Through portraits and slice-of-life interviews shared through her website, The Local Athenian, photographer Emily Cameron documents the lives of community members to investigate who and what gives the town its charming, distinctive sense of place. Many of these images can now be seen off the screen and on gallery walls in “The Local Athenian: One Degree of Separation,” an exhibition currently on view at the Lyndon House Arts Center. Collectively, the photography project demonstrates the interconnectedness of the community while comparing the origin stories of people whose paths now cross.
Portraits of business owners such as Peter Ah of Kum’s Fashions, Jo Thomas of My Heart Salon Studio and Rashe Malcolm of Rashe’s Cuisine—who appears on Flagpole’s cover this week and can be read about on p. 14—hang beside those of workers in the non-profit sector like Charles Hardy of Athens Alliance Coalition, Bob and Rachel Sleppy of Nuçi’s Space, and Jason Perry of BikeAthens. Musicians like Nancy and Charlie Hartness of Hawkproof Rooster and Kaoru Ishibashi of Kishi Bashi appear alongside former UGA athletes Robert Miles, Mark Maxwell and Derrick Floyd. Proving Athens’ reputation as an artist town, creatives working in a variety of media are prominently featured, such as potters Maria Dondero and Rinne Allen, jeweler Elle Lewis, mosaicist Krysia Ara, painter Vernon Thornsberry, photographer Amanda Corbett, performance artist Pink Flamingo, muralist Marisa Mustard, tattoo artist Kim Deakins and crochet creator Kristen “Rise” Joseph.
“I got into photography all thanks to The Local Athenian project,” says Cameron. “I love portraiture because, despite its perceived simplicity, a portrait can reveal so much about the subject through their facial expression and the surrounding environment.”
An Athens resident since 2013, Cameron relocated from Pennsylvania after she was recruited by the UGA swimming and diving team. After graduating in 2018, she stuck around town working at Fleet Feet Athens, Johnson & Johnson and now remotely for Specialized Bicycle Components. Like many graduates weighing their options to determine their next move, Cameron considered bursting through the college bubble and claiming Athens as her home. Photography quickly became a tool for not only exploring the culture and history of the town, but for deepening her connections to others who have placed roots here.
“My hope with this project was to reach the soul of Athens and figure out why people stick around this town, because I, myself, was trying to decide if Athens was home,” she says. “I have always been extremely intrigued by the human journey through life, and I wanted to combine my personal search for what ‘home’ is with my love for people. My favorite aspect of the project is how interconnected everyone is that I’ve interviewed. Hence the exhibition name ‘The Local Athenian: One Degree of Separation.’”
Cameron was inspired by Humans of New York, photographer Brandon Stanton’s popular blog that has subsequently expanded into a best-selling coffee-table book and documentary film series since its launch in 2010. Whereas Stanton developed his photographic census of the city by approaching strangers on the street to take their portrait, Cameron typically finds subjects through suggestions from interviewees and other members of the community. Both projects similarly succeed in disarming subjects through portraits and interviews, and these stories can be inspiring, funny, heartbreaking or even mundane in the most familiar of ways.
“I try to keep the entire get-together as casual as possible, because ultimately it’s more than an interview, it’s a conversation about the subject’s life,” she says. “Some people are surprised when I begin with asking them to tell me about their childhood, but I find it really meaningful to hear about the childhood experiences—good and bad—that contributed to the life they live today.”
Planning to see the project through for years to come, Cameron is open-minded about how The Local Athenian might evolve over time. She hopes that the project will remain fluid enough to respond and adapt to any changes or needs of the community.
“I hope that readers of the site and visitors to the Lyndon House find something they can relate to in the subjects’ stories, and maybe the stories lead them to discover something deeper about themselves,” says Cameron. “I certainly have.”
Remaining on view through June 18, “The Local Athenian: One Degree of Separation” exhibits a total of 40 portraits selected from an archive of over 60 profiles that have been published online since the project’s launch in November 2020. Each portrait is paired with a short quote, not unlike HONY’s social media posts, to give a brief impression of the individual’s personality or area of expertise. Visit thelocalathenian.com to explore the entire archive and read full-length interviews with familiar faces.
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