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If leaving the South was the best thing that ever happened to James and his family, coming back may have been the best thing that ever happened to Bright. After decades of living with her parents at a succession of Army posts, she settled down for college at the University of Missouri and in 1994 went to Houston to stay with her older brother, Terence.
Bright developed a relationship with the hip-hop label Rap-A-Lot Records in Houston, shooting black-and-white photos of rappers such as Class C, Scarface and Ice Cube. "I was around guns and drugs and everything," she says. "I was so naive about a lot of stuff. I guess that's just curiosity." For one image, Bright was stumped for ideas, so she asked Class C to point a gun at her.
She met Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey in Houston. She also met a musician, Jeryl Bright, an original horn player in the '80s funk band Cameo, who in 2002 became her husband. During one session, mystified by the pretty, serene photographer, one of the rappers asked, "Where did you come from?"
Bright would say what she always said, that she wasn't really from anywhere. But people are uncomfortable with the idea of "nowhere," and so she would tell them, "I'm from Waycross," she says. "I don't know what else to tell them."
And yet, she admits, "That's a foreign place to me. I don't know anything about Waycross."
Eventually, family pulled Bright back to Georgia. Her sisters Kisha and Denise had moved to Atlanta when her father retired as a sergeant major in Waycross.
After arriving in Atlanta in 1996, she began to document what she saw – divisions of rich and poor, black and white – not "The City Too Busy to Hate" mantra offered by civic boosters. While in grad school at Georgia State, she lived in a downtown loft at the corner of Peachtree and Marietta streets, where she could watch the panoply of the city scroll by.
To get a taste of the local arts scene, she'd go to places such as Hammonds House, a gallery in the West End devoted to exhibiting work by artists of African descent. She marveled at the scarcity of white faces there. Atlanta's art scene was segregated compared to Houston's.
When Bright asked her mother what was up, Thomastine replied: "Child, you're in the South."
Atlanta was a curious photographer's playground. Bright captured sidewalk preachers screaming salvation to workers who averted their eyes, disinclined to contemplate burning hellfire on a lunch break. With a camera perpetually around her neck, Bright traveled to the Vine City neighborhood and photographed poverty shocking in its proximity to such commercial metropolitan flashpoints as the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome.
Her grad school professor, Nancy Floyd, questioned Sheila's burgeoning race consciousness. "What is your point here?" Floyd remembers asking when Bright described the Vine City images as ones of her people. "Is it really your community? Do you live down there, do you know those people?" Floyd prodded.
From Floyd's vantage, Bright was a middle-class girl claiming impoverished black Atlantans as her own. For Bright, it was a world opening up to her, a place to fix the fervid curiosity and eagerness to engage with the world that everyone who knows Bright will tell you about.
It also was the vantage of a person who had lived everywhere and nowhere, and who'd learned to quickly identify with new places and people. Perhaps it did feel like her community. But Floyd also was teaching her about the false presumption that photographers can make, that documenting is the same as truly being of a place. It's a risk that photographers such as Shelby Lee Adams or Diane Arbus have run in their own work, a risk that can elicit charges of exploitation.
With her camera to embolden her, Bright could go anywhere, talk to anyone. It was her liberation, her rationale and, for a woman, it was also a means of control.
She hung around outside Eddie's Gold Teeth, home of the dental bling worn by hip-hop musicians like Lil Jon and immortalized in Nelly's "Grillz": "Where I got 'em you can spot them/On da top in da bottom/Gotta bill in my mouth like I'm Hillary Rodham."
"I wanted to know why," Bright says. "Why would you stand in these long lines, why would you spend $600 to $800 for a grill or a piece in your mouth. Why?"
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