Gillian Laub is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. She earned her BA degree in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, followed by a year studying photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. She is the recipient of multiple awards, including a Prix de la Photographie Paris first place award for her first monograph, Testimony, in 2008. Her work has been widely exhibited and is included in several prominent public collections, including the High Museum, Atlanta; the International Center of Photography, New York; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Although she is from New York and has lived the majority of her life there, Laub spent many years visiting Montgomery County, Georgia, after first learning about its high school’s segregated prom and homecoming dances. Laub became aware of this situation in 2002 when a former student from the school wrote to Spin magazine saying that she, a white student, had not been permitted to take her boyfriend, who was black, to homecoming. Laub took on the assignment of visiting the county to learn more. What she found and began documenting was that two separate proms and homecoming dances were organized by student committees overseen by parents. One set of dances was held exclusively for white students; no students of color were allowed to attend. The other dances were held after the first and could be attended by students of any race but were mostly attended by black students. Separate sets of black and white prom and homecoming kings and queens were crowned for each dance. Laub’s photograph Homecoming Court (2002) captures the only time that the white and black homecoming court appeared together. The white homecoming queen and black homecoming queen were each crowned separately by white and black first graders from the local elementary school, thus reinforcing the teaching of segregation from a young age.
With all her photographic subjects, Laub works carefully to establish strong relationships based on trust. Though members of the community backing the segregated proms met her with hostility, she developed strong bonds with several students and continued to follow up with them over the years during subsequent trips. Julie and Bubba, Mount Vernon (2002) shows two of the students Laub met when she first visited this community. Julie, whose older sister Anna was the young white woman who wrote to Spin, had white friends who were not allowed to socialize with her due to the race of her African American boyfriend, Bubba. Laub captures the couple in a relaxed embrace. They look at the camera openly, without armor or defensiveness. Their relationship, the picture seems to suggest, is something simple and honest that the surrounding community does not support due to entrenched histories of racism.
In 2010, after the community had received national attention because of Laub’s photographs, the school elected to integrate the prom. Although Montgomery County had seen social progress with the integration of the dance, the community was divided once more when one of the school’s former students, twenty-two-year-old African American Justin Patterson, was killed in January of 2011 by a white father who found Patterson in his home with his daughter. In light of this event, Laub began exploring this story and the broader issues of racial violence in the community. Her work resulted not only in a 2015 monograph of photographs, Southern Rites, but also in an HBO documentary film by the same name, as well as a traveling exhibition organized by the International Center of Photography. Her photograph Prom Prince and Princess Dancing at the Integrated Prom (2011) shows an interracial couple dancing at the prom, first made possible only the year before. The young princess wraps her arms around her prince, holding him close while they dance. Though enjoying this moment of relaxed intimacy, the young man also seems somewhat anxious, or at least aware, of the continuing dangers of such relationships for men of color in his community. Laub’s intimate photographs dig deeply into the complex emotions of young men and women grappling with the weight of the South’s long history of racism.