It’s hard to imagine now, but the term participatory democracy didn’t originate in a well-funded liberal think tank, It came from SDS, students for a democratic society. SDS is also the source for my favorite description of democracy: “Democracy,” wrote an anonymous SDS member, “is an endless meeting.” It seems like a fairly logical extension of the democratic ideal: more participation means more discussion and—whether it’s in the hallway or the Capitol Building—more discussions mean more meetings. Eventually, you get to all meetings, all the time.
Paul Shambroom’s book “Meetings” is a collection of photographs made at town meetings of various types and sizes, all across these United States. In Shambroom’s book, democracy is more distributed than centralized, but it still boils down to several individuals who have taken on the responsibility of representing their fellow citizens. What they do during this act of representation is to sit around tables and meet. Shambroom portrays them in the basic activities of democracy: listening or talking or more importantly, just finishing one or the other. Shambroom revels in these moments, the brief spaces during which the civic becomes the governmental and discussion becomes decision.
Even though an agenda for each meeting is reproduced in the back of the book, we don’t need to know the issues being discussed. The fact is: Every issue is important in these photographs. Every person is important in these photographs. That’s because Shambroom is less interested in transcribing the specifics of a meeting than he is in representing the nagging contradiction at democracy’s core. Just like democracy, each of Shambroom’s photographs somehow preserves the sanctity of the individual participants while forging the crucial importance of the group. Shambroom doesn’t try to explain it; depicting it is hard enough.
In visual terms, Shambroom’s panoramas of citizens suggest the narrative structure of the Elgin (Athenian) marbles, while fortifying the elegant horizontal rectangularity of democratic discussion (as opposed to pyramidal hierarchical structures). The color is even and the lighting is low drama. That’s ok for Shambroom, who is more interested in the calm and practicality of local meetings than in the spectacle of red and blue. As a description of the country in which we live, Meetings stands in stark contrast to the brutish media and money driven venality of Beltway partisanship. Shambroom speaks truth to this power, not by photographing meetings, but by choosing to represent what is true and lasting and crucial about American democracy.