Sheila Pree Bright on seeking truth and questioning power

Born and raised in a military family, Sheila Pree Bright is a fine art and documentary photographer based in Atlanta. Often described as a “social anthropologist,” for three decades Bright has approached subjects of identity, challenging preconceptions of identity, image, race and class in her projects such as “Plastic Bodies” and “Suburbia.”

Recently, Bright produced #1960Now: Photographs of Civil Rights Activists and Black Lives Matter Protests, published by Chronicle Books. #1960Now is a project and book that chronicles the conscious stream of African American activism for civil rights and social justice, in particular the linkage of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s with the current Black Lives Movement.

Bright is in DC this week for a Thursday night book talk at the Eaton Hotel and will participate in a Saturday panel discussion at Focus on the Story 2019. She took time out with Focus on the Story to discuss her views and work.

Sheila Pree Bright will be at the Eaton Hotel for a free author talk and book signing at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. She will also appear at Focus on the Story 2019.

1994, Scarface, The Diary, 'The White Sheets,,' which is included in the book Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak.

Mike Lee: What inspired you to become a photographer?

Sheila Pree Bright: Photography found me, growing up as a child, I was an introvert staying to myself because kids would always bully me. My safe space was staying in my room, reading books, separating myself from my siblings.

However, I didn’t pick up a camera until my last year in college and the median of photography became my brave space to communicate what I was experiencing in the world through my eyes.

My first experience in the photography world was photographing Rappers promotional portraits and cd covers for Rap-A- Lot Records and other Independent Record labels.

From the series "Suburbia," is a series which takes aim at the American media's projection of the "typical" African American community and depicts a more realistic and common ideology of African American life.

Lee: In your work, particularly in Plastic Bodies, Suburbia and in Grillz, you approach issues of identity, challenge perceptions and reclaim cultural and social space. How much of your experiences growing up inspired and flowed into these series?

Bright: Being the daughter of a soldier, who was exposed to different cultures at a young age, has shaped and informed my thinking about the world.

In my artistic practice, my focus is always on the ordinary people. I observe trends and movement to capture images that allow us to experience those who are unheard as they contemplate or voice their reaction to ideas and issues that are shaping their world.

My approach is to seek the common thread that connects the human condition.

Lee: You spoke often of your role as an artist and documentarian in this time of activism. Talk about that, and the importance and challenges in telling relating a narrative.

Bright: In this critical time in our country in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, #Metoo and #immigration, I can’t ignore the injustices citizens are faced with every day.

Also as a woman and being Black, I feel our stories need to be told from our point of view, far too long our history has been shaped and molded through the eyes of the white male narrative.

Lee: Who is your greatest inspiration as a person and artist?

Bright: My father is my greatest inspiration who taught me always to speak the truth no matter what. So, I’m always seeking the truth and questioning the power structures that inform representations of communities and individuals.

Lee: In a time when photojournalism is nearly in color, you specifically chose to shoot #1960Now in black and white. What influenced that decision?

Bright: The #1960Now series is a body of work which reminisces the era of Jim Crow and in contemporary times, young people are experiencing the same injustices as their parents and grandparents.

I choose to shoot in B&W using it as a metaphor to show the fight for human rights of the 60s are the same manifesting itself as a different signifier in the 21st century. Without the attributes of beauty and justice, there is no love.

Lee: What do you believe can be your greatest impediment to your photography?

Bright: I don’t think in that way. It’s about doing because when one door closes another one greater will open.

Lee: Could you tell us something about your upcoming panel at Focus on the Story?

Bright: I’m looking forward to our conversation with my colleagues, Michael McCoy and Ruddy Roye. We will discuss the effects of mental health and how photography can be used as an awakening to bring about awareness too critically look at complex social issues which have affected neighborhoods and individuals lives for centuries. Can we imagine a new world?

All images © Sheila Pree Bright. You can see more of her work on her website.

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.

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