dig deeper. There were no official school-sponsored proms, but only private proms organized by student/parent committees. Caucasian parents coordinated 'white proms' and African-American parents followed suit with 'black proms'. Laub created an incredible photo essay 'A Prom Divided' for The New York Times Magazine in 2009 which garnered national attention and disgust, pressuring Montgomery County High School to host its first ever desegregated prom a year later. Laub returned in 2011, capturing mesmerizing and riveting imagery. Interracial couples embrace lovingly and stare serenely into the camera, a bevy of young women both white and black over-adorn themselves in chintzy sequins and glittery dresses, and in one disturbing picture a young white woman confidently wears a tank top with the Confederate Flag. The photographs reveal a community shrouded in provincial ignorance and showcase an evident, deeply-rooted struggle with racial tolerance. Accompanying the photographs is a video installation excerpted from the HBO film 'Southern Rites', which chronicles the death of Justin Patterson, a twenty-two year old African-American male who was shot and killed by Norman Neesmith while on his property. Neesmith claimed to have killed 'just a black boy', simply because Patterson was innocently visiting Neesmith's mixed-race daughter. Laub's work couldn't be any more timely and relevant given the racially-motivated tragedies that have occurred in Baltimore, Ferguson, and most recently in Charleston - events which continue to plague America. 'Southern Rites' ran from May 14-June 27 at the Benrubi Gallery in New York.