Four years ago, New England portrait photographer Mary Beth Meehan received a query out of the blue. A professor in California named Fred Turner wanted to collaborate on a project about the people who live and work in Silicon Valley.
“It was just so bizarre,” Meehan recalls thinking. “It never occurred to me to think of Silicon Valley as an actual place where people lived.”
This was precisely Turner’s point. A Stanford University historian and professor of communication who has studied Silicon Valley culture for 20 years, Turner has long been troubled by what he calls the “persistent mythology” of the region, a digital ecosystem in Northern California known mainly as the home of Apple, Google and Facebook, and as the hub of billionaire innovators.
“We tell ourselves that Silicon Valley is a place where heroic geniuses invent products that somehow harness the invisible powers of electricity and information and magically change the world,” Turner said in an interview. “And the heroes in our stories are almost always White men.”
Everybody else might as well be invisible. “You can literally be here and see the young tech bros not seeing the people cleaning the stores or their houses or the streets,” he said. “It’s a kind of low-key oblivious arrogance that comes from being genuinely brilliant, spending a lot of time with machines, working with code, which is highly abstract and rational, and being rewarded with lots of money.”
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Photographer Mary Beth Meehan. (Molly Heller)
Turner, a photography aficionado, was familiar with Meehan’s work and knew that invisibility is one of her key themes. Her process is to immerse herself in communities and create large-scale portraits of ordinary, uncelebrated people and install them as huge banners on the sides of buildings in downtown areas. Invariably, her installations prompt townwide dialogue about race, inclusiveness and the meaning of community. Meehan’s work also is evocative of JR, the French photographer and street artist, though she has been influenced by many artists who activate public spaces.
“A common thread is moving past preconceptions to understand one another,” said Meehan, who has created installations in Brockton, Mass., where she grew up, Providence, R.I., where she lives now, and, most recently, in Newnan, Ga., a small town striving to embrace and celebrate change in the wake of a white nationalist rally there in 2018.
Meehan was eager to take on a Silicon Valley project, though she and Turner were fuzzy about the end product. Banners were — and continue to be — a consideration, but, Meehan said, “I haven’t been able to get my head around what banners would look like. There’s no central Silicon Valley space. There’s no there there. It’s a conglomeration of towns.”
They ultimately landed on a book, featuring text and Meehan’s images. “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America” will be released May 3 by the University of Chicago Press.
“Silicon Valley has long been a shining example of those who dream of a society built around individual initiative and enabling technologies,” Turner writes in the introduction. “But what does it feel like to live in such a world? What kind of society does the relentless pursuit of technological innovation and wealth produce?”
Meehan went to Stanford in the fall of 2018 as an artist in residence and set to work finding the answer. She introduced herself to strangers, sat in their kitchens and living rooms, met them in businesses and shops.
“I chased them on the street,” she said. “I met people through workers’ rights groups and at a gathering of young tech engineers. I met a couple in a Hindu temple. And then there was the magic of connecting with someone in that moment, photographically.”
Justyna, one of Meehan’s subjects: “If we want to achieve excellence in technology, why can’t we achieve excellence in being good to each other?”
Justyna, one of Meehan’s subjects: “If we want to achieve excellence in technology, why can’t we achieve excellence in being good to each other?” (© Mary Beth Meehan)
Mary came to the United States from Uganda more than a year ago: “I’ve discovered one thing. There are people here who are poorer than we are in Africa . . . because our community cares for each other. . . . This place is lonely.”
Mary came to the United States from Uganda more than a year ago: “I’ve discovered one thing. There are people here who are poorer than we are in Africa . . . because our community cares for each other. . . . This place is lonely.” (© Mary Beth Meehan)
She got to know affluent professionals, people behind cash registers and in homeless encampments, rising tech stars, a recent immigrant from Uganda, a food truck worker from Mexico who serves burritos to Tesla employees, a man in his 80s who can’t afford an apartment so he lives in a small trailer a couple of miles from the Google campus; he has no electricity or running water. She met the parents of a 19-year-old girl who had killed herself. They allowed her to photograph the suicide note, in which she apologized and wrote: “i am not super smart or talented.”
As Meehan pieced together a narrative about the unseen heart of the tech world, what emerged was a startling view of Silicon Valley.
“What surprised me, and what stays with me still, was the unease that was palpable in Silicon Valley,” Meehan writes in the book’s afterword. “From those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum to those with higher incomes whose unease was more existential, people conveyed how hard it was to find balance, connection, and community. The sense of distress was so pervasive that I wondered if I was seeing things correctly.”
Among the people she photographed was the blond-haired Justyna with a piercing gaze, originally from Poland. (No last names are used in the book.) She has a PhD, works on self-driving cars and shares a mansion with other scientists in Cupertino. She told Meehan she used to be idealistic but thinks people have lost track of the core values of integrity, respect for others and being good to each other. “We seem to be losing ourselves,” she said.
Meehan met Mark, 39, born with severe brain damage. When his mother was pregnant, she worked in the electronics industry making the lasers that scan groceries. She later learned that the greenish substance she was inhaling was toxic — and the cause of her son’s birth defects.
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Mark is 39 and needs constant care. His mother worked in a Mountain View electronics plant making laser scanners with a mixture that contained high levels of lead known to cause birth defects. (© Mary Beth Meehan)
Brenda and Abraham lost their home after the 2008 crash. They lived for a while in improvised shacks that are common in the region, though illegal. They now live in a trailer in a long row of other trailers in Palo Alto, parked in front of the Stanford campus.
Mary, from Uganda, told Meehan: “There are people here who are poorer than we are in Africa.”
She spent a lot of time with Cristobal, an Army veteran who works full time as a contract security officer at Facebook, earning $21 an hour. Meehan agreed to meet him at his home, which turned out to be a shed.
“I was shocked,” she said. “[Cristobal and I] shared so much anger in the making of that picture. I mean, for God’s sakes. You have a full-time job, you served in the U.S. military. Should a home be so far outside your reach?”
It was at times like this that the story she and Turner were telling became personal.
“I was raised by working-class people, and there was a level of security that could be attained by hard work,” she said. “And when I think of the equivalent of that worker toiling away in Silicon Valley, I don’t see the same level of comfort or security or the ability to build a life or build wealth. It’s not a livable economy.
“I don’t think the difference is in the character and ambitions of these people. I think the difference is in the system they entered. And that’s the part we’re not talking about.”