A Conversation with Maine Photographer Séan Alonzo Harris

Sharing the World As He Sees It

Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris

When Séan Alonzo Harris and his wife Elizabeth A. Jabar first moved from New York to Portland—in his words, “a long time ago”—Congress Street was not a thriving thoroughfare, and the art scene was not yet as vibrant as it was to become. For several years back then, in the mid-’90s, they and several family members had an art gallery together on Congress Street. They organized exhibits and shows there and helped to strengthen connections among the area’s artists and other inhabitants, including those struggling to get a foothold.

As Séan’s own prodigious talents became manifest, through hard work and persistence over many years, he moved more and more into his successful career as an independent photographer. Now 52, he has gained a richly deserved reputation for photos of great beauty, power, and humanity. In them, he conveys a bedrock appreciation for all who make up the web of society, from the humble to the high. He has demonstrated a special gift for connecting with the hidden or little-seen individuals who live apart from a prosperity existing elsewhere. In Séan’s work and in conversation, a theme recurs: that photography is personal, a way for him to explore himself and his community, society, and world. He takes a warm, close look into those dynamic realms and shares what he sees. I am delighted to have recently had the chance to talk with Séan Alonzo Harris.

Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris

Séan:

Good morning.

Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris

Mary:

Good morning. Is this the famous actor? No, it’s the photographer!

Séan:

This is Denzel Washington. No, really, I have a funny story about that.

Mary:

You do? Tell me.

Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris

Séan:

Well, my dad’s name is Alonzo Harris, and Denzel Washington did a movie called Training Day, and he played this bad cop. The cop’s name in the movie was Alonzo Harris. When the movie came up, and my dad’s like, “Séan, Séan. They made a movie about me.” This was my dad. I’m like, ‘What movie?” He said, “Training Day.” I went and watched it, and I told him, “Dad, it’s awful.” It was a great movie, but you don’t want to see your dad portrayed that terribly.

Mary:

Please tell me about you. You sound so alive!

Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris

Séan:

Thank you. There are options, right? You’ve got choices in life. You can be humdrum, or you can be upbeat.

Mary:

I agree! Tell me, where are you originally from?

Séan:

Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris

Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mary:

You grew up in Cambridge, and you came to Maine. How did that happen?

Séan:

Well, I was in New York City, working as a photo assistant. I had stayed in Boston for a while after art school [Art Institute of Boston, which merged with Lesley University and moved to Cambridge]. But then I moved to New York to assist photographers there, trying to establish myself in the marketplace. I met a wonderful woman who was from Maine, and we were going to have a child, so we moved to Portland, and that was almost 27 years ago. We’re still going strong. Oh, my goodness. I couldn’t do anything without her.

Mary:

I love it—a love story.

Séan:

I couldn’t find my socks without her.

Mary:

Is your wife a photographer, as well?

Séan:

No. She is the director for civic engagement and community partnerships for Colby College. That’s her thing: healthcare. And she’s an amazing artist, a printmaker. She works on paper or fabric. She’s a real firecracker. She’s a powerhouse.

Mary:

How many children do you have?

Séan:

We have one, and she lives in New York. She works in a Japanese restaurant. She speaks fluent Korean, and she went to school in Asian Studies. She’s trying to figure it all out. You know? It takes time.

Mary:

Kids march to the beat of own drums, and as long as they’re healthy and happy, that’s good. Now, can I ask you, how did you get your name, Séan?

Séan:

I can tell you! When I was born, I was supposed to be Alonzo O’Neil Harris III, and my mother really didn’t want that name. My mother, she felt, “I don’t want another Alonzo in the world. No more Alonzo. We’re going to end that.” She wanted to start a new series. So, my mom had a big crush on Sean Connery, and so she named me after him. But the compromise was that I had Alonzo as a middle name. This is a true story.

Mary:

Wonderful story! How did you become a photographer—and the photographer that you are? When I look at your photos, they move me. I see the trust between you and your subjects.

Séan:

Thank you, thank you. Well, I’ve had a camera in my hand almost every day since the age of seven. For me, being a photographer has a lot to do with persevering, studying, and being aware of what I’m doing. Also, when it comes to people . . . well, I love people. I’m curious about people’s lives, as you are. I have a strong sense that the greatest gift that I get [when photographing someone] is not the photograph—it’s the actual interaction with the person. And then the photograph reminds me of that story, and that’s the beautiful part.

When I go into a situation, especially when it’s a confrontational—or not confrontational, but even when it’s a little bit of a tense situation—I do this most of time: I say to myself, “Take a deep breath. I’m going to let this person enlighten me, and I’m going to listen.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but more times than not, it diffuses the situation to the point where, when we both leave, we’re in a better place.

Mary:

How did you break into the profession and get to the point where people noticed your work?

