Documentary photographers sometimes wonder what kind of impact their work has, but Gillian Laub knows hers has inspired real change. When she started photographing proms in Mt. Vernon, Georgia, in 2002, they were segregated. There was a white prom and a black prom — only Mexicans could attend both — and two separate crowns for two separate queens.
Then in 2009, the New York Times Magazine published some of the images that make up Laub’s series Southern Rites, and it caused such an uproar that the town finally desegregated its proms — more than five decades after Brown v. Board of Education. But that triumph seemed small to many in the community by 2011, when an elderly white man shot and killed 22-year-old Justin Patterson, one of Laub’s black subjects.
Laub explored that story in a documentary by the same title that premiered on HBO in May. But the images, taken over 12 years and on view through Saturday at the Benrubi Gallery, remain invaluable windows into modern racial tensions. They reveal the hypocrisy of the older generation — in this case the parents, school administrators, and local politicians who perpetuated a racist culture in their town — and how it damages the optimism of the younger. It also propagates the hatred of the past, as seen most recently in the case of Dylan Roof.
Despite what happened in South Carolina last week, Laub’s work also proffers a tantalizing hope: that through such American high schoolers, bedazzled in sequins and satin and dancing at their only recently integrated prom, true societal transformation and justice may come.