Andrea London has been a silent observer for 30 years. Peering through her viewfinder, she has seen the soft embrace of generations — their cheeks pressed together, hands clasped — and in each instance captured the scene by pushing her shutter button again and again. Two and a half years ago, though, something clicked and London shifted focus.
“I have always been behind the camera and my portraits were my voice. I have not been, up until this point in my life, someone who spoke out,” she said while seated in her Shadyside studio. “You would not see me on the front lines of a march holding a sign because I wanted my work to speak for me, because that’s my personality.”
London’s disquiet began in 2016. Public rhetoric and behavior targeting vulnerable populations challenged her beliefs, and on Jan. 21, 2017, while standing beside several hundred thousand others at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., the portrait photographer had a revelation.
“I decided I could no longer be silent, and although my work was speaking for me, I wanted to create a body of work, and put this work out there with my name on it, that I hoped would make a difference,” she said.
London returned home and consulted with friends and family. She was encouraged to pursue a project showcasing the commonality of her subjects.
Despite her shyness, London mustered the courage and applied for funding. Support arrived and, with the aid of individuals scattered throughout Western Pennsylvania, she approached seemingly disparate communities with an aim of demonstrating oneness.
In the process, London entered homes, attended weddings and broke bread with Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. She observed those with wide-ranging abilities and perceived love in myriad forms. She listened to sagas of immigration and internment, and preserved narratives with audio equipment. She then invited more than 50 individuals into her second-floor space on Walnut Street and resumed her position behind the camera.
London’s efforts spanned more than two years and culminated in the recent opening of a gallery exhibition, a public art installation and the publication of a 130-page book. The collective work, which includes a 13-minute video, is titled, “We Are All Related.”
Gazing into a subject’s eyes or reading an accompanying tale can be haunting, heartbreaking or inspiring, but the exercise is about looking inward, explained London. “I want somebody to stop and say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that person as being a mother or a grandmother and caring about her grandchildren as much as I care about mine.’”
“Andrea’s portraits teach us to see us how we were meant to see and to be seen,” Tony Norman writes in the book’s forward. “The emotions on display in ‘We Are All Related’ run the gamut from curiosity and satisfaction with life’s sweet bounty to melancholy and mature resignation. It is the continuum that has characterized our human family for many millennia.”
That idea should engender action, said London.
“I hope maybe other people have something to say on this topic and maybe they’ll speak out — because I’m speaking out — in their own way: letters to the editor, voting or marching, or writing books or whatever, or just welcoming their neighbor in.”
London carried a related hurt for 62 years.
“I grew up in a part of Mt. Lebanon, old Mt. Lebanon, where there were very few Jews,” she said. “I was the only Jewish girl in my class, and I was shamed for it and I was ostracized for being Jewish.”
London recalls in the preface to her book that when she was 8, her best friend, Christine, ceased contact.
Walking home from school one day, Christine said, “I want you to come to church with me this Sunday.”
London asked why, and Christine responded, “My Sunday School teacher told me that anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus will die and burn in hell, and I can’t be friends with someone who’s going to hell.”
“It destroyed me,” London said. “I didn’t want to be Jewish, I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be the only one in my class with naturally curly hair, which I was.
“I’m not saying that I know what it feels like to be a minority race, or an immigrant, or a refugee or differently abled,” she added, “but I know what it feels like to have someone tell me, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you because of who you are,’ and I learned that lesson, that very painful lesson, as a child and it stuck with me.”
The realization propelled London to photograph more studies and record additional stories, but in the process, she better appreciated her past.
“I never spent a lot of time thinking about why my grandparents came here to this country — my father’s family from Russia and my mother’s from Lithuania. They came here to escape the threat of religious persecution, one of the same reasons that people are coming to this country today, to escape fear of horrible things. And so when I meet people who are immigrants and they are here to hope for a better life for their children and grandchildren. … It just all came full-circle for me.”
“We Are All Related,” which includes portraits and narratives sometimes separated by decades, opened on March 22 at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s 937 Gallery on Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh and on the corner of Penn and Centre avenues in East Liberty.
Through its early iterations and now public promotions, the project has forced London to become the subject of others’ attention — an uncomfortable but necessary position, she explained.
“I am living proof that it’s never too late to start something new. I just turned 70. This is my first major exhibition. I truly believe each of us has a gift and it’s our responsibility to do something with that gift, even if we don’t want to,” she said. “I’m walking proof that with gratitude my dream of my lifetime is coming true for me right now in this moment.” PJC
“We Are All Related” runs through May 12.
A gallery crawl at 937 Liberty Ave. is scheduled for April 26 from 6-10 p.m. A panel discussion featuring London and project participants will be held on April 27 from 7-9 p.m. Details available at andrealondon.com.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.