Séan:

Well, let’s see. The first major show that I was in was at Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA). I was selected in their Biennial. I also was one of the recipients of their honorable mention. Then, after that, because I received an honorable mention, I had a solo show up there as well. Now, that was a long time ago. From there, I did work for a variety of magazines. In between, I did a lot of commercial ads as well. A lot of business-to-business jobs and working with local designers and art institutes here in Maine. Things just gained more and more momentum as I went on. It’s like anything. You just keep moving.

Mary:

What are some of your current projects?

A balloon seller in Nepal . Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris.

Séan:

Well, it’s busy! I’m going to be shooting photographs in Portland. I’m a juror for the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) for an upcoming exhibit. I’m a juror for a photo contest. I’m also consulting with a couple of different organizations. Cove Street Arts is planning an exhibit of my work for next year. So there’s a lot going on. With COVID, travel is almost shut down completely and almost all my jobs got canceled. But I’m here! I’ve been updating my website. I’m almost done. All the images are picked out, and it’s going to be a brand-new website.

I’ve done a project called “Voices in Our Midst.” That was talking about the communities of immigrants, about the African-Americans, refugees, and people of colors in Portland. It was wrestling with the idea of gentrification, ownership, and belonging. That’s going to be a major solo show. I showed part of it or early parts of it a few years back, in 2017, and I’ve been working on it. Right now, I’m working on new pieces that haven’t been seen yet. I’m still working on them, to see how they come out.

Mary:

In your professional life, are there moments that stand out that you could tell about?

Séan:

Yes, definitely. For example, in 2016, I was doing a shoot for Atlantic Magazine about a non-profit organization of dedicated doctors who set up sustainable, long-term medical practices in remote places, not crisis units. This organization was just setting up to start a facility in Nepal, and the earthquake happened. Then the government asked them, “Can you get these facilities going right now?” They started under great stress, and in these rural areas. The adversity after this earthquake was absolutely devastating.

It’s one of the oldest cultures in the world. The people are so beautiful and so warm and welcoming. I was walking down the street, through this small, little village with my camera, and I remember this woman calls me over, saying, “Hey.” She offers me tea, and I want to pay for it. Basically, the building that I’m having tea in, the whole top of the building is knocked off.

There are stones and stuff everywhere. There are people all around trying to dig through and trying to rebuild structures with existing bricks. They have to chisel them off. She’s offering me a hot drink, and I want to pay her, and she says, “No, no, no. I can’t. You can’t pay. You’re a guest here.” That gesture of inviting you in and making sure that you’re okay brought tears to my eyes. I’m walking, and in that situation I’m the privileged one. I go back to a hotel, and meals are made for me. I have hot water, sometimes, and I get internet. It’s just unbelievable. That was in 2016. It was a moving time. I was there for three weeks.

Mary:

How would you describe Maine as an environment for photographers?

Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris

Séan:

Well, I can tell you this. I’ve tried to leave several times, and I just can’t do it. It’s completely grown on me. I love the nature, I love the ocean, I love the people. If you look really closely, there is a lot of African-American history in this state.

We’ve moved from Portland to Waterville. At first, I was saying, “No, no, no, no. I don’t want to move to Waterville.” Now that I’m here, it allows me to have space to actually think deeply, about myself, the world, and life, whereas in Portland I have many distractions. Here, I can go someplace and sit for an hour, and just look at the ocean and really think and contemplate. In Connecticut, New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, D.C., and all those places, I don’t think that’s as possible to do, or not as easy. Your mind just can’t concentrate as easily as it can in the peacefulness. You know?

Mary:

Yes! Looking ahead, what would you like to do that you haven’t done?

Séan:

I would like to have a photo book of different photos I took, that I’ve done over the years, or multiple photo books of work, and work with writers and poets, and collaborate.

And maybe get one of those Mercedes camper vans and drive across the country with a big, old camera, me and my wife. Take photographs of everything that we possibly can.

Mary:

How do think about photography as a career?

Séan:

You have to have a clear mind, I think. If your mind is filled up with all kinds of stuff, you can’t make clear decisions because you’re thinking about 20 things at once. It’s really hard to go down the path that’s meant for you because you’re always going to run into obstacles.

I didn’t think about photography as a career until I was almost finished with high school. But it’s always been my clear vision, photography. It was a constant. If I was in a bad mood or something was going wrong, and I had access to a darkroom, I was going to the darkroom to work out my problems there. If I wanted to find out something about an area or a neighborhood, or whatever, I picked up my camera and walked around. It was always a way for me to clear my head and come back, and I’m focused on one thing.

There’s a quotation from a photographer, Roy DeCarava: “Working on photography is working on yourself.” And for me, working on my photography is working on myself.

Years ago, back when I was involved with filling my portfolio, I was with some friends, and we were at a bar or restaurant, and I was talking to someone there. She asked what I did, and I talked about photography. Then I asked her, “What do you do?” She said, “I’m a business professor at Harvard, and I just got to tell you, the way you talk about what you do, I can see that you genuinely love it.” Then she said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I can tell you some people will find that intimidating, and they’ll be a little envious.”

Mary:

I must say, it shows in your photography. It shows the love.

Séan:

Thank you.

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