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Faces of Brockton

Photographer captures the tough side of city in exhibit garnering both criticism, praise

Sign Design employees John Teed and Mario Magalaheas installed a banner on Main Street in Brockton for the exhibit 'City of Champions' by photographer Mary Beth Meehan. Sign Design employees John Teed and Mario Magalaheas installed a banner on Main Street in Brockton for the exhibit "City of Champions" by photographer Mary Beth Meehan. (Lauren Frohne/Globe Staff)
By Martine Powers
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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BROCKTON - Staring out from the brick wall of Messiah Baptist Church, the teenage girl - black bandanna, tank top pulled above midriff, low-slung jeans with cigars jammed in the waistband - looks as tough as Brockton’s streets.

Many passersby find the photo, which measures about 12 feet wide, distasteful. One woman walked right up to a church staffer, her face twisted with disgust: “On a church?’’

But the girl with the gritty stare, photographer Mary Beth Meehan says, is the face of Brockton.

Meehan, a photojournalist who grew up in Brockton and now lives in Providence, is the creator of a new photography exhibition in downtown Brockton. The exhibit, which debuted last weekend, features a dozen portraits of the city’s residents, plastered on the sides of iconic buildings in the city’s downtown area.

But romanticized images of a white-washed downtown, these photos are not.

An elderly woman stands stoic behind her kitchen table. A grim-faced Cape Verdean man gazes out from the back room of the restaurant where he works. A skinny 17-year-old with boxing gloves stands defiantly in front of a boxing ring.

“I didn’t want to create a PR travel brochure,’’ Meehan said. “I wanted to show the aspects of life that were part of a struggle.’’

Like her father and her father’s father, Meehan was born and raised in Brockton.

“It was always sort of a tough - but proud - kind of working-class place,’’ she said, “ and we grew up with this real sense of being proud of being from there.’’

But in recent decades, Brockton has become a city plagued by crime, drug use, and unemployment.

Residents once wore hats and white gloves to do their shopping downtown; now, Meehan said, some of her mother’s friends refuse to drive down Main Street because they fear for their safety. People joke that the “City of Champions’’ has become a Third World country.

“It made me so angry that that’s what people saw,’’’ Meehan said. “It made me angry, and a little confused, and also a little curious.’’

So Meehan decided to return to her hometown, exploring it in a new way.

Between 2005 and 2009, Meehan came to Brockton most every Tuesday and photographed long-time residents, elderly mothers and fathers of her childhood friends, and members of immigrant communities that cropped up in the town after Meehan left for college.

Her artwork gained attention from locals. The Brockton Cultural Council and Massachusetts Cultural Council made her an artist in residence, which allowed her to continue her documentation, and she was awarded a grant from Mass Humanities to turn her photographs into a large-scale public installation.

“You can’t help but stand in front of them and see yourself reflected in them,’’ said the Rev. Jill Wiley, head of the Brockton Cultural Council. “It kinds of breaks through that barrier of walls in an institution, and brings it out to the street.’’

In one of the pieces, a fresh-faced clarinet player smiles from the stands of the Brockton High School marching band. That one hangs outside City Hall and is a favorite of Brockton’s mayor, Linda M. Balzotti, who said she hopes the exhibition encourages residents to spend more time downtown.

“It’s a great thing for the community,’’ Balzotti said. “The photos are very representative of the city, which I think is terrific.’’

In another image, a West African man who immigrated illegally to the United States gazes out from his bed, a fleece blanket with an American flag pattern covering everything but his eyes.

“There have been a lot of sparks around that picture, people saying, ‘You’re throwing salt in the wounds of Brockton,’ ’’ Meehan said. “I was the messenger. People act like I was responsible for this reality, but my goal was just to meet it honestly.’’

But there have been positive responses, too. Susan Brennan, an administrative secretary at Messiah Baptist Church, said she loved the photo of the bandanna-wearing teenage girl the moment she saw it.

“I have four children, and she looks like every high school kid here,’’ Brennan said. “There’s something about her that struck me. She’s trying to be all hardcore and tough . . . It’s a tough environment for these guys to let their guard down.’’

Brennan said the church’s pastor dedicated a Sunday sermon to the photo, asking people to consider the portrait a metaphor for the need to view everyone - no matter how different they are - as one of God’s children.

Meehan said she was nervous about the installation because she considers herself a “daughter of Brockton’’ and she does not want to dishonor her hometown.

“I recognize, who am I to blow my vision up, to blow my images up?’’ Meehan said. “I see that I’m not here fighting the battle the way other people are.’’

But more than anything, Meehan said, she hopes the photos continue to spark discussion.

The Friday after the banners went on display, a small group of locals had gathered in front of the portrait at the church, debating its merits. It’s inappropriate, said one man. The photo sends the wrong message, glorifies a life of crimes and drugs.

But a woman disagreed.

“It’s surprising on a church, but the meaning - I understand it,’’ said the woman, who declined to give her name. “That’s Brockton.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.