Few things loom as large in Southern culture as family. “Who are your people?” is a pillar of regional inquiry.
A new exhibit at the University of South Alabama Archaeology Museum shows those bonds to be both resilient and tenuous. They’re also dynamic, extending beyond the families into which we’re born and into those we make for ourselves.
The show is “Family Matters: LGBTQ Youth Perspectives,” blending written word with photography by USA alum Carolyn Sherer. It’s a component of the Common Read / Common World Initiative promoting writer-in-residence Frye Gaillard’s civil rights book “Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America.”
Gaillard will be on hand at an opening reception Jan. 28, 4-6 p.m., joined by the folk band Mouths of Babes. This exhibition was developed by Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO) and made possible in part by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“I typically work in series to create a mosaic portrait of marginalized communities. Past projects include portraits of people with disabilities, individuals living with HIV, Southern teenage girls and in lesbian families in the Deep South,” Sherer said in email.
The photographer’s 2011 project, “Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South,” not only exhibited at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute but put her on BAO’s radar. They became the impetus and architect of something new.
“I was asked to make a sequel created to explore and celebrate the next generation of Deep South LGBTQ communities — our youth who embrace non-binary gender and sexual identities, with full expectation of equality as they plan future families and careers,” Sherer wrote.
BAO provided staff to identify the participants and manage the shooting schedule at Sherer’s studio. Familiar with similar projects, the photographer knew what she sought.
“My conceptual framework was developed to reveal familiarity in a safe environment. I almost always seek a direct gaze when creating a portrait to allow visual intimacy, as I did in this case,” Sherer said.
She used white background to focus on the subject sans distractions. It also removed identifiable traces of home for safety’s sake.
One subject, 24-year-old Birmingham native Lauren Jacobs, had long been involved in similar efforts. She was a member of the University of Alabama’s LGBTQ group Spectrum and has remained active in the community with her current work as part of the BAO team.
“The photography process was warm and accepting from the start. Everyone chose what they wanted to wear and how they wanted to present themselves. It was quick, fun and natural,” Jacobs said.
The subjects worked with the Birmingham Museum of Art and BAO to craft their personal narratives. The resulting mixture of prose and poetry hang next to their portraits.
Jacobs fashioned quotes from her mother and her own reactions into a tantamount timeline. The revelation is evolution.
“They showed how we began talking about my sexuality and gender in veiled, uncomfortable vagueness, and by the time I came out we spoke in very specific queer-culture references. I thought overall it was a funny way to get a glimpse at how much things changed for us,” Jacobs said.
Some of the sessions stood out to Sherer. One easily came to mind.
“My experience with 15-year-old Lucy was profound. Her father drove her to my studio, signed a model release and sped away in the car. It was the first day that Lucy, who self-identified as a transgender, wore a dress in public,” Sherer said.
The environment became key. Self-discovery was the result.
“Despite the gutsy decisions that brought Lucy to my studio that day, my instinct was to put a protective arm around her and at some point in the photo shoot she did that herself. Clearly the decisive moment — I released the shutter”
Sherer said the image was accepted into the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. It will travel to four major museums during the next two years.
Jacobs has seen the project result in new bonds, a new family of sorts. The participants have stayed connected.
“We’ll joke as the images travel about how everyone’s faces have made it to different places. It’s really important to me as the work travels that we’re all connected to Alabama, and as people view the portraits and narratives as representations of what happens across the country, I love knowing we’re all true Alabama stories,” Jacobs said.
It has also enhanced Jacobs’ relationship with her first family. There’s an understood complexity now.
“The ‘Family Matters’ opening reception at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was one of the first times I feel like my mom got to see me in action being out and happy with my community. It was excellent to have the images in this space and for us to explore both the celebratory and somber nature of what family means to us,” Jacobs said.
After the opening reception, the exhibit will be in place until July 22. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Entrance is free.