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What does it mean to be American? One photographer, in town this weekend, aims to find out

March 14, 2014
Sheila  Pree Bright

From Sheila Pree Bright’s Young Americans.

Before I had the chance to ask Shelia Pree Bright a question, she had one for me: “What does it mean to be an American in the 21st century?”

That’s what the Atlanta-based photographer is asking people interested in being photographed with the flag of the United States of America for her current project during her residency this week and next at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture. Walk-ins are welcome today, March 14, from 1-4 p.m. at the museum. You can catch a few images from her residency on her tumblr page.

How people pose is up to them, and Bright asks that question she posed to me as a way to get people to think about the flag, that symbol—perhaps even brand logo—of America that is sometimes so omnipresent we might not put much effort into considering what it means to us individually. “I use that question to talk to people because that really gets them to start thinking about it,” Bright says, sitting in a chair on the second floor of the museum where she’s set up her gear.

A white background runs into sheets of white paper taped onto the floor, and four lights create a sweet spot in this expanse. Bright is soft-spoken but instantly engaging, and casually clad in jeans, black high-tops, a red shirt, and olive green jacket, she gives off this inviting warmth that makes you suspect people aren’t afraid to open up about their personal thoughts on being American.

“I don’t say come and let’s do this photograph,” she continues. “We sit down and talk. They make a statement [about what it means to be an American]. And then I really engage with them through their statement. Sometimes I pick out words that they used and that’s how I get them to start thinking about America and their relationship with that flag.”

For this project, Bright will also interview people about what it means to be an American at the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum Saturday, March 15, and Tuesday, March 18, and you can sign up to participate. And she met with students from the City Springs Elementary/Middle School as well. Her eventual piece will feature large-scale portraits that will be wheatpasted on the museum’s second-floor walls with a sound installation Bright will construct from her interviews, while portraits of the students will be installed at their school. The installation piece is part of the Reginald F. Lewis’s upcoming exhibition, For Whom it Stands: The Flag and the American People, curated by Michelle Joan Wilkinson, the Lewis Museum’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions, that opens May 17.

Bright’s installation is an outgrowth of her Young Americans series, for which she photographed members of generation Y with the flag. That series confronted stereotypes of young people as a lazy, disinterested demographic and spotlighted a wide range of thoughts on the flag, on being an American, on patriotism, and on identity in general.

When Wilkinson invited the photographer to continue the project for inclusion in For Whom it Stands, Bright saw it as an opportunity to expand its scope and reach. “I photographed a lot of Baby Boomers yesterday,” she says. “And coming from photographing generation Y, a lot of them were not in totality mad with America but they felt that that a burden is being placed on them, and they have to carry the baggage from what previous generations have done. With the Baby Boomers that I’ve photographed so far, everything was lovely, We live in this great country and I just love America.

“I found that very amazing because the Baby Boomers come from the time of the civil rights movement when there was change and I think maybe,” she starts to say, and then trails off. “I don’t know. I’m seeing a difference. I’ve had Gen Xers, people form the silent generation, everybody coming to me saying, ‘We have something to say about America’ and they want to intermingle with that flag. So what I’m trying to do now is bring that [generational] gap together because we don’t talk to each other. Once I finished Young Americans, I didn’t think I would continue [it], but that flag? I can’t get away from it.”

And she doesn’t let her subjects get away from it either. She wasn’t kidding with that question she asked me: could she shoot me? Sure, and after we talked and I sat down at her computer to compose my statement, I realized I’d never giving much thought at all about what it means to be an American. And to be perfectly frank, the first thoughts that came to mind weren’t exactly patriotic. Words like “arrogance” and “imperialism” might’ve been used. But the more I sat and thought, the more my mind drifted to my Mexican-American grandfather and his brothers who all served in World War II or Korea, and the unwavering pride they had in their service. My idea of being an American was more complicated than my initial cynicism suggested.

Bright came over to read through what I typed, picking out words, asking me questions, relating stories and thoughts of her own that overlapped with mine. “OK,” she says, picking up her camera. “What are you thinking about doing with this flag?”

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