Atlanta-based photographer Shelia Pree Bright
remembers what it felt like when people let her know she was in some way different from them. A self-described Army brat, in the 1970s her father was stationed in Europe, and she recalls other young people being curious about her appearance. "At 6 I was in Germany, and people always wanted to touch your skin, and as a child you wouldn't understand all that," she says during a March interview at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture. "But I was fine, it was cool, until the German kids called us the N-word. Hurt my feelings so bad. You know what I wanted to be instead? Jewish-in Germany."
Here she slightly rolls her eyes and shakes her head at her own childish ignorance and confesses her acculturation into the attitudes grafted onto things such as skin color, nationality, and ethnicity were realities she was still figuring out into adulthood. "I grew up around different ethnicities," she says of her childhood, "and when I came to Atlanta, I had never been around that many black folks in my life. It was just amazing. But it's still the South and you have that black and white thing going on, and I couldn't understand it. I was shocked. I called my mother and said, 'What in the world is going on here?' And she said, 'Child, you're in the South.'"
She emphasizes this last word with a quick head nod, conveying that sense that, for her mother, the mere utterance of "South" described an entire worldview that should explain what her daughter was feeling. At the time, Pree Bright was already exploring the cultural assumptions that shape how one person views another, only she was doing it through her camera. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1998, where she first took a photography class, she moved to Houston, Texas, where she started photographing young African-American men involved in the city's hip-hop and gangster-rap circles, where she was too naive to recognize that their guns and drugs were real.
Ever since, she's used portraiture photography as a way to explore identity, which is what brought her to Baltimore. Pree Bright invited Baltimoreans to get their pictures taken with the flag of the United States, an extension of her Young Americans series, showing members of generation Y posing with that instantly recognizable symbol of the country. Images from those sessions are included in the museum's new exhibit,
For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People
, which opens this week. (Note: This writer participated in her sessions in order to write about the project at the time, and one image from then is included in Pree Bright's "Fifteen" installation.)
Sitting on a folding metal chair on the second floor of the museum, Pree Bright seems demure to the point of being a wallflower. She's petite and soft-spoken, and thinking about her hanging out with gangster rappers and their guns sends a slight chill down the spine. She admits she was very shy growing up-"as a child I would not speak, because when I would talk everybody would look at me and I didn't want to say anything wrong"-but with the camera, she can articulate her mind with clarity and confidence. "It's kind of like my guard," she says of the camera. "Gordon Parks said that he used the camera as his weapon, symbolically, so I say that too. I'm still shy, but the camera has brought me out a lot."
She mentions In High Def, a portrait series of Atlanta men with gold fronts. She says she was fascinated by all the young men in the city who were getting them, and she would go up to them and ask if she could take their picture, followed by a simple question: Why do y'all want gold teeth in your mouth? "When you think about black males in the urban community, people have that stereotype of them being defiant and thuggish," she says. "And, really, they're like babies. They couldn't tell me why. They'd say, 'Well, the girls like it.'"
Her photos in this series capture that childlike chagrin: The guys in it are smiling and cherubic, and leave a different impression than an image of a young black man with grills snarling at the camera, which might be what first comes to mind when thinking about gold fronts. "A stereotype is a very powerful thing that's ingrained in all of us unconsciously, even if it's the gold teeth," Pree Bright says, adding that she gave a lecture about the series in California and students were initially reluctant to open up. "One white girl came out [and said], 'Every time I see a picture of a black male, I think of a thug and criminal.' And that was good. I want my work to bring out these issues, to talk about it, because a lot of times we all can't get past the stereotypes we have of one another."
And those stereotypes get transferred from people to things. Pree Bright's Suburbia series is a riff on portraiture: it's shots of the homes of suburban African-Americans. The series consists of interior images of people's homes, with the actual residents obscured in the shot, barely in it or not present at all. "I didn't want to point my camera at urban America because those are the dejected images that we see a lot in the media," she says. "And if you have never grew up or been around African-Americans, [those urban images] put us all in the same pot. I wanted to take a different look at the black middle class, and talk about the invisibility of them."
They're gorgeous photos, feeling like those stately images seen in
of affluent homes. Little things in the shot suggest who the inhabitants might be, and Pree Bright was surprised by the reactionary responses they earned from some viewers. "Some people could not believe they were black homes," she says. "One guy was like, 'I grew up around Martin Luther King and you don't have enough [black] signifiers in here.' And I said, 'Well, what is it that you want to see? Fried chicken? Collard greens? Watermelon?'"
Such calm annihilation of cliches permeates Pree Bright's work, including the Baltimore-shot variations of Young Americans' portraits with the flag included in
For Whom It Stands
. The exhibition is a meditation on the melting pot that makes up the American experience, and includes work by Rafael Colón, Dalya Luttwak, James Kerry Marhsall, Gordon Parks, Faith Ringgold, Flo Oy Wong, Helen Zughaib, and more, and for the first time, items from the museum's L. Albert Scipio Collection of minority military artifacts will be exhibited. The exhibition is intentionally broad-multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-media-a way to suggest the vastness of the country and its people.
Pree Bright understands the kind of impact such museum experiences can have. She speculates that her interest in portraiture might have something to do with to her father taking her family to see museums overseas. "I think it must have really affected me as a child being in Germany, because my father took us all to museums all the time, and I would always see these portraits of people who didn't look like me," she says. "He didn't know how to talk to us about it, he just made us go. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to portraits and why I always wonder why people from different cultures act the way they do. It doesn't have to be the difference between black and white folks. Stereotypes can affect anybody."
For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People opens May 17 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American history and Culture and runs through Feb. 28, 2015. As part of the exhibition, Shelia Pree Bright's mural at the City Springs School is also unveiled May 17, and the "O Say Can You Feel - Stories Inspired by National Flags" performance takes place at the Museum at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. May 17. For more information, visit