Gillian Laub knows what it’s like to feel unwelcome. As a New York–based photographer who spent several years photographing residents of a small Georgia town, Laub has had to stop at a gas station to duct-tape the tires on her rental car after they were slashed. She once left a Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant after police told her that the townspeople liked to take matters into their own hands. And she’s had a sheriff reach into her car and grab at her camera to physically stop her from taking pictures.
“I think that incident was really important to have happen to me, because I was fine,” she says. “But it made me realize I was fine because I was very conscious that I got to leave. They had to stay here and deal with the fact that authority is not there to protect them.”
“They” are the African-American residents of Montgomery County, Georgia, the setting of Laub’s first documentary, Southern Rites, which premieres May 18 on HBO — the same week that, in 1954, the Supreme Court delivered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. From May 14 to June 27, Laub’s photographs from Montgomery County, which span twelve years, will be on display at Benrubi Gallery in Chelsea as part of a collaboration with the International Center of Photography. And tonight, Laub will discuss her experiences in a TimesTalk along with musician John Legend, who serves as an executive producer on Southern Rites.
Southern Rites grew out of a 2009 New York Times Magazine photo essay in which Laub documented a stubborn tradition in the Montgomery County town of Mount Vernon: segregated proms. The town’s high school was integrated in 1971, but continued to hold a separate prom for the white and black students. It even crowned separate kings and queens.
The magazine spread attracted national attention and outrage, and led the school to integrate the proms in 2010. But Laub felt she hadn’t finished telling the story she wanted to tell — a story that began a decade earlier.
In 2000, Anna Rich, a student at Montgomery County High School, wrote a letter to Spin magazine begging someone to come and document the segregated proms. Her boyfriend at the time was African American, and she had been forbidden from taking him to her prom. By the time the magazine commissioned Laub to accompany a writer to the town in 2002, Anna had graduated, but her sister, Julie, was a freshman, and was also told she could not take her African-American boyfriend to the prom.
Laub’s first trip to Montgomery County opened her eyes to a new and unfamiliar world. Born in suburban Westchester County (she now lives in Soho), Laub says she had never seen the kind of racism she witnessed in small-town Georgia. Julie Rich showed her around town, and Laub photographed the students before their homecoming dance, which at the time was likewise segregated. (The school held its last segregated homecoming in 2005.)
“There was such a dissonance,” Laub recalls, “because it seemed like this was such a beautiful, friendly, integrated community — more integrated than any community I had ever seen.” The town’s population seemed to her to be about half white and half black, and everyone gathered together to celebrate homecoming. “It actually kind of felt like the idyllic town. It was totally mixed — I’m not just saying that. It was totally mixed. But then I saw a ballot. And there’s a ballot for a white girl and a black girl. I’m like, this doesn’t make sense to me.” Laub left the United States for four years to work on a photography project in the Middle East, but in the back of her mind, she knew she wanted to return to Montgomery County. “I don’t have to go around the world to find interesting stories,” she says. “There are crazy-important stories happening in my own backyard.”
Southern Rites weaves together three different narrative strands. Aside from the prom, the film follows the father of Keyke Burns, a young student whom Laub met and photographed during her initial 2002 trip to Mount Vernon. Keyke’s father, Calvin, Montgomery County’s police chief, was campaigning to be the county’s first black sheriff. “He was telling me, ‘This is so great, because years ago I wanted to run and I was getting death threats all night,’ ” Laub recalls. While she was in town documenting his run, she got a text message from Keyke: A 22-year-old black man named Justin Patterson — Keyke’s ex-boyfriend — had been shot and killed by a white man, whose adopted daughter had invited Justin over to her house. Justin was shot while running away from the house.
When Laub began filming in 2010, she says, “I thought I was making a film about prom.” But Southern Rites is about more than a school dance; it’s about a community marred by an intractable racial divide. “I knew that I wanted to really commit myself to this, because I knew that the proms were a symptom of something larger.”
For Laub, the most inspiring part of the whole story is that letter young Anna Rich sent to Spin, now fifteen years ago. “I really do believe none of this would have happened [without the letter] — and when I say none of this, I mean attention,” Laub says. “Attention is what brought the homecomings to end segregation, and the proms. And then the killing of an unarmed black man — we’re seeing it now in the news, but when I was covering this, no one was covering it. I was that enraged person, like, ‘How is this happening and no one is talking about it?’ It just got more deep and intense when we’re talking about a death and not a school dance.”
Southern Rites debuts on Monday, May 18, at 9 p.m. on HBO. The TimesTalk with John Legend begins at 7:30 p.m., at NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place. $40.