Billboard-sized portraits of ordinary people have Providence residents talking.



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A mechanic named Fernando was thrilled when he got a call that his picture had been blown up and installed on the side of a building.

He wasn’t a fashion model or trying to sell anything. He was a mechanic shop owner from Guatemala living in Providence, Rhode Island, and this was all very new to him. It’s not every day you see yourself on the side of a building looking out over a busy downtown.

But in Providence, this was starting to become a more common sight. It was all because of one photographer’s awesome idea — and the help of people like Fernando.

Fernando! Image via RISD Museum/Vimeo.

Last year, photographer Mary Beth Meehan had a question: What would happen if ordinary residents were displayed in billboard-like ways around the city?

Could it get people to actually look up and notice one another? Could it make people curious about those pictured and facilitate conversations about them? She wanted to dig deeper into how we see — or don’t see — each other in our communities.

“I saw this isolationism within our own little ethnic, cultural and political bubbles in the country,” Meehan told the Columbia Missourian. “Everyone is so segregated in our own little experiences with other people.”

Image via RISD Museum/Vimeo.

Meehan created a project called “Seen/Unseen” to try to foster surprising connections between the community.

She made large-scale photographs of regular people she encountered in her city, placing the photos on huge banners and installing them on the sides of buildings downtown. She spent time getting to know each person and documented the stories they had to tell.

The idea was that passersby would see the people pictured on buildings and could look up more information about them to understand their perspective.

It worked.

For Fernando, it not only got others interested in who he was as a person, but it boosted his mechanic shop business.

“Before I had like 100 customers, now I have 600 or more. Just because of the picture,” he told RISD Museum.

With the “Seen/Unseen” installation, you can meet Wannton, a Haitian bus driver.

Check out the video for more, or scroll below:

Or Lee, who’s on a search for spiritual meaning into his place in the world.

Image via Mary Beth Meehan from “Seen/Unseen,” used with permission.

You can take a look at relationships between family members.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” sixth-grader Albanery told Meehan, looking at her grandfather. “He made my life better. I just love him.”

Image via Mary Beth Meehan from “Seen/Unseen,” used with permission.

You can hear from Marina, an Orthodox Jewish woman who practices according to the laws of modesty.

Image via Mary Beth Meehan from “Seen/Unseen,” used with permission.

For Marina, putting herself out there for this project was a big deal. But she understood its value.

“We just all have a tendency to objectify people, to make our assumptions and just to dismiss people,” Marina told the RISD Museum. “We view people in terms of what they are doing for us at the moment and many people we just don’t pay attention to. I think that’s one of the most powerful sources for good in the world is to humanize someone and to show them as a rich multi-dimensional human being that you can identify with.”

Image via Mary Beth Meehan from “Seen/Unseen,” used with permission.

That’s the beauty of the “Seen/Unseen” project: to help open people up rather than shut them down.

It’s also a reminder that every person has their own unique story. The neighbors you haven’t met yet, the lady in front of you in the checkout line, the people you pass on the street and barely pay attention to. Maybe it’s time we actually start to see others.

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