Who is your neighbor? The obvious answer points across the hall, over the back fence or “down the road a piece.”
Maybe they’re farther. Maybe those most distant are closer than assumed.
Photographer John Mireles used immediate definitions when he snapped faces from his San Diego neighborhood, then mounted large prints of the work on the fence around his home. The sudden attention from those nearby stirred a communal spirit.
“I went on to New York and shot some more and was in Ohio and Detroit and started just playing around with the idea, and then decided to take this all across the country,” Mireles said.
Even in that first project, his eye, sensitivity and skill are obvious. Each exquisite portrait is more than just another name or address. Their stories are as inherent as their mysteries.
With 28 states behind him since May 2015, Mireles’ goal to hit all 50 is more than halfway realized. It’s that quest that brings him through the Deep South in the coming weeks. Well, that and the weather.
“I specifically am going through the South in April because going through there in summer does not strike me as fun,” Mireles cracked.
Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Arkansas are all on the leg. He is due to hit Mobile around April 4 and can’t say for certain what his specific agenda will be.
“It’s constantly a moving target. My goal is to get a cross section of Americans and America in my photos. I’m not looking for any one particular group or type of person,” Mireles said.
Like a painter, he’s constantly toying with his palette, filling in spots or stepping back in contemplation. Location is one tool.
“Sometimes I set up on a busy street or at a gas station. Gas stations are great because whether you’re rich or poor, you’ve got to stop for gas. That’s often a really opportunity,” Mireles said.
He’s set up his makeshift studio outside sawmills to capture those leaving work. In Gloucester, Massachusetts, he sought fishermen dropping off lobsters.
“I’ll probably be in Mobile for a couple days. Usually I try and set up shop and maybe go from point to point and a couple of places and just see how it goes,” Mireles said.
His subjects are given a card with a website where they can check out the work or download personal copies. Examples and a documentary can be found at jraymondm.com.
“I think I’ve pressed the shutter about 8,000 individual times for this trip and will have photographed several thousand people by the time this project is done. I’ll have a library of maybe 20,000 images or so,” Mireles said.
It’s a project made easier by digital technology, for sure. The cost of developing a body of work like that would be prohibitive, especially considering his latest investment.
“I just spent $10,000 on a camera for this trip. It’s a Hasselblad X1D. There’s a handful of them presently in the country and I got my hands on one of them,” Mireles said.
The editorial process is hardest of all. His personal experience is difficult to work around.
“I fall in love with my photos and the subjects. After every shoot I have a new favorite. It’s like killing my babies to edit through the photos,” Mireles said.
Come May, Mireles will be in Anchorage, Alaska, for a commissioned project that goes up at the end of the summer. The plan is to hit the Midwest after that, then wind up in a more soothing locale.
“I’ll wait until winter, when the country’s cold, and Hawaii will be my last state. I’ll go, take some photos, then I’ll sit with a drink on the beach and I’m going to enjoy that drink,” Mireles said.
Eventually he hopes to tour the exhibit, to give those who participated a better look. His aim is to exceed the small segment of the population who actually enter museums and galleries.
Mireles wants something broader. Moving house to house, street to street, then we’re all neighbors, poised to touch each other like a continent of upright dominoes.
In his blog, Mireles wrote: “Along my journey, I’ve been reminded over and over just how good and polite and friendly Americans are … As much as I love photographing the people of America, the sum of all these connections is more powerful still. To photograph America is to understand that we’re indeed one people with common values and a spirit of caring for each other.”