Launch into Leadership

Challenging assumptions: An artist’s look into Summerhill residents

Student, Richard Laupus displays his art exhibition at Georgia State. Photo by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

A Georgia State student’s exhibition at the Student Center East Art Gallery shows students the humblest of stories are worth telling. In “There’s Something about Summerville,” photographer and now documentarian Richard Laupus brings interviews, portraits, and history from one of Atlanta’s oldest historically black neighborhoods.

Richard Laupus was in marketing and advertising his entire career until he picked up a camera five years ago. He calls that a past life, and from where he is now, it must feel that way. Laupus is in his mid-sixties, and came back to school at Georgia State to study his passion of photography.

He paid for the project after being awarded a Community Investment Fund Grant from the Annie E. Casey foundation. When it came to staging his event, he said he found Georgia State’s Spotlight team to be very cooperative.

The idea for for the project found Laupus when he was a member of the Turner Field Benefits Coalition, a longtime resident of Peoplestown himself. Listening to older residents tell their stories, he became fascinated with the history of the area. Laupus said as a white person, he also recognized considerable differences between his life and their experiences. Race would be a theme that would continue to influence the stories he would go on to tell.

“There’s a real need, particularly in the historic black communities, to tell their story,” Laupus said. “Those communities are increasingly being paved under.”

THE RESEARCH PROCESS

Laupus knew he wanted to tell the rich history of the neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field, and believed Summerhill made a good focus because he found it always seemed to be the first hit by change.

That’s not something that has escaped the notice of Gloria Williams, one of the community members Laupus included.

“I’m hoping that Georgia State will bring good change to the community,” said Williams. “This, probably within my lifetime, is our last chance [for progress].”

He looked for subjects at community meetings and an annual Summerhill Reunion. When word of his project got around, people began to approach him with stories they wanted to share. Twenty-one people were interviewed for the project, and 12 stories from those interviews were chosen for the exhibition.

His goal was to just have a conversation with people. He had prepared questions, but he said he mostly just liked to listen without prompting. There was always a level of improvisation.

“As you go along, you start to understand a little bit more about the community, and you can ask other questions you might not have asked before.” Laupus said.

However there were hurdles to the interview process.

“It comes down to trust,” Laupus said. “When the people you are interviewing grew up in a segregated world, they don’t easily trust you necessarily.”

Laupus is conscious of the effect his race might have had on his effectiveness as an interviewer. He asks himself would the stories people told him or the way they told them have been different were they interviewed by someone black.

“You’re asking them to sit down and tell you about stuff that maybe they’d never told anybody before,” he said. “And that’s a burden.”

ARTISTIC DECISIONS

The exhibition was composed of 12 sets of portraits and selections from his interviews, arranged with each person alongside excerpts from the stories they told Laupus.

Each portrait is in black and white, a close shot against a black background. The images are stark and yet deeply warming. There’s a lot of contrasts like that in the collection. Laupus has captured a lot of consistency from shot to shot, and yet each image feels very personal.

Laupus said it took a variety of approaches to achieve this result. He had to be flexible. Initially he wanted to capture the portraits on location, in the subjects’ homes. When that became infeasible in many cases, he had to adjust.

“In the end, I either took them to my little studio in my house, or I took a little mini studio with me,” Laupus said. “A couple of them I shot over because I wanted to capture them differently. I wanted consistency.”

It is surprising then, in this rigorous attention to compositional consistency, Laupus’ work manages to impress the personal depth it does. He believes the more time he spent with subjects in interview, the more authentic the shoot turned out.

“I would say probably some of the portraits could have been better because some could only give me so much time,” Laupus said. “It comes down to whatever rapport or relationship you’ve managed to establish.”

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