Séan Alonzo Harris’s “Voices in Our Midst” project was initially inspired by images he took of children that conveyed both their innocence and their inner world.Photo Credit : Séan Alonzo Harris
The story of the images you see here begins with a 7-year-old boy who wanted to remember the most important people in his life. Séan Alonzo Harris grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but when his parents divorced his father moved to Washington, D.C. On a Christmas visit there, young Séan asked his grandmother for a tape recorder so he could take the voices of his father and relatives back home. Instead, she handed him a small plastic camera. “You can record with this,” she told him.
The photos he took he would put on his wall. “It kept them close to me,” Harris says today. “That was the beginning of my love of photography.” He is 52 today, and he still has that first kid’s camera—“one of my greatest treasures.”
He won photography awards as a teen, and after art school he worked as a photo assistant in Boston and then New York before settling in Portland with his wife in 1995. “I found a welcoming art community there,” he says.
As a Black artist in one of the country’s whitest states, Harris was acutely aware of inequality. In the summer of 2017 he began a series he would title “Voices in Our Midst,” focusing on the people who lived in and around Portland’s Kennedy Park, the most diverse neighborhood in Maine. “The first thing that grabbed me was the collision of haves and have-nots,” he says. “There are new houses, expensive condos, high-end restaurants on the outskirts. But so many have no access to it. You can’t miss it. And there are many new Mainers from other cultures. I thought, What does that mean? How can I show that?”
The first image Harris took for the project was of a young boy on a bicycle (above). “That was the beginning for me to honor the people in this neighborhood. I wanted them to be seen.” Over the next few years, his hours and images in Kennedy Park grew, and the photos were featured in exhibits.
Last winter, before Covid-19 intervened, Harris was in residence at Portland’s Indigo Arts Alliance, which offers creative time and space for artists of color. There, he reread the Ralph Ellison classic, Invisible Man. “This really resonated with me,” he says. “I knew I needed to go deeper on being Black in America.”
“Voices in Our Midst” continues, as does “I Am Not a Stranger,” portraits of new and old Mainers in Waterville, where he settled two years ago with his wife, Elizabeth Jabar. Today Séan Alonzo Harris is one of Maine’s most celebrated photographers, an artist whose gallery shows are bona fide events. (Cove Street Arts has planned an exhibit of his work in spring 2021.)
But at heart he remains that 7-year-old boy, determined to use his camera to honor the “people I’ve photographed who are proud, intelligent, beautiful people. But also almost forgotten.”
To see more of Séan Alonzo Harris’s work, go to seanalonzoharris.com.