Amherst Magazine

Photographer Mary Beth Meehan '89

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In her City of Champions project, photographer Mary Beth Meehan returns to her hometown of Brockton, Mass., to document a city that has seen, over the past two decades, rapid deindustrialization and a sharp rise in unemployment and crime. Her images challenge the viewer to look for a more nuanced story of the city and its people than is often found in mainstream media. This photo shows a woman, Francella McFarlane, returning home from her job at a homeless shelter. “I expected that my life would be better than this,” McFarlane, who moved to Brockton from Jamaica, tells Meehan, “but I still thank God because I have come on a long journey.

Profile by Katherine Jamieson

As a staff photographer for the Providence Journal in the late 1990s, Mary Beth Meehan ’89 would often find herself drawn to scenes outside the scope of her assignments. Though these daily moments didn’t relate directly to the news, she realized that her photographs of them could challenge readers’ preconceptions of the places she covered, some of which were stereotyped in the media as dangerous or “bad” neighborhoods. “I wanted people to set aside the label for a minute and look at how much beauty was there,” she says. The result was a weekly column that paired short prose descriptions with evocative black-and-white photos: pallbearers ordering breakfast at a diner after a funeral; an anxious teenager waiting to admit his grandmother to the emergency room; parishioners chopping and splitting a bundle of palms for Palm Sunday; women and girls laughing in the kitchen.

Meehan’s column, which ran for five years and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, exemplified what’s sometimes called the “third effect”: the power of pairing words with photos to create a whole bigger than the sum of its parts. “I was creating text that didn’t tread the same ground as the image, but treaded slightly to the side. They overlapped in places and amplified each other in places,” she says.

While studying fine arts, art history, literature and poetry at Amherst, Meehan was first exposed to artists who focused on day-to-day images to convey larger meaning. A poetry course with David Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English, helped her see how ordinary moments can be either passed by or taken as cause for reflection. “He helped us appreciate and relish what the poet could create out of the mundane,” Meehan says. “William Carlos Williams writing about a ‘rumpled sheet of brown paper’ rolling down the street really blew me away.” In college Meehan also explored the question of who narrates a person’s story. “This idea has influenced me a lot,” she says, “especially when working with communities that don’t have access to the engine, to the platform. They have their own reality and are constantly being spoken for.”

Meehan’s sensitivity to this idea is central in her latest photography project, City of Champions, a portrait of her hometown of Brockton, Mass., a city of 94,000 located 20 miles south of Boston. Meehan’s great-grandparents moved there from County Tipperary, Ireland, around 1880, when Brockton was known as “Shoe City” because of its dominance in the shoe manufacturing industry. Once famous for being home to boxing champions such as Rocky Marciano, the city has seen, over the past two decades, a sharp rise in un­employment and crime. “Brockton is a really proud place with a strong industrial history. Deindustrialization kicked it to bits,” Meehan says. After witnessing the decline, Meehan wanted to understand what happened—and to elucidate the issue for others. “Either you’re blaming, or figuring out what caused these changes,” she says.

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Boxer Jose Diaz at the Petronelli Brothers Gym, which is credited with producing some of Brockton’s most famous fighters. Photos from City of Champions were exhibited this fall in the New England Photography Biennial.

She saw clearly how Brockton was part of the much larger national trend of towns abandoned in the wake of
factory closings. Through the City of Champions project, she connected with the nonprofit organization MassINC, which advocates for Brockton and other cities in Massachusetts. Interestingly, Meehan’s work in Brockton has provided a third effect for the organization as well. “Mary Beth’s work on Brockton is outstanding,” says John Schneider, executive vice president of MassINC. “Her images and stories bring to life the hardship and promise of places like Brockton that have always been economic engines for the middle class but are deteriorating due to their exclusion from the new, knowledge-based economy.”

The images in City of Champions de­pict a place in transition and the challenges faced from rapid deindustrialization. In one photo, a Jamaican woman stands bundled against the cold in a vacant field, returning from her job at a homeless shelter where she is paid minimum wage. There are references to past glory in the photos: a young man with a cross tattooed on his chest at the Petronelli Brothers Gym, which is credited with producing some of Brockton’s most famous fighters; a group of Irish-American politicians gathered to celebrate another political win. The costs of rising unemployment and poverty are also documented: teenagers are shown gathered around the gravesite of a friend shot during an argument over a video game. And then there are moments of normalcy and joy: a Haitian family’s backyard barbecue, a young girl’s First Communion. The images create a striking panorama of Brockton and challenge the viewer to look for a more nuanced story of the city and its people than is often found in mainstream media.

Two images from City of Champions were exhibited this fall in the New England Photography Biennial, held at the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, Mass.

Katherine Jamieson is a freelance writer and professor of literature and communications at Westfield State College and Holyoke Community College. Her work has recently been published in The New York Times. For more on Meehan, visit www.marybethmeehan.com.