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Beyond borders

Neighbors Project, a large-scale photography exhibit in downtown Oklahoma City, explores the differences and similarities between Americans.

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Portraits from photographer John Raymond Mireles’ Neighbors Project are on display outside the BOK Park Plaza building at the intersection of N. Walker and W. Sheridan avenues until April 15. - JOHN RAYMOND MIRELES / PROVIDED
  • John Raymond Mireles / provided
  • Portraits from photographer John Raymond Mireles’ Neighbors Project are on display outside the BOK Park Plaza building at the intersection of N. Walker and W. Sheridan avenues until April 15.

When photographer John Raymond Mireles moved to a new neighborhood, he thought of a more original way to meet his new neighbors than borrowing a cup of sugar. He photographed several of the people in his community, displayed larger-than-life prints on the fence surrounding his house and hosted an outdoor exhibition.

“I had a big party and invited people from all over the city to come view the work,” Mireles said, “so it was an opportunity to bring people together and to get people to come to a neighborhood they might not otherwise visit and bring people from different communities together. So it started with me taking photos of my neighborhood, but then I quickly used it as an opportunity to unite people and bridge divides that existed where I lived in San Diego. From that, the idea grew, and it was like, ‘Well if I can do this in my backyard, what if I go all across the country and do this?’”

In collaboration with Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership, 35 portraits from Mireles’ Neighbors Project are on display outside the BOK Park Plaza building at the intersection of N. Walker and W. Sheridan avenues through April 15. The portraits, up to 12 feet tall, feature people from Oklahoma and other parts of the United States.

“The idea is that people can see themselves in these photographs and then they can see others as well,” Mireles said. “If it’s all people from some other place, you’re like, ‘Well, those people are different from me; we don’t share a common bond,’ but when I put people from the area in the photos and people who look like them, they can say, ‘Oh, there’s someone who looks like me,’ or ‘There I am; there’s someone who looks like my son or my daughter.’ And here’s someone from Hawaii, or Alaska or West Virginia, and hopefully people make the connection of … we’re part of this larger group; we’re actually united and it’s not me versus them; it’s all of us together.”

Mireles said he hopes the subjects he has chosen from Oklahoma are characteristic of the state but he has also tried to showcase the diversity of the population here.

“I had a husband and wife who I photographed after a church service, and I think you would look at them and think, ‘Wow! They look like what one might expect from Oklahoma,’” Mireles said. “But then also photographing someone from the Native American Cherokee community as well who might be more familiar to their local community, but for people outside the area, they may not know there is such a large Native American presence in Oklahoma. It’s a delicate balance, and I know I don’t always do it perfectly, but I try.”

The enlarged size of the portraits, from Mireles’ perspective, is crucial for emphasizing the humanity of their subjects.

“There’s a certain amount of respect that we have toward people that are larger than life,” Mireles said. “I like to have the photos at a certain height also, so they’re elevated. … The viewer is going to look up to that person and see them as larger-than life. They literally can’t look down on that person. It encourages them to look at them as a person, to look at them with a position of respect. With that hopefully comes a sense of ‘Wow! This is a person with feelings, worthy of respect just like everyone else,’ then we can begin to empathize with that person. For me, the size really matters because it creates this physical relationship between the viewer and the subject.”

JOHN RAYMOND MIRELES / PROVIDED
  • John Raymond Mireles / provided

Whatever feelings these portraits might inspire in their beholder, Mireles said he emphasizes capturing candid moments over taking glamor shots, so sometimes his subjects aren’t fond of the way they look in their photos.

“It’s always challenging to take a portrait of somebody that they’re going to like,” Mireles said. “We all have our idiosyncrasies, our impression of what we think we look like. People will say, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible picture,’ and I say it’s a beautiful photograph. It hasn’t been a problem, but there are people who just got out of bed or are on their way to work and they don’t even want to see their photo. I’m not trying to make people look beautiful either. This isn’t a beauty portrait. It’s a portrait that’s trying to convey a feeling and a sense of who these people are, and sometimes that’s not flattering. Nobody smiles in my photos — I don’t let people smile. If you do that, then everyone’s trying to look good and put on this artificiality, and I’m trying to move past that to try and get to something real. We all look a little better with a smile and when you take that away, sometimes people will look mean or grumpy when they don’t intend to.”

Discussing his photography methods, Mireles talked more about philosophy than technical details. The minimalist backdrop is the same in every photo to emphasize the equality of his subjects, and he’s more concerned with finding their humanity than their most flattering angles.

“What I try and do, and hopefully it comes through in my photos, is that I really try and connect to my subjects,” Mireles said. “I try to be very present with them and look at them, and touch them, reposition them, so there’s a connection between the two of us and everything I do is very specific. I had one woman write to me and tell me how me photographing her was a healing process for her because she had been traumatized as a child while having her photograph taken. The way I photographed her was a peaceful process, and she felt very connected and very safe. Oftentimes, I’m working very quickly and I don’t have a lot of time to spend with people, but I try and be present with each person and make them feel valued and connect with them.”

Since he started the Neighbors project three years ago, Mireles has traveled across the country in a motor home, photographing strangers from every state. Sometimes his subjects are people at events he has been assigned to photograph such as Oklahoma City’s annual NAACP dinner. Other times, he has just photographed people he has stopped on the street. Despite the much-discussed divides between races, political parties, economic classes and rural and urban mindsets, Mireles said he has discovered similarities everywhere he has been.

“The main thing I’ve learned is that Americans are very friendly people,” Mireles said. “They’re going to put their faith in you. They’re going to try and help. We’re similar in far more ways than we’re different. I’ve been to every state in the country, and wherever you go, there’s always people who are willing to open their doors and help out. It’s a different mentality than in other countries. … When I’m in America, I’m home. No other place will ever be home.”

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