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Providence photographer captures overlooked truths about Silicon Valley

In “Seeing Silicon Valley,” Mary Beth Meehan focuses her lens on the forgotten faces behind the myths and the marketing

Providence photographer Mary Beth Meehan and Stanford University Professor Fred Turner have collaborated on a new book, "Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America."
Providence photographer Mary Beth Meehan and Stanford University Professor Fred Turner have collaborated on a new book, "Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America."Mary Beth Meehan

PROVIDENCE — From Brockton to Providence, from small-town Georgia to Silicon Valley, photographer Mary Beth Meehan is challenging communities to see themselves in new ways, spurring discussions about race and inequality, the economy and the environment.

In 2011, Meehan began displaying large-scale portraits (some up to 38-feet wide) on public buildings in her hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts, focusing attention on images of people who are often overlooked.

In 2015, Meehan, a Providence resident who worked as a Providence Journal photographer from 1995 to 2001, hung banners from buildings in downtown Providence. And last year, some of her oversized portraits “rattled a small Southern town” in Georgia, according to the New York Times.

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Now, Meehan is capturing national attention with a new book, “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America,” that she produced along with Stanford University Professor Fred Turner.

“We want people to see beyond the myths of Silicon Valley’s wealth and innovation to the ways in which real people struggle in that environment,” Meehan said. “They struggle in terms of financial security but also to find connection and community.”

In “Seeing Silicon Valley,” Meehan introduces us to Cristobal, a US Army veteran who makes $21 an hour working as a full-time security officer at Facebook but lives in a shed because he can’t afford a house in the area’s high-priced housing market.

Cristobal works full-time as a security guard at Facebook, but his pay forces him to live in a rented repurposed shed, in a back yard in Mountain View, Calif.
Cristobal works full-time as a security guard at Facebook, but his pay forces him to live in a rented repurposed shed, in a back yard in Mountain View, Calif.Mary Beth Meehan

“He sees himself as part of an army of workers who are doing their best to support the big tech companies,” the book says. “But he doesn’t see any of the wealth trickling down to them.”

Meehan also introduces us to Richard, who was making $120,000 a year at an auto plant when General Motors went bankrupt. He found a job making less than $40,000 a year at a Tesla plant, but after pushing to unionize the plant, he was fired along with 400 other workers.

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Richard was making $120,000 a year at an auto plant before General Motors went bankrupt, and he ended up being fired from a $40,000-a-year job at a Tesla plant.
Richard was making $120,000 a year at an auto plant before General Motors went bankrupt, and he ended up being fired from a $40,000-a-year job at a Tesla plant.Mary Beth Meehan

And Meehan introduces us to Mark, a 39-year-old man born with severe brain damage whose mother, Yvette, worked in an electronics plant, where she heated a green powder with a blowtorch. “Yvette learned that the green mixture that she had been handling and inhaling was over 60 percent lead, a substance known since the time of the ancient Romans to cause miscarriages and birth defects,” the books says.

Meehan said a former colleague connected her to Turner, a Stanford communications professor who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lived in Boston for 10 years, and graduated from Brown University. The book was designed by a Providence resident, Lucinda Hitchcock.

Turner, who now lives two miles from Google headquarters, said Silicon Valley excels at marketing itself. “But the actual community that is here on the ground is much more diverse and much more unequal than the mythology tells us,” he said. “Very few people look or make money like Mark Zuckerberg.”

Turner said Meehan’s large-scale portraits demonstrated her ability to capture images that tell you something about both the person and their community, and as a Brockton native, she brought to bear a working-class background.

“I hope people can see that the seemingly magical world of technology depends on the really hard work of a whole lot of different people,” he said. “In the same way that the Industrial Revolution in Boston didn’t just depend on the people who went to Harvard, Silicon Valley is not just the Zuckerbergs and Jobs.”

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Turner said the nation’s industries need to sustain the people that build them – not just a few people at the top. “The lesson is that if you just pursue profit and innovation, you can injure your workers, pollute your landscape, and build a society you wouldn’t want to be a member of,” he said. “We can do a lot better than that.”

As an artist-in-residence at Stanford, Meehan spent six weeks introducing herself to strangers, sitting in kitchens and living rooms, listening to their stories.

She said she found tremendous unease among the people there, not only among the cashiers and waiters, but among the tech professionals and other high-income earners. And she found the anxieties of Silicon Valley reflect a nationwide gulf between the rich and the poor – the hollowing out of the middle class.

“Even though the stock market is doing well, people are struggling,” Meehan said. “If people are not doing well in Silicon Valley, then what does that say about where the country is headed?”

In a densely populated area boasting enormous wealth, she discovered poverty and loneliness.

Take Mary, for example. She left Uganda to live amid the wealth of San Jose, and she told Meehan: “I’ve discovered one thing. There are people here who are poorer than we are in Africa, because you cannot find a homeless person in my village. ... Our community cares for each other.” In Africa, she says, “you’re never alone. This place is lonely.”

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Mary, a woman from Uganda who lives with her middle daughter's family in San Jose, Calif.
Mary, a woman from Uganda who lives with her middle daughter's family in San Jose, Calif.Mary Beth Meehan

Meehan met Mary through the Rev. David Watermulder, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Los Gatos, California, who served as co-pastor of the Providence Presbyterian Church from 2007 to 2012.

“What Mary is saying is very true,” Watermulder said. “People here are outwardly affluent and self-sufficient, but internally they’re lonely.”

Silicon Valley doesn’t have a downtown, or even an agreed-upon definition of its borders, and people work in the self-contained campuses of tech companies, which provide everything from restaurants and bars to dry cleaning and oil changes, he said. At the end of the work day, they drive Teslas back to modest homes that carry price eye-popping price tags of $1.5 million to $2 million.

So on Sunday, they come to his church seeking community – a sense of belonging, Watermulder said.

With her outsider’s eye, Meehan was able to see not only the dreams that draw people to Silicon Valley, but the disappointment, the inequity, and the emptiness that often gets overlooked, he said.

“She wanted to see the unseen,” Watermulder said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.