Sheila Pree Bright completed her MFA in photography at Georgia State University in Atlanta and continues to live in that city. She has been recognized with multiple awards, including the Santa Fe Fellowship, and her photographs are in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress, both in Washington, D.C., and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, among many others.
Bright’s sustained focus on the African American experience in the South has entailed projects that range from the most apparently banal, suburban living, to the most charged, the Black Lives Matter protests in the region and beyond over recent years. Bright’s work also showcases a profound historical sensitivity, as seen for example in her 1960Who series, in which she wheat-pasted her portraits of locally significant but nationally unsung heroes of the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century on buildings across Atlanta. She then made photographs of those public art installations.
Bright’s Southbound photographs capture an explosion of activism across the region in response to the entrenched racism that has manifested most immediately in multiple police killings of African American men and women in the years after the controversial acquittal of the defendant in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. That activism came to be denoted by the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter precisely for the perception among activists, and more broadly within society, that African Americans are not afforded the same protections as other Americans.
Protestors in Bright’s images are adamant about the value of their lives and of those they speak for, including the impoverished, the homeless, black transgender people, and the deceased whose names must be remembered. These are photographs freighted with meaning about the lives of African Americans that goes beyond the immediate protests that bring them into the public sphere. Martin Luther King Jr. is reclaimed, the failures of capitalism are revisited, and the 1960s battle cry “I AM A MAN” is resurrected. Her image titled Protesting White Nationalists at the “White Power” March in Stone Mountain Park I (2016) depicts one of the most vexing sites in the region, both for the enormity of the high-relief sculpture there, purportedly the world’s largest, and for its symbolism as the place where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn a century ago, to say nothing of the sympathies of the original sculptor and his celebration of mounted Confederate generals. In this photograph we see an African American woman, arms outstretched, holding a backlit Confederate flag. She is protesting white supremacy and laying claim to all of the complexity of Southern history. In another image from the same protest march at Stone Mountain, titled Protesting White Nationalists at the “White Power” March in Stone Mountain Park II (2016), we see African American police officers in riot gear, ready, presumably, for what the protesters or counter protesters might bring.
Bright’s images resonate in the work of fellow Southbound photographers like Jessica Ingram and Jeanine Michna-Bales, whose works also thread together troubling aspects of the African American experience in the South, always focused on the need to protect black lives. Their series range from protests in the twenty-first century in Bright’s images, to Ingram’s revisiting sites of violence from the civil rights era in the mid-twentieth, to Michna-Bales’s retracing of the nineteenth century’s underground railroad. The message is, in part, one of the need for vigilance and activism to ensure that important strides in making real the promise of rights for all Southerners are not eroded and that this promise might conceivably come to full fruition in today’s New South. Bright’s documentation of key dimensions of the African American experience in the early twenty-first century makes her work particularly compelling in this respect.