Viewing the World Through Sheila Pree Bright's Lens
Although Fine Art photographer Sheila Pree Bright was raised in Germany, her roots lie in the South. Born in Waycross, GA and currently based in Atlanta, Bright's images often tackle social and racial matters in America. In 2003, she created Plastic Bodies, a photo series exploring beauty standards in Western culture through digitally manipulated images of Barbie dolls. Her other projects include 2006's Suburbia, a series capturing African American suburban homes and 2008's Young Americans, featuring images of American millenials.
In 2013, Bright created 1960 Who, a photo project that showcased activists that committed their time and energy to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's. She followed this project with 1960 Now to chronicle Black Lives Matter protests and activists throughout the country.
October 2018 saw the release of Sheila Pree Bright's photo book, 1960 Now: Photographs of Civil Rights Activists and Black Lives Matter Protests, with an introduction by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. The book also contains writing from Deborah Willis, Aaron Bryant, and Kiche Griffin.
We had the chance to talk to her about her photographic work and connection to her Southern roots.
Sheila Pree Bright's exhibition, "Radical Lens" is on display at the Clark Atlanta University Museum through May 31, 2019.
--- Auburn Avenue Editorial Staff
"Artists are the gatekeepers of the truth."
Tell us about the development of the '1960 Who' and #1960Now projects, which are the subjects of your new photo book.
In 2013, I was installing my Young Americans images on the David T. Howard building in Atlanta. During this time, Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted. Subsequently, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan Cullors used the “#BlackLivesMatter” on social media and the Black Lives Matter movement began. I started thinking about the young people in the BLM movement and how they were changing the face of this nation. I first did the project '1960 Who,' in which I photographed elders that were activists during the 1960s. When the killings of black people prompted the BLM movement, I knew that I needed to find the activists that were on the ground. I photographed protests in Atlanta, ultimately traveling to Ferguson, Baltimore, Washington, DC and Baton Rouge. The body of work I produce evolved from the '1960 Who' series into #1960Now. The work consists of studio portraits of past and present social justice activist with documentary images from the recent movement.
What was it like being on the ground during the unrest and protests?
I was in Baltimore when Freddie Gray passed. It was a Sunday. That Monday, I went into West Baltimore. You could feel the tension in that community. The police station was in the middle of that community and was taped off. I was so caught up when I stepped out of the car to photograph the landscape because I felt like I was in a third world country. The community was resistant to the media and outsiders coming in to take photos. I ensured them that I was there to tell their stories respectfully. I focused on the range of emotions of the people to humanize them. So often the media portrays only one narrative that’s usually one-sided and angry or negative. Even here in Atlanta, I was at a march with the people chanting "Say Her Name" and the artist Janelle Monae was performing "Hell You Talmbout." The protest was so emotional. I took a photograph of Roman Gianarthur, a member of Wondaland Records, who had tears running down his face. That was the kind of stuff I sought to capture.
Do you have a personal commitment to investigating and exploring social issues through your work?
Artists are the gatekeepers of the truth. I’ve always had an interest in individuals and communities that are often muted and unheard. As a child, I wondered why different communities view each other in particular ways. I always look at what’s going on in culture and how it informs my work. When Plastic Bodies was produced, it was during the music video era on BET and other channels, so I explored how black women felt about their bodies. With Suburbia, I was tired of looking at photos of black people in the hood. Although it’s a reality, there wasn’t enough balance, so I decided to show the lifestyle of black people in suburbia. I purposely didn’t show the black people in the photographs because I wanted to focus on the invisibility of suburban black people in the art world. In the Young Americans series, I took portraits of young people and asked them what it meant for them to be “American in the 21st century.” When black bodies were getting shot down, I knew I had to do something, which is why I created #1960Now. For the most part, my work has always been in museums or galleries, but I’ve never been the type of artist to just do something for money. I've been successful in my career by focusing on the work first.
Can you talk about the relationship with the South?
Both of my parents grew up in the South. My father was in the military and left his birthplace Waycross, Georgia because he would have been lynched if he had stayed. My mother and father didn’t talk about the Civil Rights Movement me and my siblings. Many parents wanted to protect their children from those issues. I was born in Waycross and my formative years were spent in Germany; I didn’t come back to the South until after the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. At the time, I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico getting ready to go to California. However, my auntie passed and my sister told me, “You have to come home.” My husband and I have been here ever since. I’m glad that I came back because it has helped me understand where my roots are and who I am as a person.